Did the double feature…feature anything in common? Both movies star Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea, and both movies were directed by Fritz Lang.
Wow, that’s a tight crew. I bet the plots involving these talented & iconic actors are vastly different. No. Both plots involve a middle aged man falling for a younger lady, and paintings and a sleazy guy are involved.
In The Woman In The Window, Edward G. Robinson is a professor with links to high society, probably because he’s a friendly and helpful chap when he’s not being a loving family man. So who wouldn’t want this charming intelligent guy hanging around your club for wealthy gentlemen? Well, Robinson (I’m using the real actors’ names here), who had just sent his family off on vacation and out of the movie, leaves the drowsy club and finds himself enamored with a painting of a lovely young woman, seen through (roll credits) a shop window. And lo and behold the subject of the painting, Joan Bennett, happens to be there to watching Robinson ogle the painting of her.
The two of them continue their contrived yet bland meetcute at her apartment. The story of a man tempted by the physical embodiment of artistic beauty and their possible coitus is interrupted by an intruder…another older man, who I am assuming is her boyfriend. He lunges at Robinson and the two of them fight, and the older guy dies. It turns out the older guy is very wealthy & powerful and she’s his mistress, so Robinson & Bennett decide it’s easier to ditch the old guy’s body rather than explain what the married Robinson was doing in Bennett’s apartment in hopes the police believe self-defense.
Well, things get complicated in a couple of ways. The first is that Dan Duryea (the drunk composer from Black Angel) may have witnessed the killing. He was the old guy’s bodyguard, and saw Robinson leaving with the body. So he starts blackmailing Bennett. The other problem is that one of the high society club members is the district attorney, and he offers a tour of the crime scene to Robinson. It’s an opportunity for Robinson to see what the police know, why also sweating the details in front of one of his friends. The DA is never suspicious of Robinson, he thinks his friend is just this really smart guy from the club who might be handy to have around for a criminal investigation.
Bennett comes up with a plan: poison Duryea when he comes over to take the blackmail money. Like, “aren’t you thirsty? Don’t you want some water to go with your money?” Duryea doesn’t fall for it. Robinson feels trapped, so he takes the poison and he drinks it, not knowing that Duryea is spotted by the police for some other crime while leaving Bennett’s apartment, and the police shoot him. Since Duryea was such a shady character, they assume that he was the one who killed the old guy. Bennett tries calling Robinson to tell him the news, but sadly he had already taken the poison before falling asleep…for good…
…Well, wait, no, then Robinson wakes up at the club. He had dreamed THE WHOLE THING. He leaves the club, looks at the painting again, another young lady is all “why HELLO there” and he runs off to the tune of Yakkity Sax (no).
It was all a dream. This was an ending added on due to whatever passed as a film morality code of the time. I’m reminded of The Limping Man, which also has an “it was all a dream” ending. Unlike The Limping Man, which ends this way after a big suspenseful buildup (and during the height of the action), The Woman In The Window HAD already ended, and then it was a dream. I’m not sure which is worse. In way with “The Woman…” you get two endings for the price of one!
The rest of the movie is actually pretty disappointing even as a noir thriller. The victim was rich and our heroes might’ve felt the pressure of society looking down on them even though the old guy was maybe a jerk, but Robinson was so coddled by his best buddy the DA I’m surprised that there aren’t any scenes of the DA giving Robinson a backrub as he walks Robinson around the scene where the body was discovered. If they called the cops and he explained himself to the DA, I bet the DA would go to bat for Robinson as more information about the old guy and his shady employee Duryea would come out. The investigation scenes were dull, since Robinson is sweating bullets RIGHT THERE and the DA is never suspicious. The more tense scenes involve Bennett and Duryea, as he tries to shake her down, but the ‘don’t you want some water?’ scenes to poison him could be something out of a parody.
Even then, the two non-lovers rationalized their attempted murder of Duryea since he was such a sleazy blackmailer. Maybe that could have been the real plot: the two killing more people in the way of trying to stay out of the sphere of suspicion from the first murder, rationalizing every murder until they kill someone actually innocent? It’s not really for me to theorize how to make what is regarded as a classic a better movie, but this is regarded as a classic mostly because of the movies it was surrounded by when it was labeled noir in the 40’s. “It was all a dream” might be one of the worst cop-outs in a narrative, especially if it’s the resolution you ask viewers who had invested 90 minutes or so to accept. “Hey, don’t feel so bad for the schlub who made things go from bad to worse, he’s alive! Hooray! NOTHING HAPPENED!”
Which brings us to Scarlet Street, which involves the three actors and more paintings. Maybe Fritz Lang & co realized what a letdown their previous movie was, and this new story would give the audience a bigger thrill with a harder ending. Maybe there’s a connection. Maybe it’s a prequel. Maybe one of the paintings by Robinson in Scarlet Street is a painting that inspires the Robinson in The Woman to dream some really sad story.
In Scarlet Street, Robinson is a cashier at a bank who also paints on the side. He must do it to combat his loneliness; he’s in a loveless marriage and invites anyone to come over just to talk to them. After leaving a party, he comes across Dan Duryea kicking a woman, Joan Bennett. Robinson runs up and knocks out Duryea with his umbrella, and Bennett is grateful but doesn’t want to get the police involved. She gets a drink with Robinson, and by discussing his love for art she infers that he’s loaded. Robinson is smitten, and plans to pursue her.
