The classic femme fatale had many attributes. She was always sexy. She was usually greedy. And she was never ever to be trifled with.
All of that is bound up in our basic idea of the femme fatale, the beautiful dame with death at her back. What is perhaps less readily apparent is the reality that the noir goddess is usually the smartest person in the movie. She is wised up and cynical, and the men she leads to destruction are usually a few steps behind her. A lot of noirs, after all, end with the antihero finally figuring out what the femme fatale has known all along. She holds all the answers, however terrible those answers might be.
Perhaps no one personified this quality better than Joan Bennett. Her noir bona fides are impressive. She got to the party early, playing the title role in Fritz Lang’s The Woman In The Window in 1944. That was a landmark year for the genre, the same year of Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, and Bennett was right there helping to create the archetype of the noir siren. From there she was off, issuing impressive performances in Scarlet Street, The Woman On The Beach, Secret Beyond The Door…, Hollow Triumph, The Reckless Moment, and Highway Dragnet. It’s a hell of a resume, and it would certainly place her among the great actresses of the genre.
Her real life would have made a hell of a movie—a hell of a film noir, in fact. She was raised in prestigious acting family. Her father, Richard Bennett, was a legend of the stage, a hero to Orson Welles, who cast the old man as Major Amberson in his film version of The Magnificent Ambersons. Along with her sisters Constance and Barbara, Joan was shuffled into the family business at a young age. In her early roles she was a flaxen-haired innocent, but she was already married and divorced by the age of eighteen. She knocked down another marriage in her twenties, and married producer Walter Wanger in 1940, a month shy of her thirtieth birthday.
The marriage was profitable for both. They formed the production company Diana (named after their daughter) along with Fritz Lang. A brief period of success—the most notable achievement of which was undoubtedly Scarlet Street—was followed by the crushing financial failure of Secret Beyond The Door… and the collapse of Wanger’s career.
Around this time, Bennett began an affair with her agent, Jennings Lang. What she didn’t know is that Wanger, already suspicious of his much younger wife, was having her followed by a private detective. When Wanger was informed that Bennett and Lang were spending sweaty afternoons together in a Beverly Hills apartment, he flew into a rage. On December 13, 1951, he found Bennett and Lang returning from a midday tryst, and as they were getting out of Bennett’s car, he shot Lang in the crotch with a .38.
Lang survived the shooting, as did Joan Bennett’s career (as did, for another fourteen years anyway, her marriage to Wanger). But nothing was ever the same for the actress. Even though she’d made her name as sexually promiscuous women and deadly dames, the shooting cast a shadow over her. The timing didn’t help, either. She was entering her forties—old age for a Hollywood actress, especially back then—and the movies were losing ground to television, a more conservative medium that didn’t exactly welcome the now-notorious adulteress. For the next few decades, she worked intermittently, finally achieving success in the late sixties as Elizabeth Stoddard on the horror series Dark Shadows.
Her real claim to fame, though, is the amazing run of noir films she made in the forties and fifties. She was the perfect femme fatale, all sex and sass, always stronger and smarter than the man she was with. The thing she never seemed to have was luck.
A Beginners Guide to Essential Joan Bennett
1. The Woman In the Window (1944): Edward G. Robinson is a middle-aged professor, bored by his wife and kids, who develops a crush on the portrait of a beautiful young woman in a gallery window. Then one night he meets the woman (Joan, of course) and she invites him back to her place. There, his night with his dream girl turns into a nightmare. A weak ending mars what is an otherwise strikingly beautiful (and deeply noir) film. The same creative team, headed by director Fritz Lang, teamed up a year later…
2. Scarlet Street (1945): Think of this as a second draft of The Woman In the Window. Robinson again plays an unhappily married man, a lonely painter who meets sexpot Bennett and develops a fatal crush. This time, though, Joan is a prostitute enthralled to her pimp (played by the king of sleaze, Dan Duryea). Together they string along the painter, stealing his art and passing it off as their own. When he finds out about this betrayal, all hell breaks loose. A complete masterpiece, one of the best of all noir films. Joan is perfect here as Kitty March, a woman who’s not all bad, just bad enough to ruin a man. The film also contains what is probably the most violent murder in cinema pre-Psycho.
3. The Woman On The Beach (1947): A noir melodrama from director Jean Renoir. Robert Ryan plays an emotionally disturbed Coast Guard Lieutenant who gets involved with a married couple played by Bennett and Charles Bickford. While this is beautifully shot, it is, nevertheless, a little long on exposition and short on fireworks. Joan’s terrific though, and delivers this classic retort to an enraged Ryan, “Go on. Say it. I’m nothing but a tramp. You just now figuring that out?”
4. Secret Beyond The Door… (1947): Reteaming with Fritz Lang, Bennett made this bizarre knockoff of Rebecca. She plays a young American who marries a moody Englishman and then has to unravel the mystery of his past. An impossible-to-decipher plot and kooky performances by most of the cast render this more a curiosity than anything else. Still, Joan is as good as ever, and the film is gorgeously shot. It also has the virtue of being one of the weirdest movies made in Hollywood in the forties.
5. Hollow Triumph (AKA The Scar) (1948): Here’s another cockamamie plot. Paul Henreid plays a gangster on the run who discovers a doctor who is his exact double. He decides to kill the guy and take his identity. First, he tries to woo the man’s girlfriend/secretary played by Joan. While Henried’s a little limp in the lead performance, the film is still fabulous. Shot by master cinematographer John Alton, Hollow Triumph is among the most beautiful movies ever photographed. The film’s crackling script by Daniel Fuchs contains what may be Bennett’s signature line. When Henried tells her, “You’re a bitter little lady” Joan growls back, “It’s a bitter little world.”
6. The Reckless Moment (1949): Another masterpiece, this one from director Max Ophüls. Based on the novel The Blank Wall by the underrated crime writer Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, The Reckless Moment tells the story of a married woman (Bennett) who tries to cover up a murder she thinks has been committed by her daughter. A far different role for Bennett, but one that builds on her world-weariness. Here she is trying desperately to hold her family, and her life, together. A brilliant film. See it, and then see the remake, 2001’s The Deep End with Tilda Swinton.
7. Highway Dragnet (1954): A man (played by Richard Conte) goes on the run when he’s accused of a murder he didn’t commit. He takes a couple of hostages (Bennett and Wanda Hendrix), but he gets more than he bargained for with Bennett. Here you have Joan once again playing the smartest, most in-the-know person in a film noir. Her sex bomb roles might be past her, but she’s still Joan—as ironic and beautiful and full of trouble as always.