True Hollywood Noir probes legendary Tinseltown mysteries

True Hollywood NoirLana Turner was the quintessential film noir blonde,” says author Dina Di Mambro in her new book, True Hollywood Noir: Filmland Mysteries and Murders, pointing to Turner’s standout part as Cora in “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”

The actress’s real life was no less fascinating than any of the roles she portrayed on the screen, says Di Mambro, setting up the chapter on Turner and the 1958 fatal stabbing of her boyfriend Johnny Stompanato.

A coroner’s inquest jury found the act (by Turner’s teenage daughter Cheryl Crane) to be justifiable homicide but there has long been speculation that Turner herself did the deed. In probing that theory, film historian and entertainment writer Di Mambro offers “the story you haven’t heard.”

Author Dina Di Mambro

Author Dina Di Mambro

It’s one of 12 stories Di Mambro explores in her book; the others are: William Desmond Taylor, Thomas H. Ince, Jean Harlow, Thelma Todd, Joan Bennett (and the shooting of Jennings Lang), George Reeves, Bob Crane, Gig Young, Natalie Wood, Robert Blake and death of his wife Bonnie Lee Bakley). The finale, as it were, is a lengthy chapter on gangster Mickey Cohen.

Says Di Mambro in the book: “The West Coast mob, city corruption and Hollywood mysteries were often intertwined. This is a common thread through much of this book. … Many of the plots of the noir films were taken from actual happenings in the underworld.”

Di Mambro presents her facts in a straightforward, no-nonsense style, leaving the reader to decide which theory is most likely. Replete with vintage photos, the book clocks in at 230 pages, making it a pretty fast read cover to cover. It’s also a great reference volume if you prefer to dip in one grisly cold case at a time.

We at FNB especially like the fact that Di Mambro includes in her acknowledgements her “muse,” meaning her cat Sunny, who supervised the writing process. Nothing like a regal kitty to tap a true-crime scribe vibe.

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The Noir File: French style from Jean Gabin in ‘Grisbi’

By Michael Wilmington and Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on cable TV. All movies below are from the schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard). Lots of Robert Mitchum and Gloria Grahame this week!

PICK OF THE WEEK

Legendary, stylish Jean Gabin plays a legendary, stylish gangster named Max le Menteur.

Touchez pas au Grisbi” (1954, Jacques Becker). Friday, Nov. 30, 11:15 p.m. (8:15 p.m.): Film noir is a French term and the masters of the form include major French filmmakers as well as Americans. One of those masters is New Wave favorite Jacques Becker (“Casque d’Or“). And Becker’s noir masterpiece is “Touchez pas au Grisbi.” The film takes a wonderfully atmospheric and psychologically acute look at the Parisian underworld: at a legendary, stylish old gangster named Max le Menteur (played by the legendary, stylish Jean Gabin), at the spoils of Max’s last big job and at the unbreakable ties of friendship that entrap him. Adapted by Becker and Albert Simonin from Simonin’s novel, with two later noir mainstays in small roles: Jeanne Moreau and Lino Ventura. The title translates as “Don’t Touch the Loot.” (In French, with subtitles.)

Monday, Nov. 26

7 a.m. (4 a.m.): “The Narrow Margin” (1952, Richard Fleischer).

6:30 p.m. (3:30 p.m.): “The Steel Trap” (1952, Andrew L. Stone). In a neat twist from writer-director Stone, Joseph Cotten plays a bank employee/embezzler, desperately trying to return the loot he filched. With Teresa Wright. A favorite of noir expert Foster Hirsch.

Tuesday, Nov. 27

6 p.m. (3 p.m.): “Brighton Rock” (1947, John Boulting). From Graham Greene’s classic novel about a babyfaced killer on Brighton beach named Pinkie (Richard Attenborough), smartly co-scripted by Greene.

2:30 a.m. (11:30 p.m.): “The Unsuspected” (1947, Michael Curtiz). Lesser-known but strong noir about a radio true crime show, whose producer (Claude Rains) becomes a murderer. With Joan Caulfield, Constance Bennett, Hurd Hatfield and Audrey Totter.

