Scarlet Street January 24, 2007Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1940s, Fritz Lang , trackback
Scarlet Street, like other movie titles derived from names of roads both fictional and real, such as Sunset Blvd. and Mulholland Dr., is not the type of area most people would want to call home. In Fritz Lang’s film, sympathy and goodness are lurking elsewhere, leaving us instead with characters like Edward G. Robinson’s Chris Cross, Joan Bennett’s Kitty, and Dan Duryea’s Johnny. Chris is a sap who married a woman so condescending that her first husband, immortalized in a portrait at home, took the easy way out by dying. His loneliness and desperation lead Chris to do whatever she says. Hints at an unconsummated marriage and Chris wearing a humiliating floral pattern apron allow the viewer to infer that any hint of his remaining masculinity has been destroyed. Presumably, that’s why he’s so reinvigorated by his late-night encounter with Kitty.
Stumbling home from a dinner with his co-workers, Chris musters up enough courage to smack a man appearing to rob an innocent woman. Even his seemingly heroic action is actually done with cowardice, as Chris fearfully raises his umbrella in defense without looking at Johnny, the attacker. His eyes light up when he realizes it’s a beautiful young woman he’s “saved” and happily walks her home. Even though he only paints as a hobby, he boastfully claims to be a successful artist instead of a lowly bank clerk, 25 years at the same job. Chris is smitten and Kitty thinks she’s found a sugar daddy. As Chris abandons any ethics he may have had in the name of lust and Kitty and Johnny devise plan after plan to bilk their new benefactor, Lang warns us to not get too attached to any of them.
All three characters ultimately receive the fate they probably deserve. Chris first seems like a simple loser unable to catch a break, but when given the opportunity, his true colors are revealed to be as unflattering as they are dark. His years of service to his job appear to be less out of loyalty than routine and stability. When he visits Kitty, he’s unwilling to see the silent mocking with which she greets him. The idea that the younger, attractive woman might have less than true intentions would spoil his fantasy. Even after several encounters with Johnny, Chris is reluctant to realize there’s more going on than mere coincidence. When he finally realizes Kitty is not only playing him, but repulsed as well, Chris comes unhinged as his embarassment turns into rage. The final, haunting scenes of Chris, doomed to perpetual ridicule, are exceptional.
Kitty’s contempt for Chris is only mildly hidden throughout the film, but he’s so desperate and enamored with the idea that she could be romantically interested in him that he suppresses any doubts and continues giving her anything she wants. There’s really no denying Kitty’s wickedness. In a film full of rotten characters, she’s the nastiest. While Chris is betrayed by his own ego and desire and Johnny is simply amoral, Kitty is well aware of the damage she’s doing to Chris and absolutely doesn’t care. Her manipulation of Chris is unceasing and we never see the two together unless Kitty is weaseling something out of him. She even finds Johnny’s despicable qualities endearing and seems to almost enjoy him roughing her up.
Each of the three actors delivers a memorable performance, in parts that could have turned the film into more typical genre fare had they been played less skillfully. Robinson’s impressive characterization strays from his tough guy image and makes Chris an easy target for Kitty’s femme fatale. Along with his supporting role in Double Indemnity, this is Robinson’s finest work in proving his versatility. Duryea was the perfect actor for his role - tall, lanky and untrustworthy enough to make you believe he’d steal a sucker from a little kid if given the chance. But it’s Bennett who perhaps makes the biggest impression, contrasting the stereotype of the helpless female who’s actually good-hearted that was prevalent in films of the era. Kitty’s neither and Bennett, who starred for Lang in three other pictures also, uses her innocent looks for shocking effect.
Interestingly, Bennett was married to the film’s producer Walter Wanger for 25 years including the production of Scarlet Street. In 1951, Wanger believed Bennett was having an affair with her agent and, after catching the two of them together, shot him twice in the groin. Wanger’s attorney used a defense of temporary insanity and he served only 98 days, at an “honor farm” in California, of a four-month sentence. Wanger’s suspicions had proven true, but he remained married to Bennett until 1965. His producing career continued after being released, but it couldn’t overcome the disaster of Cleopatra, his final film.
With the release of Scarlet Street in 1945, Fritz Lang once again delivered a shining example of a well-plotted film noir and further proved himself to be a master of pacing. He managed to move the plot along seamlessly in his best films, typified in America by Scarlet Street and the fascinating, but lengthy Hangmen Also Die which somehow never lags. The prolific German filmmaker was responsible for a dozen or more films categorizable as noir in the 1940s and 1950s, most unfortunately unavailable on DVD. While Scarlet Street suffered from numerous unwatchable DVD releases due to falling into the public domain, Kino released a revelatory version taken from a 35mm negative preserved by the Library of Congress in 2005. Though it’s not progressively transferred, the image is still very good and incredible when compared to other versions. Lang scholar David Kalat also provides a knowledgeable commentary on the Kino release.
While the qualifications that comprise the film noir label may be increasingly widening, there’s no doubt that Scarlet Street would fit under even the tightest restrictions. Its dark, cynical world is easily recognizable to noir devotees. The somewhat exaggerated characterizations of bad and worse, the shadowy lighting familiar from Lang’s German films, and the general sense of gloom and despair are all here. It’s a fairly uncompromising film and perhaps the best of Lang’s output in the United States. While the film was already well-regarded, the transfer from the Library of Congress negative proves it to be near the very top of Lang’s filmography.
(To read my review of The Woman in the Window for DVD Times click here)