Scarlet Street is one of the blackest films noir in pretty much any film fan’s canon (yes, even by 1945 standards and the puritanical rules made up by our old friends at the Hays Production Code office). It is a tale of con artistry, the theft of artistic ideas (literally), jealousy, grifting, domestic rot, unrequited love, murder, and the theme I will touch on more than others in this brief analysis: a tormented conscience. It is a remake (yes, a remake) executed by one the finest artistic exports to the United States from Europe, director Fritz Lang. It is BLACK as the deepest psychological tar pits of despair can get. The film stars Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea.
Director Fritz Lang was a film-maker who simply oozed artistic acumen. He is easily among my Top 5 favorite directors of all time. Lang got his start directing in The Weimar Republic, with silent films like the mythological Destiny (1921) which can be watched on Netflix, the futuristic Metropolis(1927) which can also be watched on Netflix, and even a treatment of Wagner in Siegfried (1924), and Kriemhild’s Revenge (1924). Lang was even asked to direct that powerhouse of German Expressionism on film: The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1919) before Robert Wiene took on the project. See a public domain print of Caligari below.
Lang’s most important (and arguably brilliant) cinematic achievement was his first talking picture, another dark as pitch study of madness, urban alienation, and social fear, a film based upon the real-life “Vampire of Duesseldorf”, a serial child murderer named Peter Kuerten: 1931’s M. M is a film that makes my Top 10 list for MANY reasons and also did much to found “film noir” as an aesthetic style.
As the wake of Nazism swept over Europe before the Second World War, many German intellectuals and artists fled their homelands for the United States. Lang, and a few other German directors, Billy Wilder of Some Like it Hot(1959) and Sunset Boulevard (1950) fame, and Otto Preminger of Laura(1944) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959) being arguably the most famous two, fled Germany for Hollywood where they practiced their craft to great success. These directors also brought with them the biggest aesthetic movement in European visual art: German Expressionism. The influence German Expressionism exerted over both shot and set composition in film noir cannot be overstated. Keep an eye out for very geometric shadow play and also obtuse angles in film noir to see German Expressionism’s legacy.
Scarlet Street itself is based on Jean Renoir’s 1931 film La Chienne (literally translated to “the bitch”). I do not recommend Renoir’s version primarily because the ending soured the entire piece for me: the characters laugh over something that is not remotely or even darkly funny. Lang’s execution of the story was vastly superior.
Scarlet Street tells the story of mild-mannered Greenwich Village store cashier Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) who avoids his rather surly wife and paints in his spare time. The story starts after an office party with Chris and his friends, Chris is a little drunk when he walks outside seeing femme fatale Kitty “Lazy Legs” March (Joan Bennett) being assaulted by some thug (Dan Duryea). Chris manages to scare the bum away by calling for a cop who was on the beat.
The character of Kitty acts as a variable in Lang’s powerful piece that really grabs the viewer. Kitty March is not your typical femme fatale (my brief look at her in a piece on the history of the femme fatale in cinema can be found here): throughout much of the film, one gets the notion that she really does not want to be where she is. Indeed, in many ways she is the reluctant femme fatale. Yet, Johnny has his psychological claws so far deep in her that she ultimately gives in to the apathy and lets him have his schemes, ultimately bringing the truly hapless Chris down into a level of film noir hell that really hasn’t been seen since.
After drinks, thoughts of love and lust for the forlorn “actress” femme fatale Kitty begin festering in Chris’s very bored, domesticated mind, getting their associations with the darkly romantic notion of his failure as an artist. We learn that the man assaulting Kitty — Johnny — was actually her boyfriend and probable pimp shaking her down for money.
This begins Kitty and Johnny’s manipulation of the truly hapless dupe that Chris has become, being nagged to death by his beastly wife and pretty well beaten down by a boring job when he has the soul of an artist but has been told endlessly by his wife that his art is simply no good and a waste of time and money. The fling with Kitty escalates to Kitty and Johnny selling Chris’s art as having been painted by Kitty when they find out from a Manhattan art critic that Chris’s art does indeed have merit. When Chris finds out, being the archetypal dupe that he is, he agrees to keep doing the paintings and having Kitty sign them. This after he puts up a nice chunk of change to put her (and he hopes himself) inside a nice studio apartment in Greenwich Village.
As in all noir, this escalates very quickly to very nasty things. Things Chris does that cannot be undone. Part of the ending of Scarlet Street is Chris in a lonely one room tenement somewhere staring at a noose as we hear the voices of Kitty and Johnny in his head tormenting him.
Scarlet Street is an eloquent look at the effects of a tormented conscience and real “poetic justice” but also things like dishonesty in art, jealousy, and domestic rot. Even considering the cultural mores that existed in 1945 when the film was made, and what the Hays Code would and would not allow (it would not allow much deep, dark exposition), Scarlet Street still stands out as a profoundly dark look at dreams that were dashed and failed, and just how desperately we as human beings will cling to those romantic notions.
Scarlet Street was the programming choice on April 9, 2017 on Turner Classic Movies’ Noir Alley show every Sunday at 10 AM EST, hosted by Eddie Muller, president of the Film Noir Foundation, which finds, restores, and preserves prints of these great old films. Please donate to support their vitally important efforts here. Also, check out Eddie’s very thorough talks on his programming choices for Noir Alley here. The full schedule of Noir Alley can be found here.
Wess A. Haubrich is the contributing editor of the film section of The Nu Romantics and London’s award-winning culture website The 405. He is also a “top writer” in “movies”, “mental health” and “culture” on Medium.com. He can be reached on Twitter or via email: email@example.com as he is always looking for cutting edge undiscovered cinema especially and innovative forms of all kinds of art to bring to his readers by probing the minds of their creators in interviews and features.