4:30 a.m. (1:30 a.m.): “The Woman on the Beach” (1947, Jean Renoir). Renoir’s U.S. noir: A disturbed guy (Bob Ryan) gets involved with a blind painter (Charles Bickford) and his sexy wife (Joan Bennett).

Wednesday, Nov. 28

7:15 a.m. (4:15 a.m.): “Crossfire” (1947, Edward Dmytryk). The famous postwar thriller about an anti-Semitic murder, co-starring Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Robert Young and Gloria Grahame.

1:15 p.m. (10:15 a.m.): “Macao” (1952, Josef von Sternberg & Nicholas Ray). Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell strike sultry sparks in this exotic thriller from Howard Hughes’ RKO. Directed by Josef Von Sternberg, with uncredited reshooting by Nick Ray. Co-starring Gloria Grahame, William Bendix and Thomas Gomez.

2:45 p.m. (11:45 a.m.): “The Big Heat” (1953, Fritz Lang).

Friday, Nov. 30

12:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m.): “White Heat” (1949, Raoul Walsh).

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “The Locket” (1946, John Brahm). Flashbacks within flashbacks adorn this stylish psychological noir about a troubled seductress (Laraine Day). With Robert Mitchum and Brian Aherne.

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Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Besides film, one of my great loves is food and in particular French food. (Not that I don’t love the classics, turkey, dressing, pumpkin pie & the rest.) For the feasting holiday, I’m sharing these gorgeous pictures from my treasured friend of many years and beyond-gracious hostess, Veronique Tourneux. Veronique lives in Paris – she shot these on a recent trip to Toulouse.

If, after stuffing, you are inclined to read some movie reviews, I refer you to my Thanksgiving special from last year where I gave thanks for the film noir talents of Fritz Lang, Joan Bennett, Edward G. Robinson and Dan Duryea in “The Woman in the Window” and “Scarlet Street.”

For the rest of the weekend, I am following the lead of Bennett’s character in “Scarlet Street” a.k.a. Lazy Legs and letting the dishes pile up in the sink while I lounge around eating bonbons.

Some of the local specialties, not yet all tested.

Foie gras is just one of the goodies at the covered market.

Terrific those cèpes, especially with a magret de canard and a Cahors red wine.

The open-air market and its seasonal products.

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Film noir Friday on TCM kicks off a new feature on FNB

THE NOIR FILE
By Mike Wilmington

A noir-lover’s schedule of film noirs on cable TV. First up: Friday, June 29, an all-noir day on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). Times: Eastern Standard and Pacific Standard.

Friday, June 29
6 a.m. (3 a.m.): “The Letter” (William Wyler, 1940) Bette Davis, in her Bad Bette mode, strings along Herbert Marshall and James Stephenson (but not Gale Sondergaard) in the ultimate movie version of W. Somerset Maugham’s dark colonial tale of adultery, murder and a revealing letter. Like most of Maugham’s stories, this one was based on fact. Script by Howard Koch.

Bogart and Ida Lupino play outlaw lovers in “High Sierra.”

7:45 a.m. (4:45 a.m.): “High Sierra” (Raoul Walsh, 1941) “The ‘Gotterdammerung’ of the gangster movie,” according to Andrew Sarris. Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino (both great) as outlaw lovers in Walsh’s classic noir from the W. R. Burnett novel. Script by Burnett and John Huston; with Arthur Kennedy, Cornel Wilde, Barton MacLane, Joan Leslie, Henry Hull and Henry Travers. If you’ve never seen this one, don’t miss it: the last shot is a killer.

9:30 a.m. (6:30 a.m.): “The Fallen Sparrow” (Richard Wallace, 1943) John Garfield, Maureen O’Hara and Walter Slezak in an anti-Fascist thriller, with a Spanish Civil War backdrop. From the novel by Dorothy B. Hughes (“In a Lonely Place”).

11:15 a.m. (8:15 a.m.): “Johnny Angel” (Edwin L. Marin, 1946) Night-life murder mystery with George Raft, Claire Trevor, Signe Hasso and Hoagy Carmichael. Too plain visually, but a nice script by Steve Fisher and Frank Gruber.

