1940s, 4/4, Film Noir, Fritz Lang, Review

Scarlet Street

#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.

Rating: 4/4

9 thoughts on “Scarlet Street”

  1. This is a complete Noir, from beginning to end, it may not be the first in the genre but we see so many tropes that will be picked up and used over the next couple decades. The loser, corrupted by a woman, drawn into a doom if his own making. Narratively, this is very solid genre stuff.

    In many ways, I see this as a mirror to The Woman in the Window. Again we have Edgar G. Robinson (hard to imagine him as Rico in Little Ceasar here), only this time he’s even more downtrodden. He may have been bored but he plays the role as written and uses his age, appearance and his acting skill to play a part that was not him. (This was called ‘acting’ and it used to be a thing in movies). Here we have the hot bad girl, but where Alice was just a slut, Kitty is probably a literal prostitute (Lang skirts that line very well here) and her boyfriend is an abusive pimp and gambler. A ‘gentleman of leisure’, if you will. And she is as devoted to him as any real life pimped out whore. The love of a pimp is not like the love of a square…and we are seeing that on screen in 1945! Here also we see spiraling corruption, this time with the murder actually taking place, and the fall guy still alive to protest his innocence….of that crime at least. And the final ending, unable to even die, Chris must go on, suffering, tormented by a love he’ll never know himself, by a fame and recognition he can never claim.

    As usual, I can’t say I love this movie because I don’t love the characters. But I really appreciate it. This is a work of art, just as much as any painting. It’s tragic.

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    1. It really was a complete coincidence, but I got Jean Renoir’s version of La Chienne from Netflix a couple of days ago and watched it. Almost exactly the same story with some small differences (the Robinson character takes the pimp home instead of the pimp fleeing the scene), and it’s much more explicit about the pimp’s occupation as well as the girl’s. It’s pretty much identical, though, in all the big things.

      I still like Scarlet Street more, though I think I’d have a higher opinion of Renoir’s whole body of work than Lang’s.

      Anyway, it’s Lang finding some kind of groove in the American system. He made the most out of as much as he could, but noir seemed to be the only place where his preferred sensibilities both visual and narrative fit best.

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      1. This really is a piece with everything Lang did on his own. You have the same ‘women trouble’, you have protagonists who are NOT destined to have a happy ending, of course his Expressionist background with light and shadow usage, as well as a habit of showing a world with the grit and sleaze on it, rather than hidden away and ignored.

        Western Union is maybe his most ‘Hollywood’ movie so far (and my favorite US movie…. so far) but either he’s drawn to certain stories or he make certain stories happen.

        I’m not much into French cinema or the French, so I have no background with Jean Renoir.

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      2. I’m much more into French cinema than you, obviously. I’ve considered doing a Renoir run, but I’ve just never gotten around to it.

        I think Lang was looking to make socially conscious films as much as he could (the early emphasis on ex-cons is a clue, methinks), and he would have preferred to make more politically charged films. His last American film is ostensibly about the death penalty, for instance. So, these noirs may be also compromises as well, they’re just where he was best while he was making those compromises.

        Hell, he chose to make M when he read the final line about people looking after their children. He saw it as important.

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  2. Scarlett Street is one of Lang’s and Bennett’s best films. Particularly as Bennett actually decides to do some acting in this one. Thanks for a review that strategically places Scarlet in Lang’s career.

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