Scarlet Street is an obvious reunion picture bringing together Fritz Lang, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennet and Dan Duryea among others from the prior year. Dudley Nichols’ story, while taking elements from La Chienne, which had already been made into a film by French master Jean Renoir in 1931, is elevated by its own unique elements.
A party is being held for one Christopher Cross (Robinson) in appreciation for his many years of faithful service at his company. As a gift, he is bequeathed a fine watch. That’s what he has to show for the last 25 years. However, he has two unfulfilled dreams from when he was young. The first was to be an artist and well, the second, was to have a beautiful woman look at him with love in her eyes. He’s never experienced that warm sensation before.
It happens the way it always does with a single moment of instantaneous decision. He intervenes when a thug is beating up a lady and he’s pleasantly surprised to find the lady to be quite ravishing. There sits Joan Bennett unlocking her jaw and surveying the damage to make sure she can flaunt her face another day, dolled up in her raincoat. In these initial interludes, she’s playfully provocative and endearingly colloquial (“Jeepers”). In fact, she’s utterly charming when you first get to know her. But that’s not to say she takes her latest conquest too seriously. She’s already got herself a man.
Oblivious and lonely, Chris begins to open up gushing about all the things about art and love that’s he’s always kept bottled up. But Kitty makes him feel like a happy schoolboy again because she seems to take a genuine interest in him as a human being. You see, Chris is a model of that inherently human desire. He is hardwired like all of us to crave some form of intimacy or better still to be fully known by someone else in a way that is complete and vulnerable
Little does he know that not everyone is so trusting and sincere as him. Sometimes people are only looking to get something out of you — to use you — and that’s much of what this story is about. That’s what makes it a noirish film at all. Certainly in the hands of Lang reteamed with cinematographer Norman Krasner they paint enough in darkness and billowing smoke. But anyone will tell you film noir is not just a look but a sensibility, a worldview, and an outlook.
Chris Cross begins so innocent and unperturbed by the world even as he feels something is missing in his life. But, when it’s all said and done, he gets absolutely decimated and crushed into the ground unmercifully.
She has another love; he’s abusive and knocks her around but she doesn’t seem to mind. He’s got something she likes that her roommate Millie (Margaret Lindsay) rolls her eyes at. They probably deserve each other. At any rate, in Kitty’s eyes, Johnny’s a real man whereas Chris is a piddling old fool, at first a plaything, then a cash cow, and finally a nuisance. Johnny coaxes his “lazy legs” to see how much she can weasel out of him. She’s oh so charming and he’s a light touch. Chris would literally go to the moon and back for her if possible.
His home life is continually suffocating him. Rosalind Ivan is tasked with the same nagging wife role from The Suspect (1944) this time torturing a meek Robinson instead of an angelic Charles Laughton. The results are very much the same. A man can only take so much flack
But the other angle has to do with Chris’s art. He’s maintained the hobby even as his wife considers it a waste of time and threatens to throw away all his work as it clutters up her house. However, Kitty gets ideas that Chris is some bigshot artist. Knowing nothing of painting, she tells Johnny about it and he convinces her to let him try to sell the pieces.
They wind up stumbling on something outstanding rather incredulously. John Decker’s idiosyncratic and still striking compositions fill in for the amateur painter’s style. Soon, Kitty’s fronting for Chris’s work without his knowledge to make a profit and suck him dry. By now she’s even got enough of a reservoir of his monologues to repurpose his sincere words for monetary gain. Soon she has a prestigious art collector interested and a local critic eating out of her hand. Meanwhile, Chris still has nothing simply a lingering devotion to Kitty that will only break his heart.
A galvanizing moment, where Chris’s delusion or his innocence comes to bear, occurs during a chance visit to Kitty’s apartment to announce his marriage is terminated and he’s a free man. She turns away from him and he tries to comfort her in her despair. Saying that they’ll go away together, make a new life, and start anew. But then she turns around and those tears instead turn out to be derisive laughter. The one person he thought he could trust betrays his emotions and wounds him to his core. Because this relationship too, proves to be an utter lie as she tears him down in the most humiliating fashion. It’s more than he can bear.
One can gather that everything else happening to Chris is all but a blur as the trajectory of his life soon finds him spiraling into the gutter. As one convenient commuter on the train puts it, “We each have a courtroom in our heart, judge, jury, and executioner.” It’s this sense of conscience that is shown to tear Chris apart in totality. He can never return to be his former self.
Here we see once more thematic elements common to Lang involving the complex and often flawed wheels of justice. But it’s only a mechanism for the most perplexing elements as Chris is haunted by the specters of his tormenters, trapped in his own private hell.
Robinson was probably just as aware as anyone the similarities between this and Woman in The Window (1944) and he was no doubt looking forward to moving on to something different. One could wager a bet that Bennett and Duryea are the real standouts because there sliminess is what makes the picture take.
They linger over its frames and they do so much to ruin Chris. In this day and age, I don’t know if we’re as appalled by their activities as in the 1940s where the picture was even banned locally. Now I think we see it and we’re overly conditioned to what seems mild fare or we’ve come to terms with the fact humanity has much evil within them. You cannot witness something like Scarlet Street, however ludicrous it might seem and think for one moment human beings are inherently good. It just doesn’t work.
What I appreciate about this picture more than anything is how it has the gumption to never pull a punch. Woman in the Window (1944) had a conceit and ending that worked given its psychological underpinnings. The way Scarlet Street resolves itself is no less fitting in choosing to be so very conflicted and ambiguous. If Chris was not a pitiful specimen before, he certainly is now.