When Joan Bennett was still a blonde, she costarred with George Raft in a 1935 picture for Columbia called SHE COULDN’T TAKE IT. It was a modest hit, and they enjoyed working together. Five years later, they jumped at the chance to do another film, this time for Bennett’s husband, producer Walter Wanger.
When they teamed up again for Wanger’s THE HOUSE ACROSS THE BAY, they picked up right where they had left off. The opening scenes show Raft in control as the owner of a casino. But his cool is quickly shattered by a sassy dame, who’s making trouble in his joint. It’s the kind of trouble that only Bennett can play in the greatest Jean Harlow style. Soon she makes a play for him, and he makes a play for her. The dialogue crackles, and in no time at all, it turns into “I do.”
Of course, there are complications galore. He’s muscling out competitors, but his racket is under scrutiny by the feds. It all escalates, and in a dramatic turn of events, he’s arrested, found guilty of tax evasion and given ten years in the slammer. Keep in mind this is just the end of the first act, and we haven’t gotten to the house in the title yet, or the bay.
The bay is in San Francisco, and Bennett goes there to live while Raft serves out his sentence at Alcatraz. It’s not made clear if the house is hers on one side of the troubled waters that separate them, or the big house on the rock where he’s incarcerated. While they’re apart, she makes two friends– one is a tough cookie played by Gladys George, and the other a well-meaning man (Walter Pidgeon) who is the antithesis of Raft’s hoodlum character.
At this point, Raft recedes slightly into the background. A relationship, at first platonic, grows between Bennett and Pidgeon. The middle stretch of the film still retains the charm established in the first part. But we’re doing time like Raft waiting for the explosive finale. And what a finale it is. Obviously Raft has to feel betrayed by his wife (when in reality the traitor is a lawyer played by Lloyd Nolan). He busts out to try and reclaim everything he had before. Wanger and the director stage a dramatic sequence where Raft dodges bullets, swimming across the bay. He makes it to the shore and goes to a club where his wife is working. This is the first time the three main characters come together.
It’s clear that Raft is a doomed man, and he will not ever be able to have the kind of marriage he should have had all along. The cops are closing in; he flees and is shot and killed. The film’s dual structure (the two romances Bennett experiences) leave us with a woman broken in half. One half is a woman who lived, and the other half is a woman who still has yet to live.
THE HOUSE ACROSS THE BAY was directed by Archie Mayo. It can be streamed on Amazon Prime.