We’re halfway through my film noir class with instructor Elliot Lavine. This week’s trio of films gave me the chance to revisit four old friends:
Meet Joan . . .
I first met Joan Bennett in the drawing room of Collinwood, a stately but troubled mansion on the hills overlooking the Maine coast. She was known as “Miss Joan Bennett” because she represented old Hollywood like no other cast member of the new soap opera, Dark Shadows. I picture producer Dan Curtis pitching the show to Joan as a starring vehicle for her resurging career in television, after a scandal in the 50’s involving her husband Walter Wanger shooting her supposed lover curtailed her work in films. Dark Shadows was supposed to be a typical soap with Gothic overtones, inspired by a dream Curtis had of a young girl traveling on a train. On the premiere episode, Joan, as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, hires that girl, Victoria Winters, to be governess to her troubled son.
One of the great mysteries set out at the beginning of the series was, “Why this girl? What connection did Elizabeth have with Victoria? What did it have to do Elizabeth’s missing, presumed dead, husband or with her long-lost-then-returned lover?” Unfortunately, in the five-year run of Dark Shadows, we never got the answer to this question. Six months in, the show was on the verge of cancellation, and Dan Curtis was forced to extreme measures: he brought a vampire to Collinwood. The rest was history.
Miss Bennett was 56 when the show premiered. I was 11. Naturally, she was not my favorite actor on the show. I was all about the vampires, the werewolves and the witches. The show operated almost as a repertory company: every few months, another storyline would cause a jump in time to another era of Collins family history, and the actors would play their own ancestors. Joan Bennett played Naomi and Judith and Flora; some of these characters she played in something called parallel time as slight variations of their real-time selves. Essentially, however, Bennett played every character in the same way: elegantly dressed and slightly haughty toward everyone.
She also had a problem with her lines. She wasn’t the only one: Jonathan Frid, who played Barnabas, the vampire, could barely string his words together on some days, and Grayson Hall, who played my favorite character, Dr. Julia Hoffman, once entered a room with a vase of flowers in her hand and said, “Enter Julia Hoffman bearing flowers.” Joan Bennett had the best slip of them all, however: one day, she turned away from a roomful of troubled family members and haughtily intoned, “Well . . . things have sure changed here in Hollywood, er, Collinwood.”
It took me a long time to discover that Miss Joan Bennett, whose top billing for Dark Shadows mystified me, had entered the show with a film career behind her that spanned fifty years. Eventually, I would see her play Amy March in the 1933 adaptation of Little Women, Spencer Tracy’s wife in Father of the Bride and its sequel . . . and, of course, in two of the three movies we watched this week in my noir class. (The third was a first for me!)
Meet Fritz . . .
I met Fritz Lang in high school while attending a meeting of our Film Club. He wasn’t actually there, of course, but his presence was deeply felt as we watched his 1931 masterpiece, M, starring Peter Lorre as a serial child murderer tormented by outside persecutors and inner demons. This was Lang’s first sound film. He had written his first screenplay in 1916, the year Joan Bennett was born, and his subsequent career in Germany was so extraordinary that the Third Reich begged him to head the new order’s film industry, giving him carte blanche to produce whatever he liked . . . as long as it conformed with Nazi philosophy. Being half-Jewish, Lang decided to skip town, jumping first to Paris and then to America, where he established himself, like fellow ex-patriot Alfred Hitchcock, as a premiere director of crime thrillers, including two of the three films we watched this week. Both of these films feature Joan Bennett, with whom Lang reportedly had a passionate love affair, right under the nose of the film’s producer . . . who also happened to be Joan’s husband, the one who would later shoot another of Joan’s lovers and all but shut down her career.
Meet Eddie . . .
I have included here a picture of my beloved Grandpa, whose loss we all still feel fifty-two years later. My mom always thought he looked a bit like Edward G. Robinson . . . and that’s all I really knew about the actor for many years.
I don’t seek out gangster movies, but when I do, I look for them in this order: Cagney, Bogart, Robinson/Muni/Garfield. I’ve always loved Robinson more as the good guy, whether it’s the steely federal agent seeking to expose a Nazi in hiding in The Stranger or, best of all, the dyspeptic father figure of an insurance claims investigator, the total opposite of radio’s Johnny Dollar, who reluctantly unveils the murderous plot of his favorite junior agent in Double Indemnity. Robinson is definitely an actor I need to explore more, and the proof of his startling range is evident in the two films we watched this week that I starred in.
