Released: December 28, 1945 (U.S.)
Director: Fritz Lang; Screenplay: Dudley Nichols based on he story by Georges de La Fouchardière; Cinematography: Milton R. Krasner; Studio: Universal Pictures; Producers: Walter Wanger and Fritz Lang
Cast: Edward G. Robinson (Christopher Cross), Joan Bennett (Kitty March), Dan Duryea (Johnny Prince), Margaret Lindsay (Millie Ray), Rosalind Ivan (Adele Cross), Jess Barker (David Janeway), Arthur Loft (Dellarowe), Russell Hicks (J.J. Hogarth), Cy Kendall (Nick)
One of the ubiquitous features of film noir is an overbearing sense of darkness, as characters dig themselves into ever-deepening holes from which they can never emerge. In many cases, the predicaments that people find themselves in are beyond their control, playing upon the premise of “fate dealing a bad hand” to certain people. Even more disturbing, however, are the instances in which the audience is allowed to witness a person willfully engaging in behavior that is dangerous and results in them essentially digging their own graves. It can be an unnerving experience to observe someone making choices that you, as a viewer, know to not only be harmful but entirely avoidable. The best films that play upon this premise can make you want to grab the TV and scream at the character you are watching self-destruct, knowing that even if you could connect with the person on the screen, it would do no good.
When properly executed, watching such a film can be a harrowing experience. And no one has ever been better at creating this distressing atmosphere than Fritz Lang. The man could craft movies that by the time you come to the finish, leave you feeling like you’ve come through an abyss yourself. This is precisely the case in his 1945 noir masterpiece Scarlet Street. I know of nobody who would argue that this is Lang’s greatest film (I’ve already reviewed that one in the countdown). But I would contend that this film is every bit as dark and disturbing as anything that this master of notoriously melancholy films ever made. By the time I finished it for the first time, I was torn as to whether I should feel relief, repulsion, or pity. The fact that after many subsequent viewings I’m still not sure what the correction response should be is a testament to how intriguing this film is.
It’s interesting to consider that the three key actors of this movie – Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea – had teamed up in 1944 for another Lang noir The Woman in the Window. There are some plot similarities between the two films, but not to the point where they are connected in any sense of Scarlet Street being a sequel. The characters too stand up well individually and are distinct between the two films. Lang, however, is a unifying force and it’s obvious in both films that he is the one in the director’s chair. But while in The Woman in the Window inserts a blatant copout of a finish, Scarlet Street is unrelenting in its gloom until the very last second.
The film opens to a banquet to celebrate the twenty-fifth work anniversary of banker Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson). Cross, middle-aged and mild-mannered, immediately comes across as a caring person, as on his way home from the dinner he stops to help a woman who appears to be in the process of being attacked. The woman, Kitty March (Joan Bennett), is beautiful and Chris becomes immediately enamored with her. The two begin an initially benign relationship that soon turns more serious when Kitty mistakenly assumes Chris to be a wealthy artist. After hearing Chris talk of his love of painting, she thinks that he must be an accomplished painter and she in turn tells her “friend” Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea).
Johnny, it turns out, is the very man that Chris rescued Kitty from on the night of their first meeting. While it is never explicitly stated in the film, it becomes quite obvious (at least to me) that Kitty is a prostitute and that Johnny is her pimp and lover. Duryea turns in a truly sleazy performance, as Johnny is the ultimate con-artist, always on the hustle and trying to make money any way he can. When Kitty mentions that Chris is a wealthy artist, Johnny pushes her to leading him on in order for the two of them to extort money from him. Kitty does as she is told, convincing Chris to set her up in an expensive studio apartment.