It turns out that the guy kicking Bennett is her boyfriend, Duryea. In a great bit of dialog, his reason was that he had called her to bring $50 so he could gamble, she only brought $15, and her eyerolling at him when he demanded more is why he started to abuse her. She tells him about Robinson, and with both assuming he’s rich Duryea suggests stringing Robinson along to pay for Bennett’s rent and more.
Robinson falls for the scheme and steals from his work. He also gives Bennett some of his paintings. Duryea takes them and has a street vendor sell them (if that sounds weird, go to NYC, walks around Central Park, you’ll see people selling art), feeling oddly ripped off himself as the paintings are likely worthless. WELL, in a strange turn of events, an art critic buys both paintings and goes on a hunt to find the artist. When confronted by the vendor and critic, Duryea points the finger at Bennett, who is poised to be the talk of the art scene for her masculine art approach (seriously, that’s why the critic is more boastful about being a patron and supporter, that he can’t believe a WOMAN did art like this!).
She starts to feel guilty about how the scam has made her face public, as Robinson is certain to find out. Which he does, through his wife. He confronts Bennett, but only to offer more paintings for her to take credit. It of course only weighs down the torch he’s carrying for her, and the only thing Robinson thinks is keeping him from being with Bennett is his current wife. WELL, just then his wife’s previous husband, a police officer who was assumed deceased, shows up. Previous Husband had run away after falling into the river while working on a crime in progress, and realized he could make a new start. Previous Husband ran out of money, and decided to shake down Robinson assuming Robinson wanted to stay married. Robinson sets it up so that Previous Husband walks in on the wife, alerting her to his alive-ness, nullifying the current marriage. ZING!
Thinking he’s free, Robinson approaches Bennett to beg her to marry him. She laughs him off, and Robinson stabs her to death. He leaves, and Duryea walks in to find Bennett dead. The cops finger Duryea for the murder, and he’s arrested. He tries to blame Robinson, saying that the Robinson killed Bennett because of their taking-credit art scheme, but everyone testifies that Robinson isn’t capable of creating such great art, including Robinson.
Duryea insists on his innocence up to his execution. Robinson feels guilt, and attempts suicide. He ends up homeless, roaming the streets, and walks past a portrait of Bennett (that he painted) that has sold for $10,000.
No one wakes up from this nightmare. And THAT’S how you noir.
Noir is not a verb. I know, I know.
Which one was better? Uh, Scarlet Street. It’s less bland. Robinson is supposedly a good guy in both movies, but here he’s an actual killer, as opposed to the self-defense in the previous movie. Everyone is flawed here. Robinson is a simple and lonely person in this movie, but capable of intentional murder. I don’t blame him for letting Previous Husband expose himself for abandoning the wife, even if it’s for incredibly selfish reasons. It’s malicious. Is it a precursor to a violent act of murder?
What really makes Scarlet Street is Bennett’s toxic relationship with Duryea. Joan Bennett isn’t a femme fatale here. She’s a girl who wanted to be swept off her feet and was done so by the absolute wrongest of wrong guy. A quiet loner who is inspired by her might not be the right guy for her either considering that he’s capable of murder. She doesn’t want to hurt Robinson, and is impressed by his efforts to help her in the art community, even though he knows that his style is so distinct that if he were to ever paint under his own name no one would believe him. Robinson plays his character so sad and quiet that it’s easy for Bennett and Duryea to steal the entire show in their scenes together.
Scarlet Street might be better than The Woman In The Window, but is it better than other noir films of the time? Well it’s actual noir, with a noir ending. I enjoyed Bennett who is so street smart to string Robinson along but not enough to see through her abusive grifter boyfriend, and the two make this movie. I was surprised by Duryea’s comeuppance. I know there’s twists and our good guy won’t be so good to do the right thing once he’s discovered the ruse, but I didn’t see Robinson becoming an actual villain.
Compared to other noir movies, I don’t find these as striking/powerful as The Scar or The Killing. I think The Woman is better remembered because it was one of the first movies accepted in the then-recently categorized type of storytelling in film, noir, even if it’s far from the first noir film (and, with it’s dream ending, doesn’t qualify as noir). Even without the cop-out, it’s still not as memorable as other noir films.
If high-fallutin’ film critics embrace these movies as great works as noir, then check them both out. If I were to pick one, I’d go with Scarlet Street.
Anything about the cast? I heart Joan Bennett. One of her husbands shot her agent (possibly her lover) but she remained married him for over a decade longer. I hope to write more about her other movies on this site sometime soon. Edward G. Robinson might be known as a the archetypical gangster but he’s appeared in so many great movies from this period as a hero, the thorn in the side of the doomed lead in the most famous of noir, Double Indemnity, and the man who sneaks around to take down the murderous Nazi in hiding in The Stranger. He also dedicated a lot of time outside of film to fighting fascism during WWII, but later was accused of actively supporting communist causes (he did so inadvertently, and to save his own skin he named names, which probably ended up blacklisting him for a brief while).