Meet Paul . . .
Does anybody really remember the first time they saw Casablanca? I certainly can’t recall; nor can I tell you how many times I’ve seen the film – enough to mouth whole swaths of dialogue as the film unspools. Casablanca is kind of a perfect movie, not a mystery but with the growing dread of one, and the wonderment of “how is he going to get them all out of this” fills a true fan’s heart every single time we watch. And, of course, I watch it with special joy because it stars one of my favorite actors of all time whose every moment on that screen equals cinematic gold. I’m talking, of course, about Claude Rains.
Did you think I was going to say Bogart? Or did you imagine that this was the moment when I would insert Paul Heinreid’s name? Heinreid’s just fine in this one as a flowing ideal of democracy, but his thunder is stolen by a huge assortment of greats: Rains and Bogie, of course, but also Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, and Dooley Wilson. Even the guy playing Major Strasser is more fun to watch!
No, Paul Henreid holds a special place in my heart for another movie entirely: he plays Jerry Dorrance, the man who reignites Bette Davis’ passions in Now, Voyager. There, his accent works perfectly, his clothing is divine, and he almost makes you want to take up smoking in only he will light two at once and hand you the other. Unfortunately for Henreid, the film also stars Claude Rains; luckily for the former, the latter rarely shares the screen with him – not till the end, when the film withholds the traditional happy ending for something much more interesting (in other words, we may not get the moon, but we have the stars!)
As of last week, these were the only two roles I have ever seen Paul Henreid play. That all changed with the third film noiron our list for the week. Different director, different plot entirely, but all three films are linked by two things: Joan Bennett and . . . well, yes, I’m afraid I have to drop the “F” bomb of noir here . . . fatalism.
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Every week we are assigned one central film, and then Elliot selects one or two satellite pictures to sate our thirst before the next class. This week’s main course is a doozy, but I find it necessary to talk about one of the other films first, in order to put both of these movies in context.
One of the things I like about writing these posts is that, as you explore, you run into people whose artistry has had an effect on your life of which you were unaware. Take Nunnally Johnson, who was one of the most respected screenwriters in the industry for many years. He dabbled in every sort of genre, from family fare (1936’ Dimples, starring Shirley Temple) to black comedy (1942’s Roxie Hart which became the musical Chicago). Johnson also made some notable mysteries, including The Dark Mirror, in which Olivia de Havilland shows that she can play good and evil twins with the best of them and Black Widow, the only U.S. adaptation of a Patrick Quentin/Peter and Iris Duluth novel of which I am aware,. The film that probably put Johnson on the map, though, was The Grapes of Wrath (1940). He was nominated for an Oscar for this one, and its success led to his development of a deal to write for International Pictures, a short-lived studio that began in 1944 and merged with Universal Pictures two years later.
For International’s premiere project, Johnson adapted a novel by J.H. Wallis called Once Off Guard into The Woman in the Window, a stylish crime drama with a top-notch director (Fritz Lang) and cast (Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Raymond Massey, and Dan Duryea.) The film opened in November of 1944 and garnered great reviews. It cemented the transformation of Joan Bennett from blonde ingenue to brunette femme fatale. In 2015, some online magazine named it “The Best film noir of all time!”
All well and good, except . . . I don’t know. I guess the trappings of noir are there, especially in the trajectory of a smugly successful but vaguely discontented man stepping across the line of propriety and then having disaster close in on him. I guess Bennett is a femme fatale, although frankly she seems perfectly nice throughout the film: she’s not particularly selfish, nor does she abandon the main character when he needs her most. I guess she leads him to his doom because . . . well, that’s what women do, right? Still, Woman in the Window strikes me as too, I don’t know, classy? whimsical? to rank with the best of noir. Plus, there’s that ending . . .
The film introduces us to Richard Wanley (Robinson), an assistant professor of criminal psychology whose life is a model of middle-class success. He’s about to be fully tenured, and he has a wife and two children whom he dearly loves, as we see when he sends them all off on a vacation. Wanley then meets his two best friends, including District Attorney Frank Lalor (Massey) for dinner at their club. The conversation revolves around the sense of satisfaction – or lack of it – each man has with his life. That’s when Wanley, whom we have just seen barely able to tear himself away from his family, throws them under the bus:
“All I know is that I hate it. I hate this solidity, the stodginess I’m beginning to feel. To me it’s the end of the brightness of life, the end of spirit and adventure.”
