Scarlet Street

US (1945) Dir. Fritz Lang

There say there is no fool like an old fool, especially when there is a younger woman involved and quite often, that is true. But sometimes even an old fool can get lucky and end up having the last laugh. Of course, it has to come at a price.

On the night his 25 years service as a cashier for a clothing store is recognised, mild mannered Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) interrupts a scuffle in the street between a man Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea) and a woman Kitty March (Joan Bennett) while walking home. Cross falls for Kitty, inadvertently letting her believe he is a famous painter when he only paints for pleasure.   

Kitty and Johnny however are a couple, and they exploit Cross’s infatuation with Kitty by having him pay for an apartment where he can paint at will. Cross isn’t rich and steals money from his wife Adele (Rosalind Ivan) and his employer to pay for the flat. Meanwhile Johnny sells a couple of Cross’s paintings and when an art dealer spots them, Kitty pretends she painted them – until Adele recognises one the paintings in a shop.

In his native Germany during the silent film era, Fritz Lang was one of the most inventive directors with the fantastic and original scripts of his second wife Thea von Harbou to work with. Having fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and later arriving in Hollywood, Lang relied largely on crime novels as his source material.

Previously filmed by Jean Renoir in 1931 under its original title, Scarlet Street is based on the French novel La Chienne by Georges de La Fouchardière. It might not sound particularly exciting on the surface but it gradually gets darker, becoming a prime slice of film noir which upset the New York censors enough to ban it, which they then relented, releasing it with cuts.

For Lang this film reunites him with the cast of The Woman In The Window from a year earlier, a film which some have observed has very similar themes to Scarlet Street – in fact the roles played by the stars are almost the same, with slight alterations. It is said Edward G. Robinson in particular was unhappy with essentially making the same film twice and couldn’t wait to finish shooting so he could do something else!

This doesn’t show in his performance however and remains a superbly consistent driving force of the film, along with Joan Bennett’s duplicitous femme fatale, as the milquetoast protagonist Cross. In the early going the tone is almost comical, with the gruff looking Robinson being under the thumb of the stern faced harridan Adele, hiding in the bathroom to paint.

For Cross the slinky Kitty represents everything Adele is not, but of course love is blind and Cross can’t see that Kitty is taking him for a ride at the behest of Johnny, with whom Kitty seems infatuated despite his selfish and often violent manner. The apartment is just the first step in their exploitation of Cross, the happenstance discovery of the paintings’ commercial value seeing the ruse stepped up a notch.

When Cross learns that Kitty has claimed credit for his work, rather amazingly he is just pleased his daubs are appreciated and consents to her continuing to take the public recognition instead of him. But Cross has another problem when Adele’s supposedly dead ex-husband Higgins (Charles Kemper) shows up unexpectedly, broke and desperate.

At this point it seem we are heading into farce territory with dead ex-husband showing up and art dealers being fooled by a flimsy cover story from a reluctant female painter, but in Lang’s hands we find ourselves giving him the benefit of the doubt as there is a creeping feeling that something big is about to go down if we are patient enough – and sure enough it does.

This is where the cleverness of the script reveals itself and its noir credentials which Lang takes full advantage of visually in the final act, reminding us of the creative genius he was back in the silent days. Through swiftly paced montages, unique framing and a dizzying supernatural breakdown detailed through an evocative display of chiaroscuro, Lang treats us to a chilling and spiralling climax.

In a similar case of expedience to that applied to Cross’s hasty attachment to Kitty, the unravelling of the events and the downfall of the principle players is contained inside a brisk ten minute run to conclude the film. As crude as this sounds it is an effective one-two punch, the lack of ponderous procedure heightening the shock twists and even more shocking outcome.

When the dust has settled this is an unambiguous morality tale that carries much merit today, even if the story and execution is tame by modern standards. For the most part it trundles along as a conventional drama, but just like the twists is the story flip things on their head, so is our perception of this film.

Lang hints at something more that average with the occasional shot framed differently from the others, which often slips by unnoticed as the shooting style is very much by the numbers Hollywood. Such subversive behaviour is reflected in the aforementioned final act, helping lift this film above many of its production line contemporaries.  

The cast are also on form, with Robinson in a rare role as a henpecked husband, a far cry from his heady days as the go to movie gangster a decade earlier. He creates both sympathy and discomfort for Cross as he sappily pursues Kitty, a vivacious and spiky turn from Joan Bennett, buttressed by the fast talking egregiousness of Dan Duryea’s Johnny.

I’m sure the pedigree of Lang and the cast will entice film aficionados to seek out Scarlet Street, and while Lang’s past glories are where his true legacy is found, this deceptively smart noir thriller definitely punches way above its weight and hits the target.