“The House Across the Bay,” a 1940 film directed by Archie Mayo, sports a pretty good cast, including Joan Bennett, George Raft, Lloyd Nolan, Walter Pidgeon and Gladys George. It also gives us some scenes from the waterfront in San Francisco, and a couple of nightclub tunes sung by Joan Bennett. For a movie with a plot about lightweight gangsters, it’s entertaining enough thanks to Bennett’s performance as a woman whose loyalty to a shady operator (Raft) both sustains and damages him beyond repair.
Bennett plays chorus girl Brenda, who coughs during the headliner’s performance and incurs her wrath. The vindictive headliner reports Brenda to gangster Steve, who demands that she present herself to him. Of course, Steve can’t resist the beautiful and sexy Brenda as played by Bennett and instantly falls for her. In a brief amount of time, Steve proposes to her and the couple begin a happy life. But then Steve’s business activities cause some of his thug enemies to put a hit on him; shots narrowly miss him, but Steve remains cocky and unconcerned about the danger.
Brenda then thinks up a plan that turns the whole movie around. She figures that if the IRS gets Steve for tax evasion, he’ll do a year’s time. Jail time will help save Steve’s life, so she does her best to frame him for tax crimes. Unfortunately, Steve’s crooked lawyer Slant (Nolan) has other plans and provides the feds with a much more damaging case. The verdict stings both Brenda and Steve: 10 years in Alcatraz Prison. The despondent Brenda takes an apartment in San Francisco across the San Francisco Bay from the prison, and Slant keeps tabs on her while she waits out the painful years until Steve’s release.
The movie manages to be neither very gritty or violent, and neither Steve or Slant appear very menacing. Slant’s motivation for his double-crossing turns out to be his love for Brenda. His efforts become complicated when handsome aviation designer Tim (Pidgeon) arrives suddenly in a meet-cute at a drug store. Tim aggressively pursues Brenda, but she won’t tell him why she can’t devote herself to him. Bennett can play powerful temptresses, but her character in this film must work hard to tone down her appeal because of her devotion to poor Steve.
Thankfully, the film concentrates on Brenda’s story and doesn’t spend much time in Alcatraz Prison, except for obligatory scenes of Brenda talking to Steve with a glass window between them on visiting day. The ending gives Steve an opportunity to take a definite step in determining his own fate, but perhaps the movie wraps up too nicely for Brenda. After all her misgivings about her mistakes, it seems all too easy for her to move on with her life.