John Garfield, Hume Cronyn and Lana Turner share a tense moment in “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” directed by Tay Garnett.

12:45 p.m. (9:45 a.m.): “Deception” (Irving Rapper, 1946) Bette Davis, Claude Rains and Paul Henreid in a stormy classical music triangle. Script by John Collier (“Evening Primrose”), from Louis Verneuil’s play.

2:45 p.m. (11:45 a.m.): “The Postman Always Rings Twice” (Tay Garnett, 1946) John Garfield and Lana Turner make the screen blaze as the bloody, adulterous lovers in this hot-as-hell, cold-as-ice movie of the steamy James M. Cain classic noir sex-and-murder thriller. With Hume Cronyn, Cecil Kellaway and Leon Ames. Script by Niven Busch.

4:45 p.m. (1:45 p.m.): “Hollow Triumph” (aka “The Scar”) (Steve Sekely, 1948) Crime and psychology and doubles and scars, with two Paul Henreids, Joan Bennett and Eduard Franz. Script by first-rate Brooklyn novelist Daniel Fuchs (“Low Company”).

Ava Gardner tempts Charles Laughton in “The Bribe.”

6:15 p.m. (3:15 p.m.): “The Bribe” (Robert Z. Leonard, 1949) Ace femme fatale Ava Gardner tempts Robert Taylor and Charles Laughton. Script by Marguerite Roberts (“True Grit”), from a Frederick Nebel story.

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “Woman in Hiding” (Michael Gordon, 1950) Marital tension with Ida Lupino, real-life hubby Howard Duff (as the wry love interest) and bad movie hubby Stephen McNally (the villain). Script by Oscar Saul (“The Helen Morgan Story”).

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “Julie” (Andrew L. Stone, 1956) Doris Day is terrorized by hubby Louis Jourdan. With Barry Sullivan and Frank Lovejoy. Stone scripted.

12 a.m. (9 p.m.): “The Two Mrs. Carrolls” (Peter Godfrey, 1947) Humphrey Bogart, in Bad Bogie mode, has marriage problems with Barbara Stanwyck and Alexis Smith. Nigel Bruce co-stars; Thomas Job scripted.

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‘Dark Shadows’ fam is all dressed up with nowhere to go

Dark Shadows/2012/Warner Bros. Pictures, Tim Burton Productions/113 min.

A vampire may be able to live on blood alone, but few movies can exist on camp alone. As much as I was hoping to enjoy Tim Burton’s much hyped and highly anticipated “Dark Shadows,” I found it disappointing.

On the plus side, Dark Shadows” looks slick and gorgeous – the art direction, cinematography, set decoration and special effects are spot on. As always, charismatic Johnny Depp is fun to watch. The character he inhabits here is Barnabas Collins, born in Liverpool in the mid 1700s. The Collins family acquires wealth and power not to mention an imposing mansion in their namesake city of Collinsport, Maine.

When Barnabas grows up, he crosses the wrong woman. Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) is a witch, who turns Barnabas into a vampire and buries him alive. Two centuries later, Barnabas is freed from his tomb and walks into a world of hippies, macramé and mini-skirts. This is 1972. It’s hard to be lord of the manor, though, when the manor is falling apart and Angelique wants to reignite their dangerous romance.

The rest of the ragtag Collins clan includes Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), Carolyn Stoddard (Chloë Grace Moretz), Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller), David Collins (Gulliver McGrath), live-in psychiatrist Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) and groundskeeper/butler Willie Loomis (Jackie Earle Haley). Bella Heathcote plays the newly recruited governess, Victoria Winters, and Barnabas’ true love from the past Josette DuPres.

But somehow these characters never really get off the ground nor do they jell as a “strange family.” This random crew, despite their fetching costumes and makeup, seems purely the result of stunt-casting. They aren’t given much to do besides exchange arch looks (Moretz does some good lip curls) and roll their eyes at Barnabas.

There’s minimal effort to develop these characters; for example, the attempt to delve into Victoria’s past (she was institutionalized as a child) feels supremely clumsy. And there’s little attention paid to why any of this is happening other than you know that the movie itself is a remake of “Dark Shadows,” a popular daytime TV soap opera that ran from 1966-71.

