Walter Wanger was a successful independent producer who in the 1940's was married to actress Joan Bennett. Bennett was in several Wanger productions from the the late 30's to 1940, when the pair married and the actress signed a non-exclusive contract with 20th Century-Fox studios. One of her first films under her Fox contract was Man Hunt (1941), an anti-Nazi yarn directed by German director Fritz Lang. Bennett, always a popular actress and when given the opportunity, one able to rise to the occasion in a challenging role, didn't have the acting credentials of many of her peers (though she came from a respected family of actors). However, under Lang's direction she blossomed and three years after Man Hunt she and Lang re-teamed to make The Woman in the Window, a sophisticated and stylish film noir co-starring Edward G. Robinson.
In early 1945, Wanger formed his own production company with Bennett and Lang as his partners in the venture. Named after Joan's eldest daughter, Diana Productions was created as an artistic outlet for Lang to direct and Bennett to star while Wanger handled the financial end. The films made under the Diana moniker would be released through Universal Studios. Thanks to her previous work with Lang, Joan Bennett was being taken much more seriously as an actress and her reputation as a sultry femme fatale was being established. This period was a high point for Joan, as her contract with Fox had just ended and she was an independent artist with part ownership in a production company developing films for her to star in.
As the company's premiere project, a remake of the French film La Chienne (1931) - The Bitch - was chosen. Directed by Jean Renoir, La Chienne was a dark story of a prostitute and her pimp taking advantage of a middle aged milquetoast. The new version was titled Scarlet Street and it was the perfect choice to showcase Bennett's new femme fatale image and a classic example of film noir, a genre of film growing in popularity. The roots of film noir are found in brooding crime dramas of the 1930's. They developed in the 1940's as stylized suspense thrillers, dark and dangerous, depicting society's underbelly and highlighted with murder and sex. Scarlet Street had all of the above with Fritz Lang's meticulous direction to boot.
The Woman in the Window had been a hit, so the films male stars, Edward G. Robinson and Dan Duryea, joined forces with Bennett and Lang (pictured above on the set) again in Scarlet Street. The story revolves around the relationship between Christopher "Chris" Cross (Robinson) and Katherine "Kitty" March (Bennett). Chris is a meek cashier, married to a shrill harridan out of loneliness, whose only solace is painting pictures every Sunday (an act his shrewish wife only allows him to do in the bathroom of their small New York flat). On his way home one night in Greenwich Village, he rescues Kitty from an attacker, who, unbeknownst to Chris, is actually her boyfriend/pimp, a scuzball named Johnny Prince. After a late night drink and a little conversation, Chris takes Kitty for an actress instead of the tramp she is and becomes enchanted with her. She, in turn, mistakenly thinks Chris is a wealthy artist. At Johnny's prompting, Kitty tries to bilk her innocent admirer out of money he doesn't have. Believing the harlot loves him and afraid of losing her, Chris embezzles from his boss to keep her in the style to which she has become accustomed. Deceit, betrayal and greed only lead to tragedy for all involved.
Like Joan Bennett, Edward G. Robinson's career was also in full swing, having completed The Woman in the Window and another classic film noir, Double Indemnity the previous year. Christopher Cross was a variation on his Woman in the Window character, a married middle aged innocent who becomes entangled in a web of intrigue and murder because of a beautiful brunette of questionable character (also played by Bennett). Along with The Whole Town's Talking (1935), it was a great example of Robinson's acting range, being on the opposite end of the spectrum from the tough guy gangster roles that made him famous. Dan Duryea also reprised a similar role to his Window character. His Johnny Prince is wiry weasel of a brute who likes to knock his "girlfriend" around and with strong hints of sado-masicism, Bennett, as the girl, seems to be drawn to him all the more for it. To pass the board of film censors, the relationship between Bennett and Duryea's characters as prostitute and pimp was watered down as much as possible while still getting the point across.
Rumor has it that Bennett and Fritz Lang were lovers during this period. With the actress married to the films producer and the business partnership of the trio taken into account, it made form an odd venture. Still a highly successful one for all involved, particularly Joan Bennett. In Scarlet Street, she gives a solid performance, one of the best of her career. Kitty March is arguably the definitive role of the brunette portion of her long Hollywood tenure. *
*For more on how hair color played a role in Joan Bennett's career, read Joan Bennett: Do BLONDES Have More Fun?