On December 13, 1951, Walter Wanger was a prominent movie producer married to Joan Bennett, a famous actress, whom he cast in two film noir dramas, Scarlet Street and The Reckless Moment. But that afternoon, in a violent moment that could’ve been clipped from one of his own pictures, Wanger was arrested for a shocking love-triangle shooting.
Even by Tinseltown standards, Wanger’s downfall was stunning (though isn’t it just too fabulous that his last name rhymes with “danger”?). Ordinarily, a Dartmouth grad and World War I pilot would be the last guy you’d peg for a pistol-packing menace. Having struck box-office gold with the classic Western Stagecoach, the Hitchcock thriller Foreign Correspondent, and popcorn flicks like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, you’d think Wanger would be too busy reupholstering his casting couch to moonlight as an assassin.
I mean, check it out: In 1942, Wanger’s income tax bill was $900,000 ($16 million in today’s cash). The guy was loaded...in more ways than one, as it turns out. So how’d he wind up behind bars for attempted murder?
Cue the cliché of a Hollywood hot shot who flies high, but crash lands on the skids. In the late ‘40s, a nasty run of flops found Wanger hounded by creditors, declaring bankruptcy, and dependent on Joan to keep their family afloat with acting gigs, like the 1950 smash, Father of the Bride, opposite Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor.
By 1951, the relentless stress of Wanger’s financial woes had taken a terrible toll, physically and emotionally. Convinced that Joan was shagging her handsome agent Jennings Lang – especially after a private eye Wanger hired (allegedly) showed him proof that the pair had been trysting like it was their job – Wanger tracked Joan’s car to Lang’s office, and confronted the couple in the parking lot.
In his book, Walter Wanger: Hollywood Independent, writer Matthew Bernstein recaps what happened next: “There was a violent argument between the two men, with Bennett yelling, ‘Get away from here and leave us alone.’ Wanger, she said, was ‘standing there like a man hypnotized.’ Though Lang held up his hands, Wanger was implacable; he fired two shots in Lang’s general direction. One went astray against the car; the other struck Lang in the groin, and he collapsed in agony to the ground.”
"I shot him because I thought he was breaking up my home," Wanger explained; Joan begged to differ. She claimed there was neither hanky nor panky going on: “If Walter thinks the relationships between Mr. Lang and myself are romantic or anything but strictly business, he is wrong.” Joan also issued a statement saying that she hoped her husband “will not be blamed too much” for the assault.
Wanger lawyered up, pleaded temporary insanity, spent four months at a minimum security prison farm, and put his slammer drama cred to good use, producing Riot in Cell Block 11 and I Want to Live!, featuring Susan Hayward’s Oscar-winning performance as a convicted killer desperate to ditch her date with the gas chamber.
Despite a bullet-wound location that launched a thousand quips, Lang didn’t die of embarrassment. He repped superstars like Bogie and Joan Crawford, and later produced big-screen hits starring Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford and Charlton Heston.
Incredibly, the Wangers reconciled after Walter was sprung from jail, but the tawdry case tarnished Bennett’s career (she ruefully admitted, “I might as well have pulled the trigger myself”). The couple divorced in 1965, yet by 1981, Bennett could joke, “If it happened today, I'd be a sensation. I'd be wanted by all studios for all pictures.” Wanger also laughed off the scandal, telling studio executives, “You chaps just talk about agents. I’m the only one who ever did anything about them.”