Showing posts with label Joan Bennett. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Joan Bennett. Show all posts

Monday, August 6, 2018

The Woman in the Window (1944)

Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson in The Woman in the Window (1944)

"Trouble starts from little things. Often from some forgotten natural tendency."

It's impossible to talk about Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window (1944) without talking about its famous ending. I'm not going to even try. You've been warned.

Years ago I taped this film off of TCM and watched it with my mother. We were completely engrossed in the film and developed a growing concern for Edward G. Robinson's character. As the movie progressed we knew there was no way out for him and panic started to set in. He was getting deeper and deeper into a bad situation. What was going to happen to this poor sweet man? All he did was admire a portrait in the window. How did he get into this mess? Just as the film reached its climax we held our breath. When the ending came and we saw it was all just a dream, we breathed out a huge sigh of relief. My mother still talks about the film to this day. Sometimes she doesn't remember the title or the particulars of the story. But the ending, she'll always remember that. It's the one instance where a movie becomes its own hero and saves the audience from falling off the precipice into heart ache. And we're grateful for it.

Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea in The Woman in the Window (1944)

The Woman in the Window stars Edward G. Robinson as Richard Wanley, a professor of criminal psychology. With his wife and kids away on vacation, Professor Wanley spends time with his professional peers, including district attorney (Raymond Massey) and Dr. Barkstane (Edmund Breon). All three men are going through a mid-life crisis of sorts. They all have one thing in common: the admiration of a beautiful woman whose portrait is displayed in a shop window. One evening Wanley, as he stares at the portrait, sees a reflection. It's the portrait's subject, Alice Reed (Joan Bennett). What starts as an innocent flirtation ends with Wanley at Reed's apartment and a dead body. Reed's rich boyfriend tries to kill Wanley and an act of self-defense, with the help of Reed passing a pair of scissors to Wanley, will easily be misinterpreted as murder. The two plot to dispose of the body but they've gotten more than they bargained for. Reed must face her beaut Heidt (Dan Duryea) who catches wind of what happens and wants to be paid in return for his silence. And Wanley is implicating himself more and more as his district attorney friend handles the investigation. Wanley only sees one way out but luckily wakes up in time to discover it was all just a dream.

Based on the novel Once Off Guard by J.H. Wallis, The Woman in the Window was adapted to screen by Nunnally Johnson. Johnson had become a successful script writer at 20th Century Fox. Wanting to expand his business opportunities into both writing and producing, he founded International Pictures, Inc. Johnson's first project was adapting Wallis' novel onto film. He had both Fritz Lang and Edward G. Robinson in mind for the project. After Marlene Dietrich and other actresses turned down the female lead, Bennett was offered the part. Johnson's daughter Marjorie Fowler, then Marjorie Johnson, worked as an editor on the film.

Some major changes were in store for Wallis' story. According to Fritz Lang biographer Patrick McGilligan, "the novel had hinted that the female lead was a prostitute; Johnson made the character more ambiguous, but still obviously a rich man's mistress." Then there was that ending. In the novel, the protagonist, a professor of English not criminal psychology, deems all hope to be lost and commits suicide. This just wouldn't do for the movie version. Johnson wanted the original ending but got push back from studio execs. According to Johnson biographer Tom Stempel, suicide was a "story solution discouraged by the Production Code. [William] Goetz insisted that the story be revealed at the end to be a dream. Johnson felt that kind of ending was a cheat but Goetz was insistent..."

And wouldn't you know it, the ending worked. The Woman in the Window was a hit at the box office. While critics complained about the ending, they praised the film overall. According to McGilligan, quoting Fritz Lang, "the happier ending 'made a difference of a million dollars more in receipts."

Upon the success of The Woman in the Window, Fritz Lang, Joan Bennett and Bennett's husband, producer Walter Wanger, teamed up to start Diana Productions named after Bennett's daughter from her first marriage. Their first production was Scarlet Street (1945) which reunites Woman's three main stars Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea in what proved to be an eerily similar story. Many classic film fans like to joke that Scarlet and Woman are essentially the same movie.