Maybe the fact that his kids are awfully young for a fiftyish professor and his fiftyish wife has contributed to the problem. His pals scoff at Wanley’s sentiments: “Men of our years have no business playing around with any adventure that they can avoid . . .” “We’re like athletes who are out of condition. We can’t handle that sort of thing anymore.” Wanley snorts back in derision: “Life ends at 40,” and they all go in to dinner, unaware that they have now presented us with the perfect noir pigeon. Now all we need is a catalyst, and one can be provided in the window of the art gallery next door to the club: it’s a portrait of a beautiful woman, and all three men have admired it earlier. This woman is clearly the antithesis of the matronly, loving wife that Wanley just packed away for the weekend, and those of us savvy enough to read the cues figure that she represents the temptation away from all that’s good and pure and true.
Except, like I said above, when Wanley actually runs into the model after he leaves his club, she turns out to be a perfectly nice woman who gets a kick out of watching the different ways that passersby react to her image. Alice Reed (Bennett) is actually quite amusing as she describes the range, from those who see the painting as Art with a capital A to those who can’t help but emit a wolf whistle. She gauges Wanley’s reaction as something in-between and it intrigues her enough to invite the professor to her place to view some sketches the artist made in preparation for painting her.
And while this certainly sounds like a pick-up line, both people appear to have enough self-control to maintain the niceties throughout: they do look at the sketches and flirt just a little, and Alice offers to serve some champagne. In trying to open the bottle, Wanley cuts himself a little (the first of many wounds he will suffer for her), and he asks Alice to fetch a pair of scissors so that he can cut the wire. And that’s when all hell breaks loose.
That hell is stylishly rendered with an appropriate amount of suspense leveled with dry humor. Before you can say “Little Caesar,” Wanley has killed a man and has to cover up his crime in order to stave off ruination. Being a learned man, he does a good job of maintaining his cool and calming Alice down while hatching a plan to get rid of the body and cover his traces – during which time he manages to meet every cop in town, scratch his hand again on a bramble that happens to be poison ivy, and in general leaves enough traces of guilt to fill ten of these movies.
And then the body is found (by a hilarious Boy Scout) and the case, of course, is assigned to Wanley’s pal, the district attorney, who invites his friend to the crime scene and other important places and introduces him to the detective in charge so that both men can comment regularly on the similarities between the unknown criminal and the Professor without ever putting two and two together. It’s like an episode of Columbo if the murderer were the sympathetic figure and Columbo was a snob.
Of course, since this is noir – it is, isn’t it? – we don’t need a web of suspicion to tighten around our hero since he is being dragged down by 1) his growing sense of guilt and unease, and 2) the credo of Fatalism, which says that the hero in these sorts of movies doesn’t stand a chance of getting out of it. So of course the dead man was a bad guy, and of course he had a bodyguard (Duryea) who knows too much and tries to blackmail Alice, and of course Wanley is tossing and turning at night and asks his pharmacist for a powerful sleeping aid. And it all leads to that other noir “F” word: Irony (don’t start with me) where all the professor had to do was wait it out but he can’t and so he ends up overdosed in a chair in his study, which is what happens to all smug, happily married middle-aged men who dare wish their lives were more exciting.
And that would be fine for a 1944 movie like this, except . . . this is not the end. There’s a twist, and in my opinion it pretty much kills the noir. Instead, Woman in the Window becomes a cautionary tale, sort of the Wizard of Oz of noir. You want more out of life, and then you have a dream of how horrible that would be, and you wake up realizing, “There’s no place like home!” This isn’t the only film to fool its audiences this way, and I understand if fans want to credit the dream sequence for being enough of a noir to satisfy. But when Wanley leaves his club in relief and runs into another beautiful woman standing by the picture, he runs away comically and the music assists his sprightly, hurried exit in such a light-hearted way that, for me, the damage has been done.
