Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson), a married, middle-aged psychology professor whose wife and children are away for the summer, falls in lust with a provocative portrait of a young woman. One evening the portrait's model, a budding Femme Fatale named Alice Reed (Joan Bennett), catches him ogling it and invites him up to her apartment. The two are interrupted by her boyfriend, who tries to strangle Richard, and Richard kills him in self defense. Now the two must try to quietly dispose of the body to avoid scandal, but are hampered by their lack of trust for each other. Complications include Richard's friend Frank (Raymond Massey), a district attorney who investigates the man's disappearance, and a crooked ex-cop (Dan Duryea) scheming to blackmail them both.
Not to be confused with the 2021 film of the same name.
This movie contains examples of:
- All Just a Dream: A textbook version. The whole plot is a dream of Richard's. Yes, even the many scenes he's not in. This ending was controversial at the time and has remained so ever since. Many sources say that Lang filmed this ending to conform to The Hays Code, but Lang insisted that the ending was his idea. It's worth noting that the Hays Code really wouldn't have required such an ending, as Richard punishes himself. When Lang made Scarlet Street the next year as a Spiritual Successor to this film, he didn't allow such an escape for Robinson's character.
- Blackmail: Unbeknownst to the conspirators, the murdered man had a bodyguard...an ex-cop who was fired for blackmailing.
- Body Wipe: How the All Just a Dream ending is done. Richard falls asleep on a chair, the camera zooms in for a tight closeup of his face, then the camera zooms out to show him in a completely different place.
- But You Were There, and You, and You: After waking up, Richard recognizes two employees from the club as main characters from his dream: Claude Mazard was Charlie, the club's hat check man; and Heidt the blackmailer was Tim, the club's doorman.
- The Cameo: That's George "Spanky" McFarland from The Little Rascals as the Boy Scout in the newsreel who talks about finding the body.
- Character Focus: The first two-thirds or so of the film are clearly focused on Richard, but after Alice renters the story just as much if not more of the rest of the screentime focuses on her perspective, including long stretches where Richard is not onscreen at all and even a couple where he is but Alice is still the character whose perspective we are following. What makes this odd is that the ending of film reveals all of this to have been Richard's dream and 'Alice' never existed at all.
- Chiaroscuro: When Richard is driving with Mazard's body in the back of his car, only the face of the dead man is lit, and everything else is dark.
- Destroy the Evidence: Richard spends most of the movie trying to cover his tracks. He tries to put Mazard's body where no one will find it, and he burns Mazard's hat in the fireplace.
- Driven to Suicide: Richard, when he thinks he's about to be caught.
- "Fawlty Towers" Plot: A mostly dramatic example, however still with certain elements of Black Comedy, most notably in the scene where Richard has to explain how his cut, supposedly from a tin can, is clearly infected with poison ivy.
- Femme Fatale: Alice, the title character.
- Film Noir
- I Never Said It Was Poison: Richard makes this error repeatedly when discussing the case.
- Love Before First Sight: Apparently, this is how Alice likes to meet men. She lurks near where her portrait is visible through a shop window, and listens for the Wolf Whistle indicating attraction.
- The Mistress: Alice is the kept woman of a man she knows as "Howard", although that isn't his real name.
- Poisoned Chalice Switcheroo: Done in full view of the poisoner.
- Practical Effects: For the scene where Richard wakes up, Lang did not use any dissolve or other kind of cut. Instead, this was done by focusing in tightly on Edward G. Robinson's face, while the tearaway clothes he was wearing were pulled off and the set behind him was changed, all in a matter of seconds.
- Pygmalion Plot: The general concept is alluded to. As Richard stares at the portrait, suddenly the real woman appears, reflected in the window, as though the painting had come alive.
- Sarcastic Confession: Richard, repeatedly.
- Smoky Gentlemen's Club: Richard and his buddies like to hang out in one.
- Tampering with Food and Drink: Alice puts poison in Heidt's drink, but he catches on to her idea and doesn't drink it.
- Thunder = Downpour: Hear thunder, cue immediate downpour outside Alice's apartment building.
- A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: The adultery and the killing are regrettable, but it's the suicide that makes it a true tragedy; if Richard had just waited a little longer, he would have discovered it to be unnecessary, as Heidt is killed in a shootout, and the police afterwards believe that Heidt is Mazard's murderer. Of course, everything ends up being moot anyway with the reveal that it's All Just a Dream.
- We Are Not Going Through That Again: After Richard awakens in his chair at his club and realizes the entire adventure was a dream, he steps out on the street in front of the painting, when a woman asks him for a light in the same way Alice did in his dream. Having just gone through a hell of an ordeal in his dream for socializing with a woman like that, he adamantly refuses and runs down the street.