|Directed by||Fritz Lang|
Scarlet Street is a 1945 film noir directed by Fritz Lang. Two criminals take advantage of a middle-age painter in order to steal his artwork. The film is based on the French novel La Chienne (“The Bitch”) by Georges de La Fouchardière, that previously had been dramatized on stage by André Mouëzy-Éon, and cinematically as La Chienne (1931) by director Jean Renoir.
It’s 1934. Christopher “Chris” Cross (Edward G. Robinson), a meek amateur painter and cashier for clothing retailer, J.J. Hogarth & Company, is fêted by his employer, honoring him for twenty-five years of dull, repetitive service, from 1909-1934. Hogarth presents him with a watch and kind words, then leaves getting into a car with a beautiful young blonde.
Walking home through Greenwich Village, Chris muses to an associate, “I wonder what it’s like to be loved by a young girl.” He helps Kitty (Joan Bennett), an amoral fast-talking femme fatale, apparently being attacked by a man, stunning the assailant with his umbrella. Chris is unaware that the attacker was Johnny (Dan Duryea), Kitty’s brutish boyfriend, and sees her safely to her apartment building. Out of gratitude and bemusement, she accepts his offer for a cup of coffee at a nearby bar. From Chris’s comments about art, Kitty believes him to be a wealthy painter.
Soon, Chris becomes enamored of her because he is in a loveless marriage and is tormented by his shrewish wife Adele (Rosalind Ivan), who idealizes her former husband, a policeman who apparently drowned while trying to save a woman. After Chris confesses that he is married, Johnny convinces Kitty to pursue a relationship in order to extort money from Chris. Kitty inveigles him to rent an apartment for her, one that can also be his art studio. To finance an apartment, Chris steals $500 ($8,800 today) in insurance bonds from his wife and later $1000 ($17,700) from his employer.
Unknown to Chris, Johnny unsuccessfully tries selling some of Chris’s paintings, attracting the interest of art critic David Janeway (Jess Barker). Kitty is maneuvered by Johnny into pretending that she painted them, charming the critic with Chris’s own descriptions of his art, and Janeway promises to represent her. Adele sees her husband’s paintings in the window of a commercial art gallery as the work of “Katherine March” and accuses him of copying her work. Chris confronts Kitty, who claims she sold them because she needed the money. He is so delighted that his paintings are appreciated, albeit only under Kitty’s signature, that he happily lets her become the public face of his art. She becomes a huge commercial success, although Chris never receives any of the money.
Adele’s supposedly dead first husband, Higgins (Charles Kemper), suddenly appears at Chris’s office to extort money from him. He explains he had not drowned but had stolen $2,700 from the purse of the suicide he tried to save. Already suspected as corrupt for taking bribes from speakeasies, he had taken the opportunity to escape his crimes and his wife. Chris lets Higgins into his wife’s room ostensibly so he can get the insurance money from his death but does so when she is asleep in the room, reasoning that his marriage will be invalidated when his wife sees her still-living first husband.
Believing he can now marry Kitty, he goes to see her, but finds out that Kitty has cheated on him. He later confronts Kitty, but still asks her to marry him; she scorns him for being old and refuses to marry him. Enraged he stabs her to death. The police visit Chris at his job, not for the murder but his earlier embezzlement. Although his boss refuses to press charges, Chris is fired. Johnny is accused of Kitty’s murder.
At the trial, all of the deceptions work against Johnny, despite his attempts to implicate Chris, and Chris denies painting any of the pictures. Johnny is convicted and put to death for Kitty’s murder, Chris goes unpunished, and Kitty is erroneously recognized as a great artist.
Haunted by the murder, Chris attempts to hang himself. Although rescued, he is impoverished with no way of claiming credit for his own paintings and tormented by thoughts of Kitty and Johnny being together for eternity, loving each other.
Bosley Crowther, The New York Times critic, gave the film a mixed review. He wrote, “But for those who are looking for drama of a firm and incisive sort, Scarlet Street is not likely to furnish a particularly rare experience. Dudley Nichols wrote the story from a French original, in which it might well have had a stinging and grisly vitality. In this presentation, however, it seems a sluggish and manufactured tale, emerging much more from sheer contrivance than from the passions of the characters involved. And the slight twist of tension which tightens around the principal character is lost in the middle of the picture when he is shelved for a dull stretch of plot. In the role of the love-blighted cashier Edward G. Robinson performs monotonously and with little illumination of an adventurous spirit seeking air. And, as the girl whom he loves, Joan Bennett is static and colorless, completely lacking the malevolence that should flash in her evil role. Only Dan Duryea as her boy friend hits a proper and credible stride, making a vicious and serpentine creature out of a cheap, chiseling tinhorn off the streets.”
A review in Variety magazine included: “Fritz Lang’s production and direction ably project the sordid tale of the romance between a milquetoast character and a gold-digging blonde…Edward G. Robinson is the mild cashier and amateur painter whose love for Joan Bennett leads him to embezzlement, murder and disgrace. Two stars turn in top work to keep the interest high, and Dan Duryea’s portrayal of the crafty and crooked opportunist whom Bennett loves is a standout in furthering the melodrama.”
The film critic at Time gave Scarlet Street a negative review describing the plot as clichéd and with dimwitted, unethical, stock characters.