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Which brings us to the main course, Scarlet Street, which was made the following year by Universal Pictures (the studio that would subsume International a year later) and reunited director Lang with stars Robinson, Bennett and Duryea. Cinematographer Milton Krasner also returned. The film was adapted from a French play, La Chienne (The Bitch) by Dudley Nichols, whose screenwriting career is even more remarkable than that of Nunnally Johnson. Nichols worked with the best directors of the studio era and crafted classics in every genre, from screwball comedy (Bringing Up Baby) to Westerns (Stagecoach) from historical epics (Gunga Din) to great literature (For Whom the Bell Tolls). Of course, he didn’t neglect the mystery genre: Nichols wrote the early Charlie Chan film The Black Camel and the 1945 adaptation of And Then There Were None. He was nominated many times for an Academy Award and won in 1935, although he refused to accept the award for three years as a means of pressuring producers to recognize the Screen Writers Guild.
Contemporary reviews of Scarlet Street were mixed to negative. Time Magazine called the plot cliched and derided the dimwitted, unethical stock characters. Robinson was supposedly bored making a movie that seemed to be a rehash of the earlier film (which he wasn’t too crazy about either), and in 1946 the New York State Censor Board banned the film outright as an obscene and immoral work. This set off a chain reaction, with other cities like Milwaukee and Atlanta following suit.
And, of course, you know what I’m going to tell you: Scarlet Street is the movie to watch. Woman in the Window is stylish melodrama with a trick ending. Scarlet Street is pure cinematic nihilism, maybe the bleakest movie of its kind I have ever seen. It takes the earlier film’s premise and stretches it to the limit, sending all its characters into a dark, tragic abyss, and this time there’s no dream to wake up from.
In other words, noir gold!
In addition to sharing much of the same cast, both films are strikingly similar in the bare bones of plot: a decent man is lured into a nightmare by an attractive woman. There are even paintings involved! But it’s in the slight variations that Scarlet Street shines. As Professor Wanley, Robinson all-but-literally digs his own grave with his ingratitude for the good life he has – prestige, a loving family, friends who are peers – and his smug belief that when things start to go wrong, he has everything under control. As Chris Cross, Robinson plays a kindly, weak man who appreciates all he’s got – even though he hasn’t got very much.
The film opens with a celebration of Chris’ twenty-five years working as a cashier for a clothing retailer. The executives sitting around the table are kind but patronizing, and the boss, J.J. Hogarth, after presenting Chris with a gold watch, dashes out of the party to join a hot blonde waiting downstairs in a convertible. As Chris walks home with his one true friend from the party, he wishes, like Wanley did, for a change in his life. It’s not a complaint about his satisfactory existence; he just wonders what it would be like for a beautiful woman to shower him with attention. And then, on his way home, Chris sees a man strike a woman on the street corner and rushes to her rescue. The man escapes and the woman, Kitty March (Bennett) asks him to walk her home.
If Alice, the “woman in the window,” was a pure fiction conjured up in Wanley’s head. Kitty is another proposition altogether: slatternly, vicious, and two-faced, she can barely disguise her contempt for Chris as she lets him buy her a drink and walk her home. It seems clear that she’s assessing whether she has a trick or a mark here and then, baffled by his utter naivete, she only wants to be rid of the guy. But forces have already bound them together.
Thus, Chris is cast in the role of a squat Don Quixote, whose choice of Dulcinea is impervious to his valor. We can understand Chris’ desire to tilt at this particular windmill when we meet his shrewish wife Adele, who finds fault in every moment of Chris’ existence, laughs at his attempts at painting, begrudges him a visit from his sole friend, and keeps a giant portrait on the wall of her former husband, a police detective who drowned in the Hudson River trying to save a woman.
Chris’ steadfast optimism in the face of a loveless marriage and a dead-end, if respectable job, earns both our sympathy and our infuriation, particularly as his growing feelings for Kitty blind him to her hard-to-miss repulsion. Kitty has been urged by her boyfriend, Johnny (Duryea) to strike up a friendship with the old man and see if she can worm enough money out of him for Johnny to invest in another hair-brained idea. The character Duryea played in Woman in the Windowwas a petty crook and blackmailer, but he had nothing on Johnny, who here is utterly despicable, a sociopath who seems to feed on his own evil schemes.