The truth of Chris’ situation, however, is far from what Kitty believes it to be. He is certainly not wealthy. In in order to maintain payments on the apartment and keep Kitty happy he is forced to resort to embezzling bank funds. The fleece is taken a step further when Johnny finds one of Chris’ paintings in the apartment and decides to try and hock it for some quick cash. Shockingly, the painting begins to cause a stir among the artistic community, resulting in Kitty now assuming the role of a talented artist. Chris ultimately discovers the ruse, but is so charmed by Kitty that he is content to allow her to pawn of his art work as her own. The plan begins to unravel, leading to a thrilling conclusion in which Chris becomes aware of the fact that has been played by Kitty. Making it even worse, he discovers that Johnny has been a puppetmaster of the entire relationship. I don’t want to give away how the entire conclusion of the film plays out, but I will say that none of the three involved in the love triangle are left unharmed. After watching the story come to a close with a murder, an execution, and a life left in shambles, I cannot imagine a viewer coming away completely dispassionate.
The film is based on Jean Renoir’s 1931 film La Chienne. I haven’t seen Renoir’s version, but my understanding is that it deals with the subject in more of a comedic fashion, whereas this one is deadly serious. If the plot sounds a bit convoluted, watching it is not nearly as complicated as it sounds in describing it. There are twists and turns, but nothing stretching into the outlandish. What holds the entire story together is the way that Fritz Lang is able to skillfully make the audience feel sympathy toward Edward G. Robinson’s Chris Cross character. Normally, allowing the leading character to fall for the various dupes and set-ups that Chris is victim to would just make a person come across as overly gullible and dim-witted. Rather than feeling sympathy for such a person, it is more likely there would be embarrassment or possibly even annoyance from the audience. Chris Cross manages to avoid this pitfall. Credit for this must go to both Robinson, who is very good in his role, and Lang, who provides situations to portray Chris as the perfect candidate for such a con.
Extolling the virtues of Edward G. Robinson is probably unnecessary, but he is excellent as the pitiful Chris Cross. This is a man who is gentle, kindhearted and appears to want nothing more than to be appreciated. His wife (Rosalind Ivan) provides no such support, as she is still in love with her deceased first husband. She does nothing but ridicule Chris, making fun of him for his love of painting and constantly comparing him to his saintly predecessor. Lang adds to the pity felt toward Chris, showing him wearing an apron around the house and working tirelessly for an unappreciative wife. After witnessing what he is forced to put up with in dealing with his wife, I came to the point that I wanted him to find a woman that would appreciate his sensitive personality and interests. This is what makes it so depressing to see the lengths that he will go to in order to find such a relationship. In Chris, Kitty and Johnny have the perfect mark.
This movie is dark. Really dark. Dark, dark, dark. It might be cliché as all get out to refer to movie in this way, but if ever the description is accurate it is in this film. It would not be hyperbole to say that this film can be disturbing. Still, as with most noirs, it’s impossible not to hold out hope that at some point Chris is going to realize what is being done to him and somehow repair the situation. But with Lang at the helm, deep down you know it’s unlikely.
Other Contenders for 1945: I have to preface this section by acknowledging that there is a significant film from this year that I have not seen – Roberto Rossellini’s Open City. The only print I had available to me was an overdubbed English version, so I have held out to track down a copy without overdubs. This is a movie that I am intrigued by and look forward to eventually watching. I also should go ahead and acknowledge that in terms of greatness, it seems obvious that Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis would be the logical choice. I enjoy the film and can’t deny its stature, but since a large part of my selection comes down to personal taste and enjoyment, I went with a more individual choice. Still, I want to recognize that it is a film that all movie buffs seek out and watch.
The closest competition for me in this year was another grainy noir thriller, Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour. It’s a B-movie that looks horrible, has some plot issues that are probably laughable to some viewers, but one that packs a heavy emotional punch. This is the best example of a film that fits the description in the first paragraph of this review of a noir where the lead character appears doomed and fated to a life of hardship. This movie (and Scarlet Street, for that matter) is in the public domain, so it is easily found online to watch free of charge. I also really like Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce, the movie that introduced me to the great Joan Crawford.
Other films that I like, but were not serious contenders are Jean Renoir’s The Southerner and Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. I would also guess that Brief Encounter, from director David Lean, will receive much support but I’ve always been rather indifferent toward it.