Fritz Lang, 1945
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea
A retail cashier, Christopher Cross, intervenes one night when a beautiful woman is being attacked. She introduces herself as Kitty, and though Cross is married, begins to fall for her. She believes he is a wealthy artist, though he is only an amateur painter who makes little money and is constantly brow-beaten by his wife. Her boyfriend, Johnny, encourages her to pursue Chris, in the hope they can get some money out of him. To please her, Chris begins stealing money and puts Kitty up in a penthouse apartment, which doubles as his painting studio. Johnny steals some paintings and begins selling them under Kitty’s name. When they become successful, Chris isn’t angry and is delighted to learn that people like his paintings after all. Unfortunately, he thinks that he will soon be able to marry Kitty, not realizing that she is just using him and is desperately in love with Johnny…
Based on Georges de La Fouchardière’s novel La Chienne and Jean Renoir’s film adaptation of the same name from 1931, this is a nastier companion piece to Lang’s previous film noir, fantasy-driven The Woman in the Window. Stars Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea more or less reprise their roles — the gullible, middle-class dope, the beautiful but duplicitous femme fatale, and the manipulative criminal and con artist — except more exaggerated, meaner, and more unlikable. This incredibly bleak film is full of unlikable characters and revolves around a web of deceit, betrayal, and murder. Lang uses film noir to examine the dividing lines between art, performance, illusion, and reality. Nearly every character believes the others are something he or she is not and no one depicts themselves honestly. Kitty lies to Chris and pretends she loves him; Johnny lies to Kitty and pretends he loves her; Chris pretends to be a great artist and a wealthy man; and so on. Worse, each character seems to take a delight in this deception.
Every romantic relationship portrayed on screen is abusive; Chris’s wife constantly verbally berates him, Johnny physically abuses Kitty, and even Chris’s upstanding boss is having an affair and cheating on his wife. Chris’s desperation — and later his explosive rage — is sickening. While he’s a sympathetic character early on, it’s revealed that he only married his wife to stave off loneliness. He has never seen her — or any other woman — naked, implying that he’s a virgin. He steals from her and from his boss. He hates his wife, is fully prepare to have an affair with Kitty, lies, steals increasing amounts of money, and is ultimately driven to murder. He also commits perjury so that Johnny will be tried, found guilty, and executed. Perhaps the worst part is that Cross is not driven to insanity by his guilt; he’s driven insane because he was never able to possess Kitty and Johnny was.
Chris is enthusiastically surrounded by domineering women who promise or imply sex, but never deliver. His marriage has never been consummated and it seems that his wife browbeat him into marriage. Her chief pleasures involve complaining about Chris, listening to radio programs, mourning her dead husband, and complaining about Chris. Her husband’s unexpected return from death is implausible and is the film’s most frustrating moment, as this could have led towards a different sort of conclusion, but goes nowhere. It serves two plot purposes: the first is that the heroic, police detective husband is revealed not be so heroic after all. He “drowned” robbing a woman who had committed suicide and was on the run due to embezzlement. The second reason is that it allows Chris to legally pursue Kitty and push the issue of marriage.
A sense of repulsive sexuality flows through the film, culminating in a scene where Kitty demands that Chris paint her toenails. Lang makes the most of Joan Bennett’s spectacular legs, which are depicted frequently throughout the film. Johnny even nicknames her “lazy legs.” Her legs become a symbol of her wanton sexually, her promiscuity, laziness, and refusal to subscribe to a middle-class lifestyle. Kitty seems to be a prostitute, though this is implied, not directly stated because of the Production Code. Johnny certainly acts more like a pimp, and beats and abuses her, as well as takes her money and possessions.
The film was banned in several places after its release, due to its flagrant sexuality, grim plot, and unpleasant characters. It’s one of Lang’s best noir efforts and comes highly recommended. There’s a remastered DVD, though hopefully — I’m starting to sound like a broken record — someone will release a Blu-ray box set of Lang’s American films noir.