The daughter of an acting dynasty, Joan Bennett was the middle child of theatrical matinee idol Richard Bennett and the sister of 1930s movie diva and fashion icon Constance Bennett. Never believing she was much of an actress, Joan simply fell into the family business, like the daughter of a grocer landing behind the counter of the family store.
Her first roles were on stage with her temperamental father, but by the early 1920s the beautiful blond was appearing on screen in small parts and the 1930s ushered in stardom with several showcase vehicles including the part of Amy in Little Women (1933) and Kay Karigan in the mammoth Trade Winds (1938).
The star of over forty films before entering the next decade of her life, Joan was always incandescent on screen, but seemed to hold a part of herself back, never able to get past her finishing school manners and cut velvet voice.
Despite the success that came with being a “movie star,” Miss Bennett (now a gorgeous brunette) wanted to be seen as a real actress. The opportunity to stretch her acting muscles finally came with her third husband, independent producer Walter Wanger and their partnership with the German directing genius Fritz Lang. The trio was part of Joan’s independent production apparatus, Diana Productions, and their focus became film noir. The genre would change the trajectory of the actress’ career.
While many of Bennett’s past directors had allowed the beautiful actress to glide effortlessly through performances on her looks, Lang demanded that Joan bring the characters she was playing to life on screen. A detail-oriented, methodical film-maker, Lang put the actress through her paces by making her undergo take after take until she finally got it right. Sensing that the German director was getting a more honest and genuine performance out of her, Joan never complained about all the hard work, and the results are mesmerizing.
The team’s first outing was Man Hunt (1941) in which Bennett starred as Jerry Stokes, a beautiful cockney prostitute/seamstress who rescues a hunter who tries to assassinate Hitler from the clutches of the Germans. Effortlessly essaying the hooker with the heart of fourteen carat gold, Bennett is luminous as the self-sacrificing Jerry who gives her own life to save the man she loves.
Joan attacks her role with obvious relish. The pain fairly oozes from her every pore as she begs the rather cavalier Walter Pidgeon (as stalwart sharp-shooter Captain Allen Thorndike) to allow her to join him on the run from the Nazis who want to make him admit he tried to gun down Hitler. Her enormous eyes fill the screen, her each and every look begging Thorndike to love her. This was a Joan Bennett movie-goers had never seen before.
The Woman in the Window:
In 1944, Wanger’s independent International Pictures featured Woman in the Window, a film noir thriller in which Bennett’s character Alice Reed pulls sedentary middle-aged college professor Richard Wanley (beautifully underplayed by frequent Bennett co-star Edward G. Robinson) into a dark whirlpool of deception and murder. When Robinson spies the real life model for the painting of the ravishing woman he’s been drooling over for weeks standing in front of a gallery window, he readily agrees to accompany her to her apartment to “see her sketches.” Once inside, Wanley finds himself mistaken for Miss Reed’s latest conquest by her current flame. Violence ensues as the professor stabs the intruder to death with a pair of scissors.
Window gave Joan what she really craved—the opportunity to submerge her off-screen personality almost completely in the character of the relentlessly cool Alice. Through dulcet tones, the actress delivers a gentle caress to her victim with every word. During the murder and its aftermath Bennett gets past herself enough to utter the breathless cries of a woman who is desperate to extricate herself from the situation, sliding quickly into brittle hardness when she convinces Wanley to get rid of the body of her lover.
1945 brought the riveting noir Scarlet Street. This Diana Productions offering gave Joan the opportunity to do some of the finest acting of her career. As the carelessly grasping Kitty March, Bennett owns the screen. We see none of Joan’s usual finishing school airs and graces here. Kitty is nothing more than a grifter and a tart and the actress pulls out all the stops to let us know. A silky whine slips from her red lips with all the self indulgence of a wronged street walker.
Robinson again plays Bennett’s victim in Street. A henpecked low-level clerk who’s a weekend painter, Christopher Cross falls hopelessly in love with the beautiful Kitty while she calmly extracts every bit of dough she can from him, ultimately convincing him to bankroll a swank apartment for her and her rancid boyfriend (Dan Duryea) complete with a studio in which Cross can paint. After showing Christopher’s work to an art dealer, Kitty claims to be the artist when she finds out his paintings will bring her a pretty penny. The professor is pathetically happy to allow Kitty to take credit for his work, but when Chris finds Kitty in the arms of Duryea, he kills her in a fit of jealous rage.
The Secret Beyond the Door:
The final Bennett/Wanger/Lang production was the silly The Secret Beyond the Door (1947). This is a melodramatic tale of a clueless bride (Bennett) married to a murderous husband who hides the truth about his serial killer tendencies behind (you guessed it) a secret locked door in his dark and moody family castle. Diana Productions needn’t have bothered. This gothic vehicle was a complete wast of celluloid.
Apparently aware that she was starring in a turkey, Joan falls back on her usual lady of the manor persona in portraying the breathlessly naïve Celia Lamphere. The actress is far better in the later Hollow Triumph (1948) and the Hitchcock-like Reckless Moment (1949).
The noir era of Miss Bennett’s career ended (most appropriately) with a gunshot. Her husband Walter Wanger shot the private parts of the actress’ agent Jennings Lang in a Beverly Hills parking lot. Apparently, the independent producer was sure his beautiful wife was having an affair with Lang. She claimed she wasn’t. Amazingly, Bennett came to her husband’s defense and refused to divorce him—that is until fourteen years later.
Scandalous or not, Joan Bennett became an actress when she began to appear in film noir vehicles under the tutelage of Fritz Lang. The breathtaking star cemented her place in cinema history by being part of them.