Fritz Lang was probably one of the most gifted movie directors the world ever had. He first established himself as a respected movie maker in Germany with masterpieces like Metropolis and M and then, in the USA with Fury, The Woman in the Window, Clash by Night, etc. Lang left Europe in 1934 due to the rise of Nazism, but that didn’t prevent him from pursuing a brilliant career in Hollywood. Aside from his notable work as a director, we remember Fritz Lang for his four collaborations with Joan Bennett, who, thanks to him, became a queen of films noirs.
The talented blogger Theresa Brown (Cinemaven’s Essays From the Couch) is hosting, today and tomorrow, The Classic Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon. The participants discuss the frequent collaborations between a chosen movie director and a movie star. The reason why I picked Fritz Lang and Joan Bennett isn’t too complicated: I wanted to see more of Joan Bennett’s films and more of Fritz Lang’s films. Simple as that. And it was a perfect choice!
In an interview with Lang conducted by Peter Bogdanovich (Fritz Lang in America), the German director reveals how wonderful it was to work with Joan Bennett. And, according to him, she felt the same about working with him. They were friends, perhaps lovers, and great collaborators. Fritz Lang was known for his love of women, but unlike many men during that period, he considered them to be equals and hated to see them treated as inferiors. (Fritz Lang, a feminist symbol??). Before working on Lang’s films, Joan Bennett had already proven her talent with films like Little Women or Me and my Gal. She even was one of the four final choices for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, alongside 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 show her talent, and we can praise Fritz Lang for that. He gave her the chance to prove what a versatile actress she could be.
They first worked together with Man Hunt (1941). The film also stars Walter Pidgeon and George Sanders. It’s an exciting thriller where Walter Pidgeon, as Alan Thorndyke, has to escape Nazis due to being wrongly suspected of an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler. Back in London, he still is followed by some Gestapo’s agents. He eventually meets Jerry Stroke (Bennett), a young woman who will help him.
Peter Bogdanovich notices how touching Joan Bennett’s character was in this film. He’s right. We can’t help being fond of her, and we would like to enter the television and console her when she’s crying. For her first collaboration with Lang, Joan Bennett proved to us she could play a sensible and endearing woman. Her character can easily be one of our favourites. She is supposed to play a prostitute, but due to the severity of the Production Code, such information couldn’t be revealed too explicitly. 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 the one in Man Hunt but still extremely interesting. The Woman in the Window, released in 1944, was her first co-acting collaboration with Edward G. Robinson under the direction of Fritz Lang.
The film story goes like that. Richard Wanley (Robinson), a psychology professor, is fascinated by the portrait of a woman exposed in a window next to the library where he often meets his friends and colleagues. One evening, as he observes the painting, a smiling woman appears. She is the model used for the famous portrait. Her name is Alice Reed. She invites him to her place for a drink. As they are conversing, a seemingly very jealous man (Arthur Loft) runs into the room and tries to kill Richard. To help her new acquaintance, Alice gives him a pair of scissors that happened to be on the floor. He kills the crazy man with it. Instead of calling the police and explaining he killed in legitimate defence, Richard hides the corpse. Alice is worried enough.
For The Woman in the Window, Fritz Lang presents a pretty ambiguous character portrayed by Bennett. We can’t 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 than 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 versatility. Here, Fritz Lang modelled her into one of the most memorable femmes fatales of film noir history. Joan was once the sweet Jerry Stroke. Now, she’s 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. I honestly think it’s one of his most accomplished ones. Of course, Metropolis is visually impressive, but as one of my teachers at university made us notice, it’s not the most interesting one narratively. There’s much more to analyse in Scarlet Street, especially concerning Joan Bennett’s character.
Christopher “Chris” Cross (Edward G. Robinson), a cashier, on a night, rescues a poor lady (Bennett) assaulted by a man. We later learn that he is Johnny (Dan Duryea), the girl’s boyfriend. Chris and the lady, Kitty March, make acquaintance. In his free time, Chris paints. Kitty believes he is a professional painter and wins a lot of money. 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 art studio in Kitty’s apartment. Johnny, obsessed with money, sells the paintings under Kitty’s name. Kitty, who has absolutely no tender feelings for Chris, becomes an accomplice. When Chris discovers her true nature, the result is disastrous.
Joan embodies a perfectly mean woman in this film. She seduces and manipulates to obtain money. In my opinion, this is one of Joan’s best performances. She is convincing and perfect for the role. The cruelty of her character is simply mesmerizing. Aside from Joan’s brilliant acting, we can’t omit to mention the magnificent gowns she wears. Those were designed by Travis Banton, who also created her costumes for Man Hunt and Secret Beyond the Door.
That leads us to Joan’s last collaboration with friend Fritz Lang. Released in 1948, Secret Beyond the Door is the most psychologically complex film of the four. When we watch it, we can’t help noticing similarities with Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Bluebeard. Before working on this blogathon, that was the only Bennett-Lang film 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), with whom she falls in love. They finally marry, but she then realizes she barely knows him. After the wedding, they move to his big manor. There, he lives with his sister, Caroline (Anne Revere); his son, David (Mark Dennis); his secretary, Miss Robey (Barbara O’Neil) and some domestics. Celia is surprised to discover Mark has a son from a previous marriage (his last wife died). Therefore, she begins to understand how strange (not in the right way) and distant her new husband is. Also, Mark has a peculiar hobby: he collects rooms. During a party, he gives a guided tour of the rooms for the guesses. It becomes very creepy as we discover 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 wants to know at her own risk.
Secret Beyond the Door was the beginning of something for Michael Redgrave since it was his first American film. Sadly, it was the end of something for Joan and Fritz as it was their last collaboration together. Unfortunately, we can’t say it was a beautiful ending. People didn’t “get” the film and it was a complete flop at the box office. According to IMDB, the tension between Lang and Bennett was omnipresent during the shooting, and the actress said of the film that it was “an unqualified disaster”.
But today, we have to watch it from a certain distance. I indeed don’t think it’s Fritz Lang’s, nor Joan Bennett’s best film, but it remains very relevant and worth watching. 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 proves that she could play many types of characters.
But, if we forget the disaster caused by this film, I can positively say that, of 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.
Among all the directors Joan worked with, Fritz Lang certainly was the one who knew her the best and allowed her to develop an immense talent. I can positively say that Fritz Lang is now one of my favourite movie directors and Joan Bennett, one of my favourite actresses. It was a pleasure to discover their work via this blogathon. I finally want to thank Theresa for having this great idea!