Joan Bennett and Jonathan Frid starred in the daytime TV soap opera, which ran from 1966-71.

The bland and feeble script from Seth Grahame-Smith creaks along with Barnabas remarking on child-birthing hips and unshaven young people, ie hippies. To liven things up, the Collinses throw a ball and hire Alice Cooper to perform. Barnabas declares that Alice is the most unattractive woman he’s ever seen. Were these jokes layered into an actual story, they would be fun but, by the time Cooper appears, the anachronistic humor is wearing pretty thin.

There is supposed to be a love triangle between Barnabas, Angelique, the icy-blonde bad girl and wide-eyed good girl Victoria. Green does an excellent turn as the powerful, alluring femme fatale. But there’s no tension – Barnabas seems strangely detached from both of them – and Angelique’s hell-hath-no-fury antics grow as tedious as the ’70s jokes.

I wasn’t familiar with the TV series (created by Dan Curtis, it starred Jonathan Frid as Barnabas and film-noir great Joan Bennett as Elizabeth), but one of its strengths was fusing low-key campiness and spooky-goth atmosphere. Burton’s anemic version sorely lacks on the eerie/creepy/scary front.

Though Depp is at his best here, to watch and truly enjoy him for almost two hours would require that he not be completely covered up in top coat and breeches.

“Dark Shadows” opens today nationwide.

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Jean Gillie in ‘Decoy’ is classic noir’s hardest, greediest and most daring femme fatale

Decoy/1946/Monogram Pictures/76 min.

Jean Gillie as Margot is tougher than any American femme fatale of the era.

Talk about raw deals. The hardest, greediest, most daring femme fatale in all of classic film noir – England’s Jean Gillie in “Decoy” – is not widely known today, beyond a fervent cult following.

But rest easy, fatale fans, I am joining the charge to get the word out on Ms. Gillie. I may even become motivated to get off my famously comfy sofa and take to the streets to spread the word. Though that seems a tad drastic, especially since I’ve just achieved the perfect arrangement for my pillows …

Well, let me start by telling you about it. Made in 1946 by director Jack Bernhard, who also directed “Blonde Ice,” this is another hard-core noir story with a totally heartless seductress, a wildly improbable plot and a grimly pessimistic take on human nature.

First, the dame: Dainty, devious and always dressed to a T, Margot Shelby (Gillie) wants the $400,000 that her jailed boyfriend, an old codger named Frank (Robert Armstrong of “King Kong”), has hidden in a buried suitcase. But Frank is awaiting execution and he’s squirreled away the map to the treasure.

Gangster Jim (Edward Norris), Margot and prison doctor Lloyd (Herbert Rudley) band together to find the $400,000 in cash that Frank has buried.

Hmm, that’s a drag. What to do? Margot figures, after he gets the lethal gas, my pals and I will just bring him back to life. Then, he can lead us to the cash. Margot’s helpers are gangster Jim Vincent (Edward Norris) and prison doctor Lloyd Craig (Herbert Rudley), both of whom are crazy about her. So is nosy police sergeant Joe Portugal (Sheldon Leonard) or Jo-Jo as Margot calls him when she’s flirting with him.

Like any good ringleader, Margot keeps abreast of all kinds of news, and she learns about a chemical called methylene blue, which can be used as an antidote to gas poisoning. So, all they have to do is grab Frank after the execution, pop another body in the hearse and hightail it to the doctor.

Selling Jim, a fully oozing sleaze-atron, on her absurd plan is easy. Earnest and upright Dr. Lloyd is a bit trickier. “I had to smash that shield of ideals,” says Margot. Helping people, healing the sick and making the world a better place? Puhleeze. As she points out, how could they possibly be happy on Lloyd’s paltry $75/week salary when one bottle of Margot’s fave perfume costs $75?

By the time Margot is digging for dollars under the moonlight, her motley gang has dwindled to one, ie Margot. Nothing makes Margot laugh more than bumping somebody off. Her gleeful chortling punctuates the action throughout, but it’s most memorable as a defiant final gesture toward Jo-Jo the cop. She may get what’s coming to her but she also gets the last laugh. Sorry? Penitent? Remorseful? Not a chance!

