Fritz Lang was probably one of the most gifted movie directors the world ever had; first in Germany with masterpieces such as Metropolis and M, and then in the USA with Fury, The Woman in the Window, Clash by Night, etc. Lang left Europa and Nazism in 1934 to continue a brilliant career in the USA. Aside from his fine work as a director, we remember Fritz Lang for his four collaborations with Joan Bennett, who, thanks to him, became a queen of Films Noir.
The talented blogger Theresa Brown (Cinemaven’s Essays From the Couch) is hosting, today and tomorrow, The Classic Symbiotic Collaborations blogathon where the participants have to talk about a movie director and a movie stars who were known for working together (more than once, of course). So, I had to go with Joan Bennett and Fritz Lang. The reason why I picked those two is simple: I wanted to see more Joan Bennett’s films and more Fritz Lang’s films. Just that. Honestly, I don’t regret my choice, not even a little!
In an interviewed with Lang conducted by Peter Bogdanovich (Fritz Lang in America), the German director lets us know how wonderful it was to work with Joan Bennett. And, according to him, she obviously felt the same about working with him. They were friends, perhaps lovers and certainly great collaborators. Fritz Lang was known for his love of women, but unlike many men of this period, he considered them to be equals and hated to see them treated as an inferior sex. (Fritz Lang, a feminism symbol??). Before working on Lang’s film, Joan Bennett had already proved us her talent in films such as Little Women, and even was one of the four final choices for the role of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, along with Vivien Leigh, Jean Arthur and Paulette Goddard. Her screen test impressed David O. Selznick, but apparently not as much as Vivien Leigh’s one.
Happily, Joan had other occasions to prove her talent and Fritz Lang has to be praised for that. To his friend, he gives the wonderful chance to prove how a versatile actress she could be.
They first worked together for the film Man Hunt (1941) (also starring Walter Pidgeon and George Sanders), an exciting thriller where Walter Pidgeon as Alan Thorndyke has to escape Nazis after having been wrongly suspected of an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler. Back in London, he still his followed by some Gestapo’s agents. He meets Jerry Stroke (Bennett) a young woman who will help him.
Peter Bogdanovich notices how touching was Joan Bennett’s character in this film. He’s right. We can’t help being very fond of her when we watch this film as much as we would like to enter in the television and console her when she’s crying. For her first collaboration with Lang, Joan Bennett was able to prove us that she could play a sensible and endearing woman. Her character can certainly be one of our favourites. In the film, Joan is supposed to be a prostitute, but obviously because of the Code Hay’s severity, this needed no to be guessed by the audience. So, a sewing machine was placed in Jerry’s room to let us believe that she was a simple seamstress. Something completely ridiculous according to Lang.
For her second collaboration with Lang, Joan played the role of Alice Reed, a character far different from Man Hunt‘s one, but always extremely interesting. The Woman in the Window, directed in 1944, was her first co-acting collaboration with Edward G. Robinson under the direction of Fritz Lang.
The film tells the story of Richard Wanley (Robinson), a psychology professor who is fascinated by a woman’s portrait exposed in a window next to the library where he often meet his friends and colleagues. One evening, as he is observing the portrait, a smiling woman appears. She is the portrait’s model. Her name is Alice Reed. She invites him to her place for a drink. At the middle of their conversation, an apparently very jealous man runs into the room and tries to kill Richard. To help her new friend, Alice gives him a pair of scissors that were lying on the floor and he kills the crazy man with it. Instead of calling the police and explaining that all this was legitimate defence, Richard decides to hide the corpse. Alice is worried enough.
For The Woman in the Window, Fritz Lang presents us a rather ambiguous character portrayed by Bennett. We can’t really know what to think of her. Is she a true Film Noir’ femme fatal who will lead the man to his loss? She can’t really denounce him to the police as she is a partner in crime, but she can always “leave him alone with his problem”… The complexity of this character makes the film even more thrilling that it already is.
Joan Bennett’s third collaboration with Fritz Lang is perhaps my favourite one. Released in 1945, Scarlet Street was probably the best way to prove Joan’s acting versality. Here, Fritz Lang made of her one of the best femme fatale examples of Film Noir history. Joan once was the sweet Jerry Stroke, she’s now the manipulative Kitty March.
