Scarlet Street

Joan Bennett and Fritz Lang on the set of Scarlet Street

Fritz Lang’s 1945 film, Scarlet Street, from a screenplay by Dudley Nichols, is based on La Chienne by Georges de La Fouchardière. (Jean Renoir also made a film adaptation of this work. I saw it years ago, and I don’t remember much about it. I don’t think it is one of Renoir’s best films.)

Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) works as a bank cashier living in Brooklyn. He is trapped in a loveless marriage to Adele (Rosalind Ivan). His one pleasure in life is painting. One night while he is walking home from an office party, he sees a woman being attacked by a man. Cross hits the man with his umbrella and the latter runs away. Cross then offers to walk the woman home. Her name is Kitty (Joan Bennett). She doesn’t tell Cross that the man who hit her was actually her gambling-addicted boyfriend, Johnny (Dan Duryea). Cross and Kitty stop at a bar and have drinks. When Kitty asks him what he does for a living, Cross, wanting to look good in her eyes, tells her that he is a painter. This impresses Kitty, who thinks that painters make a lot of money. The next day she tells Johnny about this. Johnny senses an opportunity here. He persuades a reluctant Kitty to continue seeing Cross, who is clearly attracted to her, so she can wheedle money out of him. Kitty then persuades Cross to pay for an expensive studio apartment for her. Cross has to steal the money from his wife’s savings. As part of his deal with Kitty, Cross gets to use the place to do his painting. He leaves some of his paintings there. When Johnny finds them, he takes a couple to a street vendor he knows, to see if he can sell them. When he comes back a few hours later, the vendor tells him that the famous art critic, Janeway (Jess Barker) has bought them, and that he wants to see more works by their creator. Johnny then pressures Kitty into taking credit for Cross’s paintings – without telling Cross.

Scarlet Street is a dark comedy that slowly builds to a tragic climax. It is a study in how small lies can spiral into violence, and how decent people can become monsters.

When Scarlet Street was first released, Bosley Crowther, who was then the film critic for the New York Times wrote:

    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.

This is almost the opposite of what I saw in this film. I thought Duryea’s performance was too cartoonish; he seemed too much like the Hollywood stereotype of the “tough guy”. Exaggeration was, of course, part of Lang’s Expressionist aesthetic, so he may have wanted to Duryea to act this way, but he seemed to me to be too much like a supporting player from a Dead End Kids movie. I found Joan Bennett much more believable. She manages to convey a sense that her character feels conflicted about what she is doing. (I can only suppose that Crowther wanted her character to be more like the Wicked Witch of the West.) As for Robinson, in the early scenes he seems to be trying too hard to come across as mild-mannered. As his character gradually becomes corrupted, however, his performance starts to pick up energy. He is powerful in the final scenes.

Scarlet Street is perhaps Lang’s best American film.

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