Fritz Lang was probably one of the most gifted movie directors the world ever had. He first established himself as a respected movie make 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 Europe in 1934 due to the rise of Nazism, but this didn’t prevent him to continue a brilliant career in Hollywood. 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 on several occasions. So, I went with Joan Bennett and Fritz Lang. The reason why I picked those twos is simple: I wanted to see more Joan Bennett’s films and more Fritz Lang’s films. Simple as that. And it was a perfect choice!
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 during this period, he considered them to be equals and hated to see them treated as an inferior sex. (Fritz Lang, a feminist symbol??). Before working on Lang’s films, Joan Bennett had already proved us her talent in films such as Little Women, and was even 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). It’s 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 Joan Bennett’s character was in this film. He’s right. We can’t help being 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 proved us that she could play a sensible and endearing woman. Her character can easily be one of our favourites. In Man Hunt, Joan is supposed to be a prostitute, but, due to the severity of the Production Code, such information couldn’t be revealed too explicitly and directly to 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 the one in Man Hunt‘s, 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 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 meets his friends and colleagues. One evening, as he is observing the portrait, 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, 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 done in legitimate defense, 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 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 molded her into one of the most memorable femmes fatale 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 film of his. 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 the most 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. As a matter of fact, we’ll later learn this man is Johnny (Dan Duryea) the girl’s boyfriend. Chris and the lady named Kitty March, make acquaintance. In his free time, Chris paints. Kitty believes he is a professional painter and that he 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 obviously has no tender feeling for Chris, becomes an accomplice and, when Chris discovers her true nature, the result is 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 character is simply amazing. Except for 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 friend Fritz Lang. Released in 1948, Secret Beyond the Door is the most psychologically complex films of the four. When we watch it, we can’t help noticing the similarities with Hitchcock’s Rebecca and with 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 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 has a 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 wants to know, at 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, the tension between Lang and Bennett was obvious during the shooting of and the actress said of the film that it was a “an unqualified disaster”.
But today, we have to watch it with 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 quite 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 is able to prove to us 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 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 that Joan Bennett is one of my favourite actresses. It was a real pleasure for me to discover their work via this blogathon. I finally want to thank Theresa for having this great idea!