Edward G. Robinson Needs To Behave Himself, Twice

In 1944 & 1945, Edward G. Robinson appeared in two similar noirs alongside Joan Bennett as the femme fatale and Dan Duryea as the sleazy blackmailer/crook in a pair of films directed by Fritz Lang. And both of them are well worth seeing.

Robinson finally got to stop being typecast as tough-guy gangsters by the late 1930s, and made a bunch of films in the 1940s where he played more dweebish and often psychologically damaged men confronted with the awful price of their desires, like his role in The Red House (1947) (No, not THAT Red House with best youtube ad ever). While his Pete in The Red House is crazy with a deep dark secret, the pair of characters he plays in Lang’s The Woman In The Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945) are simply nebbishes who wind up way in over their heads when they fall for characters played by Joan Bennett.

In “Window,” Robinson plays a bookish professor who sends his family off on vacay and then swoons over a painting hanging in a gallery outside his stuffy men’s club, only to meet the model herself, played by Bennett. Soon he’s having a drink with her, her angry boyfriend shows up, starts a fight and winds up dead. Robinson and Bennett conspire to hide the body, and then Raymond Massey as the District Attorney friend of Robinson’s actually calls him in to work on the case, even though the truth of it will lead to him. And then, things get more complicated when blackmailer Dan Duryea shows up…

Without any spoilers, the production code forced Lang to change the ending of this film, and I think his frustration over this led him to make “Scarlett Street” right afterwards with practically the same cast and crew.

This time, Robinson is the wussy cashier who comes to Joan Bennett’s rescue one night when her sleazy boyfriend (Duryea, again) is beating her up in the street over money. (In the original French play filmed by Renoir years earlier, she’s a streetwalker being beaten by her pimp/lover). Robinson falls for her and dreams of escaping his horrible loveless marriage. Bennett finds him repulsive, but as long as he’s buying the drinks and might spend money on other stuff, why not? Then the golddigging gets amplified when she misunderstands his discussion of museum art and what it sells for, mistaking him for a rich artist. So she and Duryea decide he’s a perfect mark, and they start to use him for money…. but then as things progress, it turns out the art world really DOES like his art, but Duryea fixes it so that it looks like Bennett is the painter since Robinson never signs his work… and Robinson is such a whipped dweeb that he goes along with her to see her be successful, never suspecting her connection to Duryea…. and then things turn dark.

VERY dark. The ending of this film finds a way of sticking to the Hays production code rules that Lang hated so much, that of people being punished for their crimes… but does so in such an amazingly depressing way that Lang found a way to stick to the source material, satisfy the production code, and come up with a astoundingly dark ending worthy of earlier pre-code material like I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang.

Robinson and Duryea play their roles well. Robinson is wonderful with the little subtleties of his character – the hints at superstition that will help lead to his undoing, the way he realizes his paintings reveal no understanding of perspective – which mirrors his total lack of perspective in real life, or the way he plays the henpecked husband weathering his trap of a marriage. Duryea always makes a reliable scumbag, and I’ve lost count of how many films I’ve seen him play this sort of role in. I’m sure he and Robinson compared notes on the benefits and pitfalls of typecasting at some point backstage. Robinson, an art collector and expert on the subject in real life, lends that authenticity to his role here. Bennett does a nice job as the callous Kitty. I can’t decide if her name goes along with Duryea’s favorite expression in the movie “For cat’s sake!” but it’s obvious why it caught my attention, isn’t it? But it’s tough to buy her as a femme fatale in this role. Bennett exudes elegance and an upper-class air. Kitty is supposed to be a rough street urchin type. It always seems off, except when the art critics and snobs readily buy her as the secret genius painter. Bennett always comes off as elite and classy somehow… maybe it’s because my formative years of seeing her as the matron on TV’s Dark Shadows has colored my view, dunno. But a Gene Tierney or Ava Gardner would seem more at home in a role like this, both in terms of street-level sexiness and in how well they could both go from playing alluring to totally amoral and evil on a dime.

But good for Lang for finding a clever way of exorcising his frustrations over the ending forced upon him in Woman In The Window. Even as depressing as the ending of Scarlet Street is, it’s pretty impressive for 1940s Hollywood to have gone there. And not surprising, really, that it was Lang, considering the man helped to invent the crime noir genre back in Germany before fleeing the Nazis and arriving in Hollywood.

The man knew dark.

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