The painting in Woman in the Window serves as the catalyst for the main story. In Scarlet Street, paintings and art inspire the film’s best twists. Through each plot turn, the tension mounts along with the complexity of Kitty and Johnny’s schemes, and still our hero blinds himself to every one of their evil intentions. And yet, the bad guys are clearly having an effect on the good guy, evidenced when Chris has a bizarre encounter with a stranger and hatches a scheme to use this meeting to his advantage. In a strange way, Kitty is having a positive effect on Chris, who sees his love of a “good” woman as a reason to better his life. This is film noir, however – success of any kind is fleeting.
You know a film noir is working when the circumstances lead every main character to some inexorably dark, scary place and you can’t look away. And that is exactly what happens here, first in a burst of brutal violence, and then in a series of ironic events that bring justice for all in the worst of ways. Both Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street end with the main character scuttling down the avenue, and yet the finales couldn’t be more different. Window’s ending is a Hollywood trick. It is Scarlet Street that leaves us devastated.
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In our first week of class, we were given a film to watch that I had never heard of. Elliot assigned us The Pretender, because he wanted us to get an early taste of cinematographer John Alton, whose work would reappear (haunt us?) for the rest of the course. This week, we were assigned another movie shot by Alton that I knew nothing about, this one another film featuring Joan Bennett.
Hollow Triumph makes me proud of my Austro-Hungarian roots, as Alton, the director Steve Sekely and producer/star Paul Henreid all hail from the same parts of Europe that birthed my ancestors. Henreid wanted to make this picture when he felt his career at Warner Brothers was stagnant. Instead of allowing a big studio to pick it up, he went with Eagle-Lion Productions, an English-American company that couldn’t offer the production much of a budget but allowed Henreid to exercise greater control, including urging Joan Bennett to sign on as his co-star.
What Hollow Triumph has in common with The Pretender is a plot that would fit nicely as an episode of Suspense orTwilight Zone, or any one of those TV shows that led you inexorably down a path to some cosmic joke of irony. )I won’t give away the punch line, but think Fatalism . . . with THREE capital “F”s.) The alternate title to the film is The Scar, while the working title was The Man Who Murdered Himself. Both of these give too much of the game away, and yet Hollow Triumph almost seems of too high a pedigree for this Poverty Row feature.
Henreid plays John Muller, a thoroughly bad lot who is released from prison at the film’s start and immediately seeks out his old cronies in order to renew his life of crime. Most of these men have pretty much gone straight, but Muller bullies them into one more heist, and he chooses the worst possible target: the casino of an equally vicious gangster, Rocky Stansyck. The outcome of that robbery sends Muller on the run to a small town where his kindly, law-abiding brother has scored him a menial job as a clerk.
However, a chance encounter on the street leads Muller to discover that a local psychoanalyst, Dr. Victor Bartok, is a double for Muller. (They’re so much alike that they share the same thick Austrian accent!!) What’s more, Bartok employs a beautiful receptionist named Evelyn Hahn, who is the spitting image of Joan Bennett.
You might think you can predict every twist that will follow – and you would be right. That’s the problem with Hollow Triumph, but there is too much to enjoy on this wild ride to dismiss the film. I didn’t notice much about Alton’s cinematography while watching a mediocre copy of The Pretender, but the print on YouTube of Triumph is pristine and Alton’s work is breathtaking. The sequence of the casino robbery is a mini-noir in and of itself: you can tell it’s all going to go horribly wrong, and Alton/Sekely ratchet up the suspense with beautiful photography shot mostly in silence. The close-ups alone of each customer at the tables are like a series of mini-noir tragedies in still life.
Equally revelatory is Joan Bennett. We’ve seen her twice as a misplaced object of desire, one evil, one not so much (but with the same results for the poor shmo who loved her). Here she is deserving of love, but her own feelings are misplaced. Worst of all is that she knows it, knows what she should do but finds herself in a battle between cynicism and hope. Her performance is complex and heartbreaking, and it is the last lingering shot on her face that saves the ending for me, allowing me to forgive the script for turning Muller’s adventure into an ironic joke and to focus on the effect his villainy has on Evelyn. Everyone is left with a scar, some of us on the inside.
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In Hollywood, they addressed him as Jack Turner. He managed to create arguably the best film noir of all time, as well as many “horror” pictures for RKO that transcended their small budgets due to the brilliance of his direction. Next week, we’ll look at that glorious noir film and one of those horror pictures – when we celebrate the work of Jacques Tourneur.