Fever Dreams: Fritz Lang’s THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (RKO/International Pictures 1944)

Back in 2016, I did a post expounding on one of my favorite films noir, 1945’s SCARLET STREET . This dark masterpiece of corruption starred the titanic trio of Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea in a sordid tale directed by German legend Fritz Lang, with moody cinematography courtesy of Milton Krasner. Recently, I viewed a film this team made the year previous, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, with a screenplay by producer Nunnally Johnson. Comparisons were inevitable, but though there are certainly similarities between the two films, this one stands on its own as a powerful entry in the film noir canon. With all that talent, would you expect anything less?

Robinson plays college professor Richard Wanley, an intellectual lecturing on the psychology of homicide to his students. He’s a happily married father of two kids, left alone while the fam visits relatives. Whaley goes to his men’s club to meet his pals for supper, but before going in, the three men gaze admiringly at a portrait of a beautiful woman in the window next door. Wanley’s friends, DA Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) and Dr. Barkstane (Edmund Breon) leave after dining, but Wanley stays behind to finish his brandy, and reads a copy of Solomon’s Song of Songs.

As Wanley departs, he stops to again gaze at the portrait – and the woman appears in the flesh, her face reflected in the window! He strikes up a conversation with her, learns her name is Alice Reed, and impulsively joins her for a late night cocktail. Alice takes the professor to her apartment to look at some artist sketches she posed for, all quite innocent. That is, until a man (Arthur Loft) barges into the apartment, angry she’s with someone else, and slaps her hard across the face. A fight breaks out between the man and the scared professor, who grabs a pair of scissors and stabs the intruder to death!

To say things go steadily downhill for Wanley is an understatement, as he methodically concocts a cover-up, dropping the body in a wooded area miles away. His buddy Lalor is on the case, as the deceased turns out to be a big shot financier, whose sleazy bodyguard Heidt (Dan Duryea of course!) comes calling on Alice with blackmail on his mind, and Professor Wanley sinks deeper and deeper into that old familiar noir quicksand…

Fritz Lang’s Expressionist visual roots show up all over this film, and the dark scene where Wanley dumps the body in a rainstorm particularly stood out for me. Krasner’s cinematography is outstanding; he was one of Hollywood’s top DP’s, from his work on 40’s Universal Horrors (THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS,  GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN , THE MAD GHOUL ) to film noir (THE DARK MIRROR, THE SET-UP ), comedies (HOLIDAY AFFAIR, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH), drama (ALL ABOUT EVE), his Oscar winner THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN), and everything in between.

Johnson’s script is a murderous marvel of construction that features a twist ending I admit I did NOT see coming – and I don’t think you will, either! While THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW didn’t supplant SCARLET STREET as my favorite of the Lang/Robinson/Bennett/Duryea/Krasner collaborations, it’s a great film that noir fans will surely love. Like I said before, with all that talent, would you expect anything less?

The Art of Noir: Fritz Lang’s SCARLET STREET (Universal 1945)

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One of my favorite movies of any genre has always been SCARLET STREET. I used to watch the grainy Public Domain print on my local cable access channel over and over. When I saw that TCM was running the film last October, I recorded it for future reference, as I was in the midst of my “Halloween Havoc” marathon. I finally got the chance recently to sit down and enjoy this beautiful, crispy clear print and watch the film as it was meant to be seen.

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Meek, mousey cashier Christopher Cross receives a gold watch at a party honoring his 25 years of service to J.J. Hogarth’s company. Chris has done his boring, repetitious job without complaint, though his dream has always to be a successful painter. When Hogarth leaves the party, Chris watches him get into a car with a pretty young girl. Walking home with friend and co-worker Pringle, Chris muses aloud what it would be like to have the love of a young beauty. His  wife Adele is a ballbuster, constantly berating his art and lack of gumption, and unfavorably comparing him to her late policeman husband.

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Enter Kitty March. Chris encounters her getting slapped around by an unknown assailant (later revealed to be her boyfriend Johnny) and rescues her. They go for a cocktail, where Chris tries to impress her by passing himself off as a painter. Kitty, thinking he’s rich and famous, claims to be an actress. Johnny schemes to have Kitty string Chris along, playing him for a sucker. Gullible, lonely Chris now becomes a thief and embezzler in order to fund Kitty’s lavish lifestyle. Johnny brings Chris’s paintings to sell in Washington Square, where they’re snapped up by an art critic named Janeway. Believing he’s discovered a new sensation, Janeway tracks down Johnny to Kitty’s apartment, where he’s tricked into believing Kitty is the artist. Chris’s “modern art”, under Kitty’s name, becomes the toast of the art world. Things fall apart when Adele’s ex-husband shows up, quite alive, and demands to be paid off. Chris, finally free of Adele, can now marry Kitty. But the vixen cruelly rejects him, and Chris murders her, pinning it on Johnny. But Chris will never be rid of Kitty and Johnny, as we discover in the film’s haunting finale.

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Edward G. Robinson has one of his best roles as Chris. Henpecked, his dreams never fulfilled, Chris Cross is one of the most pitiful, heartbreaking characters in film noir, and Robinson pulls it off beautifully. Joan Bennett was never sexier or sluttier than here as Kitty. She’s cruel, lazy, and downright treacherous, without an ounce of kindness, the complete opposite of Chris. Dan Duryea is her man Johnny, giving one of his patented sleazebag performances. Even though he’s framed on a murder rap, I felt no sympathy for Johnny paying for his countless other, unacknowledged sins. Rosalind Ivan (Adele) is as good here as she was in another noir, Robert Siodmak’s THE SUSPECT. Jess Barker, Russell Hicks, Samuel S. Hinds , and Margaret Lindsay round out the excellent supporting cast.