As the take-no-prisoners Margot, Jean Gillie is amazing to watch – tougher than Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Greer, Joan Bennett or even snarling Ann Savage in “Detour.” In neo noir, her closest equivalent is diabolical Linda Fiorentino in “The Last Seduction.”

“There are very few femmes fatales who don’t have a little time for love and seduction, and she really doesn’t,” says critic Molly Haskell in the Warner Bros. DVD featurette. “Not to any man who comes across her path is she loyal. The only thing she wants is the money.”

Writer/producer Stanley Rubin

In the DVD commentary, historian Glenn Erickson and writer Stanley Rubin note that as an English actress, Gillie was new to Hollywood and didn’t have to worry that by being a total bitch she would lose favor with her fan base. So, she’s a total bitch and then some. (Rubin conceived the “Decoy” story; Ned Young wrote the script.)

Gillie’s is the standout performance, but the guys certainly hold their own, especially Sheldon Leonard as the conflicted cop. (Leonard also played Nick the bartender in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”) I love the part in “Decoy” when Leonard’s Jo-Jo sits on a bar stool munching a snack – not a burger or fries, but a hard-boiled egg. Mmm, what could be better than a beer and a yolk? Another great moment is when he bums a “stay-awake” pill  from Dr. Lloyd.

Like most B-movies, “Decoy” was cheap and churned out quickly, yet director and co-producer Jack Bernhard’s artistic style distinguishes this film from run-of-the-mill, mediocre B-fare. “Decoy” was out of commission for several decades after its release; a screening at the American Cinematheque about 10 years ago earned fresh appreciation for the film and director.

Bernhard discovered Gillie in England while he was serving in World War Two. They married, made this film and split up. Sadly, Gillie died of pneumonia in 1949, at age 33. Bernhard disappeared from the Hollywood scene shortly after and little is known about the rest of his life.

So, have I convinced you – are you going to give Jean Gillie a chance? If I haven’t, guess I’ll have to pry myself off the sofa and hit the pavement. Just as soon as I finish my nap and book my massage.

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Film noir bounty: Giving thanks for Fritz Lang, Joan Bennett, Edward G. Robinson and Dan Duryea

Joan Bennett

Hope you had a portion-control-be-damned! Thanksgiving. Feel like plopping onto the sofa for a noir double-feature? Treat yourself to a cinematic cornucopia – two films from director Fritz Lang with the same outstanding cast: Joan Bennett, Edward G. Robinson and Dan Duryea. “The Woman in the Window” from 1944 has Bennett juggling men, donning elegant frocks and downing cocktails.

Even darker is 1945’s “Scarlet Street,” another noir love triangle, in which Bennett’s character, nicknamed Lazy Legs because she’s just not digging the whole 9 to 5 thing, decides that blackmail might not be as bad as it seems.

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‘The Woman in the Window’ quick hit

The Woman in the Window/1944/Christie Corp./99 min.

The characters played by Joan Bennett, Edward G. Robinson and Dan Duryea, as directed by Fritz Lang, perfectly exemplify noir themes of fate, moral bankruptcy and sexual perversity. Robinson’s Professor Richard Wanley meets the beautiful Alice Reed (Bennett) by chance. He ends up committing a crime and they try to put it behind them. Making sure they can’t is a lowlife named Heidt (Duryea). Noir decadence at its finest.

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A little bromance, a beautiful woman, a battle with Fate

The Woman in the Window/1944/Christie Corp./99 min.

When you least expect your life to unravel is exactly when your life will unravel, at least in a Fritz Lang film. Take “The Woman in the Window” from 1944. Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) lives a cozy bourgeois life – he gives lectures on Freud by day, enjoys after-dinner port and cigars by night. But by the end of this night, Richard will be covering up a murder.

Sipping and smoking with him at their Manhattan men’s club are his friends, District Attorney Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) and Dr. Michael Barkstane (Edmund Breon), who’s fond of barking “Great Scott!”

