Steve Larwitt (George Raft) is a nightclub owner who has found love with a pretty performer at one of his clubs named Brenda (Joan Bennett).
Things are going smoothly for the couple for a while, until George takes misguided advice from his lawyer, Slant (Lloyd Nolan), and ends up in prison for ten years.
Even when separated by prison walls, the couple seems unbreakable. George is imprisoned at Alcatraz, so his loving wife moves to an apartment in the Bay area, where she can see the lights of Alcatraz from her window and can take a ferry out to visit him whenever possible.
As time passes, Brenda’s attitude shifts. She’s feeling antsy, tired of spending her life locked in a hypothetical waiting room as her husband serves his sentence. To distract herself, she begins spending time with Tim (Walter Pidgeon), a friendly stranger who works in aviation.
Archie Mayo directs 1940’s The House Across the Bay. The film’s screenplay was written by Kathryn Scola from an original story by Myles Connolly. According to IMDb, some of the film’s later scenes featuring Pidgeon and Bennett were shot by the great Alfred Hitchcock as a favor to producer Walter Wanger. The set of the film was full of tension, with both Raft and director Archie Mayo walking off set at different times, and Hitchcock’s help was needed when Mayo refused to return.
The House Across the Bay was a box office bomb in its time, losing over $100,000. As a result of the film’s failure, tensions brewed between Warner Bros. and leading man George Raft, who was in a long-term contract with them. They had loaned him out to make this film.
Despite its reputation as a failure and its on-set problems, I enjoyed this film quite a bit.
Steve Larwitt is, from the opening, established as a very influential man. When we meet him he’s hanging out in a gambling house where he’s obviously well-known, and we soon learn that he’s the owner.
The way that George Raft plays Steve is fantastic. Rather than focusing on the “hard-edged gangster” side of the character, Raft devotes himself to his Steve’s infatuation with and jealousy over Joan Bennett’s character of Brenda.
Raft isn’t actually given much to do in the film since his character is locked up for the majority of the story, but he makes the best of what he’s given and leaves a huge impact on the viewer. He does some really fantastic eye-acting in the film’s early scenes. As Frank Capra once advised Barbara Stanwyck, the eyes are the greatest tool in film acting… and George Raft certainly makes great use of them here.
All of this lovey-dovey eyework plays up the viewer’s sympathy with Steve even though he’s a man who has made many mistakes. As romantic drama takes the forefront later on in the film, the viewer is more likely to side with Steve than Brenda because Raft has already clued us in to the depth of Steve’s feelings for his lady.
Joan Bennett gives a solid performance as well. She gets to sing a couple of nice songs (one of which appears in a particularly adorable scene of Brenda and Steve serenading each other in the back of a taxi). Some of her dialogue, particularly in conversation with Lloyd Nolan’s snide lawyer character, seems contrived, but that is more the script’s fault than her own. Bennett doesn’t shine as much as Raft, but she leads the film just fine.
A stand-out supporting performance is given by Gladys George. She portrays Mary, a fellow “prison wife” who befriends Brenda. Mary is a spunky, sassy character. While she doesn’t play a very large part in the film’s action, George is a real delight to watch.
The House Across the Bay is a near-forgotten film that mixes romantic drama, crime drama and a bit of comedy into its 88-minute running time. The story can get kind of soapy and it loses some of its steam as it progresses, but it doesn’t do a bad job of holding the viewer’s attention. I would recommend it if for no other reason than to witness the magic of George Raft’s puppy-dog eyes. The score: 3.5/5
A word of warning: I watched this film on Netflix and unfortunately the quality of the print is pretty low — not to the point of being unwatchable, but it can be distracting at times. Proceed with caution if you’re prone to becoming severely distracted by wear-and-tear on films that aren’t well-preserved.