Bennett and Lang collaborated on a total of 5 films which also include Confirm or Deny (1941), Man Hunt (1941) and the Diana Productions film Secret Beyond the Door (1947). This is notable because Fritz Lang was notoriously bad with his actors and many would give up working with him after one or two films. Stars like Brigitte Helm, Spencer Tracy and Henry Fonda wrote off working with Lang. Sylvia Sidney, who collaborated on three films with Lang, and Bennett seemed to be the only ones who were willing to endure working with the director.

The Woman in the Window is a marvelous film. A taught film noir that tugs at your heartstrings. I love that Bennett's Alice Reed isn't a femme fatale caricature. There's more complexity than usual. Bennett really shines in this part which reminded me a bit of Jane Greer's character in Out of the Past (1947) but with more heart. Robinson does a fine job drawing out the audience's sympathy for his character. He's sweet and pathetic and we want to protect him like a baby bird that's fallen out of the nest. And Dan Duryea. Nice man in real life and pure evil on screen. A sign of true talent that he could so effectively play the opposite of himself. Robinson, Bennett and Duryea make for a dynamic trio on screen and are just as enjoyable in the next installment.

And for the record, I loved the ending. Sure it's a stereotype of an old Hollywood cop-out but I bought it hook, line, and sinker.

The Woman in the Window (1944) is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber Studio Classics. The disc includes subtitles, audio commentary by film historian and film noir expert Imogen Sara Smith, and a variety of noir trailers. The film has been newly mastered in high definition and looks great on Blu-Ray. The package contains a reversible jacket with another poster design on the reverse side.

Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me a copy of the Blu-Ray for review.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Highway Dragnet (1954)

"First guy who moves gets a belly full of lead."

Jim Henry (Richard Conte) was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jim meets with a fellow Marine in Las Vegas to discuss fixing up his seaside home that's been flooded by rising waters. While in Sin City he meets temperamental model Terry Smith (Mary Beth Hughes). The night after their confrontation at a bar, she winds up dead in her hotel room, the result of strangulation with a strap. The police, led by Det. Lt. Eagle (Reed Hadley) are led to Jim who has an alibi with his Marine friend whom he plans to meet back in California. He's the only one who can prove Jim's innocence. After escaping the police, Jim finds two women stranded on the desert highway: photographer Mrs. Cummings (Joan Bennett) and model Susan Willis (Wanda Hendrix). After helping these two with their broken down car, he rides off with them hoping to get back home to find his friend. The two women quickly realize this mysterious hitchhiker is on the run from the cops. Can Jim make it back home in time to prove that he's not the strap killer? Or will the cops catch up with him before he gets the chance?

Released by Allied Artists, Highway Dragnet (1954) is a short B-movie thriller directed by Nathan Juran. It clocks in at 1 hour and 10 minutes and while that may seem rather short the story is fairly simple and straightforward and the time frame worked perfectly for the plot. It's low budget, a bit cheesy but has a great cast in the form of Richard Conte, Joan Bennett, Wanda Hendrix and supporting players like Reed Hadley and Mary Beth Hughes. Fans of Christmas in Connecticut (1945) will recognize Frank Jenks who plays a Marine suspected of being the runaway convict.

This film came out at a time of transition for the three main stars. This was a few years after Joan Bennett's infamous career halting scandal. A love triangle resulted in her husband, producer Walter Wanger, shooting her agent, Jennings Lang, in the groin. Lang survived and Wanger was convicted and sentenced to four months in jail. Highway Dragnet was her return to movies. Richard Conte had recently lost his contract with Fox and the 1950s brought him many B-movie roles. In the following decade his career would take a turn with some small parts in better movies including some of my favorites like Ocean's 11 (1960) and The Godfather (1972). The year Highway Dragnet was released was the same year actress Wanda Hendrix briefly retired from films. After her disastrous marriage to actor Audie Murphy, she decided to step back from acting when she married James Langford Stack Jr., brother of actor Robert Stack. When that marriage fell apart she returned to acting with a handful of parts on TV and a few more movies in the 1960s and 1970s.