Richard leaves the club after their booze-fueled yack-fest and lingers at the window of the art gallery next door. While he gazes at the creamy-skinned, raven-haired lady peering out from the canvas, another creamy-skinned, raven-haired lady materializes – it’s the model, a woman named Alice Reed (Joan Bennett).

Alice (Joan Bennett) is the woman in the painting Richard (Edward G. Robinson) and his friends admire.

After chatting over drinks, she invites him back to her splendidly appointed place. Just as they’re getting to know each other, her flashy peacock boyfriend Claude Mazard (Arthur Loft) barges in. Clearly, Alice and Claude haven’t had that “Are we seeing each other exclusively?” talk and violence erupts.

Claude’s rumored “disappearance” doesn’t fool people for long – the cops are digging for info, Richard’s pals Frank and Michael chatter about the case endlessly, and a sleazy associate of Mazard’s named Heidt (Dan Duryea) sees a plum opportunity for blackmail.

Alice and Richard are randomly bound together.

Sharply written and brilliantly acted, “The Woman in the Window” proved a box-office hit. Nunnally Johnson produced the movie and wrote the script from the J.H. Wallis novel “Once Off Guard.” The movie’s original score, a group effort led by Arthur Lange and Hugo Friedhofer, received an Oscar nom.

Vienna-born Lang infuses the film with fatalism, despite its upbeat ending. “I always made films about characters who struggled and fought against the circumstances and traps in which they found themselves,” he said.

And, as usual, Lang pulls out all the visual stops, suggesting powerlessness, alienation and doom. A signature noir shot is Claude entering the shadowy lobby of Alice’s apartment building, against the backdrop of a lonely, rainy nightscape pierced by the glare of a neon clock. Later his body will be draped in more shadows, in the back seat of Richard’s car.

Alice sweet-talks Heidt (Dan Duryea).

Inside Alice’s pristine white apartment, mirrors splice and distort images, contributing to a fractured sense of reality. The effect may have helped inspire Orson Welles to create the fun-house mirrors sequence in 1948’s “Lady From Shanghai.”

Though he got typically great work from his actors, Lang also had a reputation for being difficult. But he clicked with Bennett. Maybe he appreciated the sacrifices she made for her art – a natural blonde, Bennett dyed her hair black. ;) She also had lots of drama offscreen – she married four times and endured a scandal after her third husband, producer Walter Wanger, shot her lover in the groin. (Her second husband was producer Gene Markey).

Lang and Bennett made four (almost five) films together: another famous noir, 1945’s “Scarlet Street” (which also starts Robinson and Duryea, and is definitely the darker of the two), “Man Hunt” 1941, and “Secret Beyond the Door” 1948. Bennett also starred in “Confirm or Deny” 1941, but director Archie Mayo was brought in to replace Lang.

Johnny Depp

Later in her career, Bennett portrayed Elizabeth Collins Stoddard in the ’60s TV series “Dark Shadows” and she appeared in the 1970 movie “House of Dark Shadows.” The Collinses will hit the big screen again next spring in a Tim Burton-Johnny Depp collaboration.

The mood of “The Woman in the Window” is pure Lang, and much of that mood comes from the actors. Duryea convincingly plays a slimy loser while, in reality, he was a standup guy. It’s a testament to his versatility that Robinson, though famous for his tough gangster roles, is completely at ease as the innocent, cultured professor caught in a film-noir web.

Best of all is Bennett, noir to the nines, spinning that web.

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‘Scarlet Street’ quick hit

Scarlet Street/1945/Fritz Lang Productions, Universal Pictures/103 min.

Joan Bennett, Edward G. Robinson and Dan Duryea regroup for more intrigue, manipulation and twisted love, having made “The Woman in the Window” with director Fritz Lang the year before. In this much darker flick, Christopher Cross (Robinson) is a bank employee who lets wannabe actress Kitty March (Bennett) think he’s a wealthy artist so she’ll give him the time of day. But that little fib is nothing compared with the con that her manager Johnny Prince (Duryea) has in mind. The sense of doom is almost palpable and you might wonder how Lang got this ending past the censors. Wry, stylish and very entertaining.

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