Scarlet Street is a remake of the french film La Chienne (1931), directed by Jean Renoir. According to IMDB, that was Fritz Lang’s personal favourite film of his own. I honestly think it’s one of his most accomplished ones. Of course, Metropolis is visually impressive, but as one of my teachers made us notice, it’s not one of his more interesting narratively. There’s much more to analyse in Scarlet Street, especially concerning Joan Bennett’s character.
Scarlet Street tells the story of Christopher “Chris” Cross (Edward G. Robinson), a cashier, who, on a night, rescue a poor lady (Bennett) who is assaulted by a man who, we’ll later know is Johnny (Dan Duryea) her boyfriend. Chris and the lady, named Kitty March, (get acquainted. In his free time, Chris paints. Kitty believes he is a professional painter and that he wins a lot of money out of it. Chris, who doesn’t want to disappoint the lady he has fallen in love with doesn’t deny it. March decides to set up his painter’s workshop in Kitty’s apartment. Johnny, obsessed with money, sells the painting under Kitty’s name. Kitty, who obviously has no tender feeling for Chris, becomes a accomplice of the case and, when Chris will discover her true nature, the result will be disastrous.
Joan embodies a perfectly mean woman in this film. She seduces and manipulates for money. According to me, this is one of Joan’s best performances. She is convincing and was perfectly casted for the role. The cruelty of her characters is simply amazing. Except Joan’s brilliant acting in this film, we can’t not mention her radiant beauty and the magnificent gowns she wears. Those were designed by Travis Banton who also dressed her for Man Hunt and Secret Beyond the Door.
This leads us to Joan’s last collaboration with her friend Fritz Lang. Released in 1948, Secret Beyond the Door is the most psychologically complex films among the four. When we watch it, we can’t help noticing the similarities with Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Bluebeard. Before I started working on this blogathon, this was the only Bennett-Lang’s films I had seen. I re-watched it with my mother and she loved it.
In Secret Beyond the Door, Joan Bennett plays the role of Celia. She is engaged to an old friend. During a vacation, in Mexico, she meets a handsome and mysterious man, Mark Lamphere (Michael Redgrave), and falls in love with him. They finally marry, but she then realizes she barely knows him. They move to his big manor where he leaves with his sister, Caroline (Anne Revere); his son, David (Mark Dennis); his secretary, Miss Robey (Barbara O’Neil) and some domestics. Celia is, of course, surprised to discover Mark has a son from a previous marriage (her last wife died) and begins to understand how strange (not in the right way) and distant her new husband his. Mark as a quite peculiar hobby: he collects rooms. During a party, he makes a guided tour of the rooms for the guesses. This turns out to be very creepy when we discovered that a murder was committed in each one of them. However, one of the rooms is locked and Mark refuses to show it to the guesses. That’s mysterious. What’s hidden behind this door? Of course, Celia has all intentions to discover it, to her own risks.
Secret Beyond the Door was the beginning of something for Michael Redgrave as it was his first American film, but, sadly, the end of something for Joan and Fritz as it was their last collaboration together. Unfortunately, we can’t say this was a beautiful ending. People obviously didn’t “get” the film and it was a complete flop at the box office. According to IMDB, tension between Lang and Bennett was obvious during the shooting of the film and Bennett said of the film that it was a “an unqualified disaster”.
Of course, today we have to watch this a certain distance. I don’t think it’s indeed Fritz Lang’s or Joan Bennett’s best film, but it remains very relevant and quite worth watching one. Here, Joan Bennett’s plays a victim. What’s really interesting about her character is that we hear her thoughts, so we’re able to understand her feelings and intentions. She is not a mystery to us. Michael Redgrave as Mark Lamphere is. Joan remains convincing and still is able to prove us that she could play many types of characters.
But, if we forget the disaster caused by this film, I can positively say that, among the four films we’ve discussed today, Secret Beyond the Door is the most stunning visually. Here are some images to prove it:
Fritz Lang and Joan Bennett never worked together again after making Secret Beyond the Door. At the end of Fritz’s days, Joan said “Tell Fritz how much I still love him”. The message was given and Joan was told that he was moved by it. Fritz Lang died in 1976 at the age of 85.
Out of all directors Joan worked for, Fritz Lang certainly was the one who knew perfectly how to make her a star of the silver screen, and discovered the best in her. I can positively say that Fritz Lang is now one of my favourite movie directors and that Joan Bennett is one of my favourite actresses. It was a real pleasure for me to discover their work, thanks to this blogathon, and want to thank Theresa for having this great idea!