#6 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.
Another film marked as the beginning of the film noir genre, it actually feels more like a straight drama for most of the film. That really gives the film a solid character-based foundation on which its final act operates, creating a very well-fleshed out central protagonist who ends up descending into his own personal hell. This is also the first time in several films where Fritz Lang wasn’t working with a writer/producer, allowing him greater freedom in making the film his own, and while Lang had been making movies that looked like his own for that time, this is the first since Hangmen Also Die that feels like it fits his body of work thematically. Adapted from the novel La Chienne by Georges de La Fouchardière and André Mouëzy-Éon, and previously adapted by Jean Renoir (another good film on its own), Scarlet Street is Lang’s best movie in more than a decade.
Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) is a dull little man who leads a dull little life as a cashier in a bank with an unpleasant wife Adele (Rosalind Ivan), the widow of a police lieutenant lost in the East River. At a ceremony to celebrate Cross’s twenty-five years of loyal service to the bank, his boss J.J. Hogarth (Russell Hicks) gives him a gold watch and bugs out early to be with his young mistress that the boys all admire from the window. Cross (who admits later to having never seen a woman naked, not even his wife) knows that his time for love is long past, and he missed it. He walks home through Greenwich Village and sees a man beating a young woman and quickly comes to her aid, hitting the man on the head with his umbrella and then running off to get a police officer. The young man runs off, leaving Kitty March (Joan Bennett) alone with the man in the nice suit with a gold watch who did something nice for her. Over a late night drink, she asserts that he’s rich and a famous painter because of how he obliquely describes his weekend passion.
Together with the young man, the hood she loves named Johnny (Dan Duryea), they concoct a plan to con Cross out of a bunch of money. What follows is an escalating series of requests by Kitty as she convinces Cross to give her the cash for a new apartment, new clothes, and other things that Johnny quickly takes advantage of. When they reach a particular moment of trouble, Johnny decides to take some of Cross’s paintings to try and sell because of Kitty’s assurances that the style will be immediately identified and lead to huge payouts. Through a series of events, though, the unknown painter catches the eye of an art critic, and the paintings do start fetching large bucks but under Kitty’s name, a situation that Cross finds out and doesn’t mind. He thinks it draws him and Kitty closer. If only he weren’t married then he and Kitty could get hitched, and all will be right with the world.
There are a series of events, coincidences, and revelations that seemingly put Cross on the path towards his ideal existence, a life with the attractive, young woman who loves his painting and him. He has a choice, and he goes forward with it. His belief was all based on a lie, and everything falls apart. This is where the movie’s more drama-based (rather than sensationalist and lurid as one might expect from a noir) feel ends up paying off. When Cross makes his rash decision that unspools his whole life, it’s painful and makes sense. As he skirts one kind of punishment and lays into another, it’s tragic. I think there’s a way to read the movie from one point on where he dies, and the rest is his eternity in a hell of his own creation.
In this story we can see the evolution of Lang’s ideas since his voice became apparent in his work. There’s a certain apocalyptic feel to the way everything falls apart, similar to Kriemhild’s Revenge or M or even Fury (before the tacked on ending). There’s also this feeling of seeking justice. Cross is a good man, loyal forever to his uncaring and unpleasant wife as well as his largely thankless job as a cashier in a bank that he’s held for decades. He paints in his spare time, and the art critic goes gaga over the work without even having an idea of who painted it. He could have been more, but he chose his small life. When he tries to reach out beyond it, he’s smacked down and ends up being corrupted by the systems around him, represented in small form like the criminal underground as manifested by Kitty and Johnny (a man so dedicated to crime that he ends up feeling like a small-time Dr. Mabuse).
Reviews of the film at the time were dismissive, calling it thinly dramatic with stock characters, and I think that, much like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, contemporary reviewers simply missed the point. There is a certain stock element in Cross as the down beaten everyman (the early parts of the film remind me of the later Marty), Johnny as the tough hood, and Kitty as the amoral smoke show, but it’s no more than the amount of stock in any other character written. The time given to them to flesh themselves out, in particular Cross and his desire to an alternate, happier life, is what gives the film its depth and emotional resonance. He has to negotiate his own sense of morality as he finds money to fund Kitty’s new lifestyle, trying to figure out if he should steal from his bank or his wife, finding ways to hide it as long as he can extend the façade. The delusion he descends into, that this attractive young woman that he showers with money, actually loves him in return is the source of his tragedy, and that’s made real by the time spent on it. Robinson was apparently bored through production, finding it not a worthwhile assignment, but he plays the role well, creating a strong emotional throughline as Cross reaches his ephemeral highs and then his very real lows. Bennett looks great as the femme fatale, and Duryea is typically menacing as the hood.
The physical production is interesting. Amidst Lang’s typical use of shadows as well as a return of mirrors and clocks, one of the central pieces of set is the apartment Cross rents for Kitty. It’s two-tired with an elevated layer for the workshop space, complete with doodles on the wall drawn by a famous artist who had last rented the place. There’s a lot of careful framing in this space, highlighted by its non-traditional layout and use of doorframes, windows, and mirrors that help provide interesting compositions that highlight vertical spaces, separations between characters, and double natures. Much like The Woman in the Window and Ministry of Fear, this continues Lang firmly planting his visual sense in an American idiom that fits really well, so well that it helped to launch an entire genre.
This doesn’t have the sudden rug pull that The Woman in the Window had (which was, apparently, Lang’s idea), and Lang lets his story go where it needs to go without detour in the end in a way that he hadn’t done since he’d come to America. This is the complete package of a Lang film that we haven’t seen since he left Germany. He has made very good work pretty consistently (Fury is still great, even if there is a compromise that makes it less Lang’s work), but this is purely Lang.