Highway Dragnet is famed producer/director/writer Roger Corman's first credited screen role. He wrote a screenplay entitled House by the Sea, a reference to the protagonist's beloved home, and sold it to Allied Artists. Corman didn't realize the transformation his screenplay would undertake at the hands of the filmmakers. Several writers worked on the script including Herb Meadow, Jerome Odlum, Tom Hubbard and Fred Eggers. The end result was far different from Corman's original vision. According to biographer Pawel Aleksandrowicz,

"Corman was so appalled at the difference between the original version and the final product that he decided to produce his films by himself in order to have full control over them." 

He used the funds he earned from Highway Dragnet to produce The Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954). Corman mastered the art of making low-budget movies that entertained audiences and turned a profit. And the rest is history. I would love to read Corman's original screenplay to compare with the final movie. I have some ideas about what was left out or changed.

The relationship between the two female leads played by Joan Bennett (Mrs. Cummings) and Wanda Hendrix (Susan) suggest something more going on in the background. Perhaps this was intended in Corman's screenplay but played down in the final script? Their relationship hints at a romance between the two and they switch gender roles throughout the film. Susan is dressed in a crop top and pants and covered in grease from trying to fix their car, something Jim points out when he meets Susan for the first time. In contrast, Mrs. Cummings is full on glam in a white dress, heels and sunglasses. We learn that Mrs. Cummings is a photographer and Susan is her model. The two have a close relationship that extends beyond their business partnership. When they arrive at the hotel for their poolside photo shoot, the dynamic shifts with Mrs. Cummings taking the lead and Susan being the object of her attention for both good and bad. When Susan develops an affection for Jim, this threatens their relationship. Perhaps romantically but the story focuses more on the dark secret Mrs. Cummings is hiding from everyone except for Susan. The hotel scenes reminded me greatly of the film Carol (2015) starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara which also involves women, traveling down a highway on a road trip and a fellow traveler, male, threatens their happiness.

Highway Dragnet (1954) is available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber. They've been releasing DVDs and Blu-Rays of a variety of independently produced/released films from mid-century Hollywood. I encourage you to check out their growing catalog of Kino Lorber Studio Classics, many of which I've reviewed on this blog.

Many thanks to Kino Lorber for sending me a copy of Highway Dragnet (1954) on Blu-Ray to review!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

We're No Angels (1955)

Finishing a blogathon 5 months later is okay... right?!

We're No Angels (1955) is a Christmas story like no other. It's the turn of the 20th Century and three Devil's Island convicts find themselves on a tropical island colonized by France. They need money to catch a ship back to Europe but find themselves without any resources. So what are three convicts to do? Steal and kill of course! Joseph (Humphrey Bogart), Albert (Aldo Ray) and Jules (Peter Ustinov) target the Ducotel family who run a local shop. But the mother Ducotel (Joan Bennett), father Ducotel (Leo G. Carroll) and the lovesick daughter Isabelle (Gloria Talbott) are sweet, kind and charming. What are three ruthless convicts to do when they are being treated nicely on this Christmas Eve? They still need to make it home! Will they be able to kill this nice family?

This is one of the few Humphrey Bogart films in color. The only other one I can think of is The African Queen. And boy is there a lot of color. So make sure that if you are a Bogie fan that this film is in your repertoire. While Bogie is charming as the swindler of the convict pact (he's the brains behind the operation) and Peter Ustinov is also charming as the goofy and lovable safecracker, it's Aldo Ray that caught my attention. Why? Because he doesn't look like he belongs in a film from 1955. He looks like he's straight out of the 21st Century. He's got that All-American look that is All-American now but not back then. Big broad shoulders, big arms, lots of height, buzz cut hair and tattoos. That's NOW. He stuck out like a sore thumb to me. Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas were buff in a barrel-chested kind of way. Aldo Ray had some real bulk to his muscles. Wow!

Moving on... This is a very enjoyable film. It's black humor with a wholesome feel and a bit of sex thrown in. We're No Angels can be a bit slow paced. I won't hide the fact that I fell asleep twice while watching the film (it could be a lullaby!). It's not explicitly Christmas. In fact, the tropical setting and the focus on the Convict-Family plot makes you forget the holiday theme a few times in the film. However, I think that non-Christmas films that take place at Christmas are great for Holiday viewing.

Three Angels came to earth that night and all around the stars were bright.

Popular Posts

 Twitter   Instagram   Facebook