Lady of the Noir
James Quirk called Joan Bennett one of the most underrated actresses of the 1940s. Even Ms. Bennett seemed to take her fame with a grain of salt, citing only six films of which she genuinely felt proud. Nevertheless, Joan Bennett is an actress who gave us some of her finest and most interesting performances during Hollywood’s Golden Age. She spiced her blonde ingenue roles of the 1930s with sharp, feisty wit (Two for Tonight, Big Brown Eyes, The Wedding Present), although she could be sweetly petulant (Little Women) or vulnerable (Private Worlds) when the part demanded.
Her pictures as a brunette were even more interesting. Donning a dark wig in Trade Winds, Miss Bennett, to quote her own words, “smoldered her way across the South Seas.” She then proceeded to turn in stellar witty and dramatic performances, often deftly blending both, in films like The Man I Married, Confirm or Deny, and House Across the Bay. It’s a particular joy to see her kick Nazis in the shins.
Ms. Bennett also reigned as one of the Queens of Film Noir. Although she could play a deceptive, sexy, destructive siren with the best of them (Scarlet Street, Highway Dragnet), her noir heroines often gave a unique twist to the misogynist icon of the predatory female. Though a seductive figure to Edward G. Robinson’s Professor Wanely, Alice Reed in Woman in the Window is actually led into murder by him. Margot Macomber is not a stereotypical Hemingway castrating female, but a woman corrupted by playing the gender games required of her, though still heroic for refusing to hide behind them in the end. Celia of Secret Beyond the Door and Lucia Harper of Reckless Moment find themselves in the usual noir male role of confronting the tempting sexuality and lawlessness of the opposite sex.
Here are some of my favorite Joan Bennett sites:
Images: author’s collection