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Fritz Lang’s  expressionistic direction is top-notch, and SCARLET STREET is (in my opinion) one of his top three films, right up there with METROPOLIS and M. Dudley Nichols’s screenplay was based on the French novel LA CHIENNE, filmed in 1931 by Jean Renoir. Of course, since “La Chienne” translates in English to “The Bitch”, the title had to be changed! (We’d have to wait til 1979 for a film with that title, starring the eternally bitchy Joan Collins) Milton Krasner’s B&W photography gives SCARLET STREET an atmospheric, melancholy mood, as does Hans J. Salter’s score.

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The paintings in the film are by John Decker, artist and notorious Hollywood reprobate. Decker was a talented portrait artist known for his drinking bouts with famous pals like Errol Flynn, John Barrymore, and W.C Fields. His paintings are certainly unique, and I’ll leave you with a gallery of some of his artwork:

W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria
W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria
Errol Flynn
Errol Flynn
Harpo Marx as The Blue Boy
Harpo Marx as The Blue Boy
John Wayne
John Wayne

 

Halloween Havoc!: HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS (MGM 1970)

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Must-see TV for ‘Monster Kids’ in the late 60s meant watching DARK SHADOWS every weekday at 4:00 on ABC. The Gothic soap opera gave us daily doses of vampires, werewolves, witches, and man-made monsters courtesy of producer/director Dan Curtis and a talented cast of mainly New York based stage actors, led by Hollywood veteran Joan Bennett. Capitalizing on the show’s popularity, MGM greenlighted a feature version titled HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS.

The movie is a condensed and revised telling of the Barnabas Collins story arc that began in 1967. The film takes us to Collinwood, where governess Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott) is assaulted by drunken caretaker Willy Loomis (John Karlen). Loomis is fired by Roger Collins (Louis Edmonds), but sneaks back onto the property to search for the hidden family jewels. Using an old map as a guide, he breaks into the family mausoleum and, opening an ancient coffin, is startled when a hand reaches out and grabs him by the throat.

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Sometime later, Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) arrives, announcing himself as a “cousin from England”. Barnabas bears a striking resemblance to his namesake ancestor, whose portrait hangs on a wall. Giving matriarch Elizabeth (Bennett) a bejeweled necklace, its decided Barnabas will fix up “the old house” to live in. Cousin Carolyn (Nancy Barrett) becomes a little too fond of Barnabas, much to her regret, as she soon falls victim to the vampire’s bite.

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A party is given in Barnabas’s honor, and it’s there he first sets eyes on Maggie. She tells him, “We just met, yet I feel like I’ve known you for so long”. How right she is, for Maggie is a dead ringer for Barnabas’s long-dead love Josette. Carolyn becomes jealous, so Barnabas puts the finishing touch on her. Professor Stokes (Thayer David) and Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall) investigate the death. Carolyn (and a previous victim) both had strange marks on their necks, and suffered an inordinate loss of blood. Stokes believes it’s the mark of “vampirism”. Julia isolates an unknown cell in the victim’s blood, and thinks she can cure the vampire’s curse.

When Roger’s son David (David Henesy) tells the family he’s seen Carolyn, Stokes brings up his vampirism theory. No one belives it, but when Julia fixes her makeup in a compact mirror, she discovers Barnabas casts no reflection. Carolyn rises from the grave and attacks her boyfriend Todd (Don Briscoe) but is stopped by Stokes and the local police, all armed with crosses. Stokes then drives a stake through her heart, putting an end to Carolyn.

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Julia confronts Barnabas and tells him she can cure him. She begins giving him daily injections, and the vampire can now walk in the sunlight. Barnabas now pursues Maggie more ardently, going as far as to send her beau Jeff (Roger Davis) out of town on a job. But Julia is in love with Barnabas, and her next injection causes him to age rapidly. He strangles the doctor just as Maggie walks in. Sinking his fangs into Maggie’s neck, the vampire is rejuvenated, going on a killing rampage, as he plans to make Maggie his undead bride. Jeff returns and, discovering the carnage, engages in a desperate battle with Barnabas to save his love before she meets a fate worse than death.

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Jonathan Frid became an unlikely teen idol when he took the role of Barnabas at age 43. His soulful eyes and romantic escapades on the soap opera caused teenyboppers across the country to swoon. Soon Frid found himself plastered on the covers of 16 and Tiger Beat magazines. The Canadian-born, Shakesperian trained actor became typecast, unable to find decent parts. He returned to the stage, starring in the 1986 Broadway revival of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE in the role of Jonathan Brewster, made famous by Boris Karloff. Jonathan Frid, forever Barnabas, taught acting and appeared onstage until his death in 2012.

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HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS is much more bloodier than the TV soap, causing parents to forbid their children from seeing it (I went anyway!).  Dan Curtis followed up with a sequel, NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS, then branched out into TV movies like THE NORLISS TAPES, DRACULA (starring Jack Palance), and the anthology TRILOGY OF TERROR. Curtis then made the mega-hit miniseries THE WINDS OF WAR and its sequel WAR AND REMEMBERENCE. Dick Smith’s aging makeup was grotesque, turning Barnabas into a 175 year old man. Smith was a top makeup effects man, also responsible for films like LITTLE BIG MAN, THE GODFATHER, and THE EXORCIST, winning an Oscar for AMADEUS. Robert Colbert’s familiar  haunting music from the show can be heard throughout the film. HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS is an homage to the old-time monster movies of the 30s and 40s, and it’s well worth seeing for both old fans of the show and latecomers. Two fangs up!

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