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This film noir icon is a class act
"...a box office concoction of blonde hair, defiant expression and immobile upper lip"
- Halliwell's Filmgoer's and Video Viewer's Companion
Halliwell's terse description is hardly apt. It fails to capture the essence of one of the fine actresses of the '40s and '50s. There is one element of truth in it however. "Defiant expression" comes close to describing that unique interplay between camera and star, the rare and inexplicable quality that allows the audience to know what a character is thinking or feeling with just a look or a glance. Lizabeth Scott had that quality. The camera - and the audience - loved her for it. Not a classical beauty like Bergman or Hayworth, Scott nevertheless lit up the screen with an alluring presence that still captures our attention.
Born Emma Matzo in 1922 to English-Russian parents, Scott studied at Alvienne School of Drama (NY), and was discovered by Hal Wallis in 1945. She appeared in 21 films between 1945 and 1957, mostly for Wallis and Paramount, and was promoted by the studio as a Lauren Bacall or Veronica Lake-type. Like Veronica Lake - though much more talented - Scott was never given the type of role that would catapult her to super-stardom. Many of her movies are easily forgotten (with several notable exceptions), but her characters are not. They linger in memory long after the context has faded.
In 1944 after an impressive run as the production head at Warners, Hal Wallis resigned and formed his own production company, releasing films primarily through Paramount. One of his first independent productions was a sentimental little film called You Came Along(1945, dir: John Farrow). This film introduced a pretty, pouty, 23 year old Lizabeth Scott to the movie-going public. The former part-time model and Broadway understudy plays an escort that falls in love with a G.I. who's dying of leukemia. Not a spectacular debut, but a solid one, Scott graced the screen with a Bacall-type allure, and a sexy, captivating voice that commanded attention. (In Dead Reckoning (1947) Humphrey Bogart would refer to her as "Cinderella with a husky voice.") The movie was a moderate success, though certainly not in the upper tier of Wallis productions, and Scott shines with a combination of beauty, sensitivity, and vulnerability that would suit her well in films to come.
On the strength of her performance in You Came Along, Wallis cast Scott in a supporting role in the film noir classic The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946, dir: Lewis Milestone). The film is really a showcase for Barbara Stanwcyk and Kirk Douglas (his film debut), but Scott steals every scene she's in - which is not many - and provides an anchor of strength and sweetness in an otherwise dark and perverse melodrama, saturated with cruelty, fear, guilt, obsession, murder, and blackmail. The film boasts an Oscar nominated screenplay by Robert Rossen, music by Miklos Rozsa, art direction by Hans Drier, and costumes by Edith Head. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers was a critical and financial success in its day, and remains a fascinating and entertaining example of film noir at its finest. In only her second film Scott holds her own against the likes of Stanwyck and Douglas, evidence indeed of the depth of her talent. In fact Variety claimed she out-acted them both!
In 1947 Scott was paired with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in I Walk Alone (dir: Byron Haskin), a noirish story of betrayal and vengeance. Scott plays a nightclub singer who provides sympathy and support to Lancaster, recently released from prison. The material is not worthy of the cast, and on the whole the film disappoints. But Scott rises above it all and is completely convincing in her portrayal. Scott's character provides a degree of romanticism and humanism usually lacking in film noir. Scott was again paired with Lancaster in 1947's Desert Fury (dir: Lewis Allen), a story of love, deception and corruption written by Robert Rossen (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers). Scott looks glorious in Technicolor, but the writing is weak and the film is ultimately stolen by Mary Astor who plays Scott's mother.
1947 also finds Scott opposite Humphrey Bogart in Dead Reckoning (dir: John Cromwell). It's Scott's first crack as the archetypal femme fatale and she doesn't disappoint. In prior films, Scott was often a victim of circumstance, an innocent bystander who is trapped by words of deeds of others. In Dead Reckoning the tables are turned, as she lures Bogart into a web of lies, deceit, and ultimately death. As is typical in the noir genre, her power is rooted in her sexual allure. In a departure from his tough guy roles, Bogart plays a wronged man (a noir hero), who struggles to learn the fate of a missing army buddy. Scott is the ex-girlfriend who knows more than she lets on. To keep Bogart from learning the truth about his lost buddy and his mysterious double life, Scott seduces him into believing she loves him. After Bogart takes the bait he learns that Scott is responsible for his buddy's death. In a scene reminiscent of his final confrontation with Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon, Bogart tells Scott that he plans on turning her over to the authorities. The noir conventions are in full effect, and it's all great fun to watch, in spite of a few implausibilities. Scott and Bogart are both excellent in their only film together.