Late Expressionism, Early Noir–incredible plot, amazing movie
Scarlet Street (1945)
It starts slowly, with little bits of intrigue and a lot of empathy for Edward G. Robinson’s character, Chris Cross, a lonely cashier with dreams of being in love. And then he sees a man hitting a young woman on the street, and he rushes to help her. Things start a torturous, complicated, fabulous decline from there. The woman sees how Cross finds her beautiful, but Cross, it turns out, is unhappily married. And petty, selfish cruelty turns to many worse things.
Fritz Lang, the Austrian director now firmly settled into Hollywood, is not known for cheerful movies (he directed M, for one), and this one draws on so much empathy, and heartbreak, and finally downright shock and surprise, it’s breathtaking. Great film-making, beautiful and relentless. The woman, Joan Bennett, comes alive on the screen, duplicitous and raw. Her boyfriend, Dan Duryea, is perfect Duryea, clever and annoying and as usual, coming out less than rosy.
The cinematographer, Milton Krasner, has so many richly brooding and dramatic films to his credit, it’s almost a given that we will be invisibly swept into every scene (and much of the action takes place in an apartment almost tailor made for great filming, with glass doors, and two levels to look up or down from). The story is key, based on a novel by Georges de La Fouchardière, little known here, but he wrote “La Chienne,” the basis for Jean Renoir’s second film (1931), where the film announces to the audience that it is about, “He, she, and the other guy . . . as usual.” And that describes Scarlet Street just as well, for starters.
Lang is credited as one of the key shapers of the film noir style, and that certainly applies visually. It lacks that film noir key of a young man at odds with post-War America, but it does have a man, alone, at odds with the world. Chris Cross is a pathetic creature, far more naive than most of us could ever be, but yet we identify with him because he represents innocence swept up in a world more sinister than we expect. He’s a victim, in a way, but also the cause of his own troubles.
And troubles they are. What a story, what a film. Dark, wrenching, and unpredictable. Very Fritz Lang.
A Brilliant Remake
Author: Zen Bones from USA
3 April 2002
I’ve seen LA CHIENNE, and although most of SCARLET STREET is a remake, the two are entirely different films. LA CHIENNE is virtually a comedy. In fact, it begins with an introduction by puppets (!), so we know we’re not to take the plot very seriously. Renoir’s film is light and fun, and is very interesting to watch for comparisons of ‘moral standards’ between France and Hollywood.
By now, you probably know the story. A sad little man gets involved with a prostitute and her pimp. Hollywood toned down the fact that Robinson and Bennett were involved in a sexual relationship, and the ending of the film had to live up to Hollywood’s standards of ‘morality’. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it yet, but needless to say, the endings between the two films differ in a major way.
What makes SCARLET STREET so outstanding in my opinion, is that given the repressed nature of the protagonist, the film works better because of the changes. You can better understand the pressures of what living as a human doormat has done to this man, and how coiled up he really is. Edward G. Robinson gives one of the best performances of his career, which is saying a lot! I know, there will always be those who will insist on seeing him as the cigar-chomping tough guy only, and won’t accept him as anything else, but SCARLET STREET showcases his more subtle talents and his enormous range. Joan Bennett is pure charm and snake oil in this, and Dan Duryea out-weasels Richard Widmark in KISS OF DEATH [in fact, I’ll bet good money that the weasel toons in WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT were based on Dan Duryea’s character!]. Hollywood films will always falter in comparison to other country’s films because the industry’s fear of offending audiences always dulls the blade of truth. But, at least during the classic era of Hollywood, the talent usually made up for the story flaws. What do you get when you put Fritz Lang, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea together? Magic!
Another compelling masterpiece from Fritz Lang!
Author: The_Void from Beverley Hills, England
17 November 2004
It is often said of Fritz Lang that his American films aren’t as good as the ones he made in Germany, and judging by the films of his that I’ve seen so far; this analysis is proving itself to be true…but damn, this one isn’t far off. Scarlet Street is simultaneously compelling and unpredictable for it’s duration; Lang truly knows how to plot a film, and that is evident throughout. The story follows a banker and aspiring painter, played to perfection by Edward G. Robinson, who saves a young woman from a purse snatcher one night while on his way home from a party. The two begin talking to each other, and the banker ‘accidentally’ tells the girl that he’s paints pictures and gets a lot of money for doing so (Lang shows us the pitfalls of trying to impress young women by way of lies). However, all was not what it seemed with the purse-snatcher, and he’s actually the young lady’s fiancé; and when he learns that his girlfriend has a man with money after her…. he’s out for all he can get!
A lot of Lang’s American oeuvre is concentrated on the American justice system and various other crime related things, and this one is no different. Scarlet Street professes that nobody can ever ‘get away with murder’, and the fantastic climax to the movie shows this masterfully; much more so than many other films that have tried to convey the same message have. Scarlet Street is drenched with irony throughout (ironically, it took a non-American to make an ironic American film). This irony ensures that the film stays interesting, as the audience is never able to guess what’s around the corner. There’s nothing worse than a predictable film, and Scarlet Street is certainly anything but. The movie is packed with stand out moments, but non stand out more so than the ending. I’m a big fan of horror films and have seen many; but many of those fail to be as chilling as the ending of Scarlet Street. The atmosphere that Lang creates is incredible, and it ranks one of the most powerful psychological mind games that I’ve ever witnessed on screen. If Fritz Lang set out to put people off murder with this film; I dare say he succeeded. I know I won’t be murdering anyone after watching this!
Overall; Scarlet Street is another Fritz Lang masterpiece. While not as mind blowing as Metropolis or as powerful as M; Scarlet Street fills a niche all of it’s own. I rate this film as a ‘must see’, and I can almost guarantee that you will not be disappointed after seeing it.