What We Talk About When We Talk About Joan Bennett

Joan Bennett’s career can be neatly divided into three acts. First, she was a blond ingenue in the 1930s. Then she was the sultry brunette femme fatale in a remarkable series of film noirs for director Fritz Lang. And then she effortlessly morphed from vamp into mother in the 1950s, a mold she stuck with through her role as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard on TV’s Dark Shadows in the 1960s.

For our purposes, she’s most fascinating as the vamp. In movies like Scarlet Street, Woman in the Window, Woman on the Beach, and The Secret Behind the Door (which features a mesmerizing, surreal opening voiceover that is utterly unlike anything else in the Hollywood of the 1940s), Bennett was both charming and borderline sociopathic. She drags men to the depths of degradation (“Paint me,” she famously tells Sunday artist Edward G. Robinson, offering her bare foot and a bottle of nail polish to him as he kneels before her) in film after film, and yet her comeuppance is also something of a surprise. Her greatest triumph of that stage is difficult to find: Max Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment, the film that overlapped two quadrants of the Venn diagram of Bennett’s career: the moment her roles as femme fatale and mother overlapped to riveting effect. James Harvey, in his excellent and compulsively readable Movie Love in the 50s, devotes an entire chapter to this unsettling movie, a Douglas Sirk noir of sorts. Anything to be said about it has been said far better by Harvey, so I’ll add only that there are moments that Todd Haynes later borrowed for Far From Heaven, and the film deserves more attention than it has had.

But who cares about old movies, right? The reason Bennett lingers in the memory here, as opposed to, say, noir vixen Jane Greer, is The Scandal. Her husband, producer Walter Wanger, was so convinced that Bennett was having an affair with agent Jennings Lang that in 1951 he shot Lang in the thigh and crotch. Represented by Jerry Geisler (who crops up a lot in these stories; we’ve already met him in The Case of Errol Flynn and the Underage Girls and The Case of Alexander Pantages and the Underage Girl), Wanger got off with four months on an Honor Farm. As for Bennett? She fled the West Coast to tour the country in Bell, Book, and Candle. She and Wanger didn’t divorce until 1965, but she saw her movie roles dry up. “I might as well have pulled the trigger myself,” she said of the shooting’s effect on her career, which is an extraordinary summing up, isn’t it? “I might as well have pulled the trigger myself.”

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