Scott's next role was in a terrific little noir gem called The Pitfall (1948, dir: Andre de Toth). The film details the fall from grace of an errant suburban husband and father at the hands of alluring femme fatale played by Scott. Dick Powell plays a successful insurance agent, married to his high school sweetheart (Jane Wyatt), living out a comfortable but boring existence in a Los Angeles suburb. Powell is restless and unfulfilled ("I feel like a wheel within a wheel within a wheel") when he receives what at first seems like a routine assignment to recover goods that have been bought with stolen money, a claim paid off by Powell's firm. The items are traced to mona Stevens (Scott), a model living in Marina Del Rey. Powell is attracted to her, and what starts out as innocent flirtation ends up in a passionate love affair. Powell's journey into a daydream ends in tragedy as he becomes a prisoner in his own home and slays an assailant who has been set on his trail by a jealous private investigator (Raymond Burr, excellent as a pathetic thug who also covets Scott's sexual favors). Scott kills Burr when he tries to force himself upon her. Powell is exonerated, but Scott is arrested. Powell's wife learns the truth about the affair and with some hesitation forgives him. He is grateful but knows he may never regain her trust and respect.
In Too Late for Tears (1949; dir: Byron Haskin), aka Killer Bait, Scott plays the avaricious Jane Palmer, a hateful wife who murders her husband for money. Scott's portrayal stands out in this low budget affair, and helped to solidify her standing as one of the top actors in the noir genre. Of more interest is 1949's Easy Living, an intelligent, well-written film about an aging football star (Victor Mature) who struggles to adjust to his impending retirement, as well as the pressures brought on by an ambitious and defiant wife (Scott). Lucille Ball is commendable as the sympathetic team secretary and Jacques Tourneur's direction is first-rate. It's one of Scott's finest roles and a favorite film of many of her fans.
By the end of 1949 Scott appeared in nine films, but hadn't achieved the level of stardom and clout that was needed in the studio system to influence the direction of her own career. From 1950 on she was never given an opportunity to reach much beyond her usual good girl done wrong or femme fatale roles she had become known for. She continued to make films for Paramount (Dark City (1950; dir: William Dieterle), Red mountain (1951; dir: William Dieterle), and Scared Stiff (1953; dir: George Marshall)) and Columbia (Two of a Kind (1951; dir: Henry Levin) and Bad for Each Other (1953; dir: Irving Rapper)), none of which are particularly compelling. Perhaps the best of these is The Racket (1951; dir: Lewis Milestone), but Scott's role is minor one, unworthy of her talents.
In 1957 Scott's film career came to an end with her role in Loving You (dir: Hal Kanter), Elvis Presley's second movie (although she appeared in an offbeat British film Pulp in 1972). Since 1957 she has been seldom seen except for a few rare television appearances. Her legacy lives on however in the growing popularity of classic movies sparked by movie channels such as TCM (Turner Classic movies).
"Maybe she was alright, and maybe Christmas comes in July. But I didn't believe it." -- Humphrey Bogart about Lizabeth Scott in Dead Reckoning
"I didn't want any part of her, but I kept smelling that jasmine in her hair, and I wanted her in my arms. Yeah... I knew I was walking into something." -- Bogart about Scott in Dead Reckoning
"You know the trouble with women is they ask too many questions. They should spend all their time just being beautiful." -- Bogart to Scott in Dead Reckoning
"Why that's the most conceited statement I've ever heard!" -- Scott responding to Bogart's prehistoric view of women in Dead Reckoning
"Do you think I fell for that fancy tripe you gave me? It's not a new story baby.... You killed him. Why lie?" -- Bogart to Scott in Dead Reckoning