Film Noir: Scarlet Street


Directed By: Fritz Lang

Screenplay By: Dudley Nichols – based upon the novel/play “La Chienne” by:  Georges de la Fouchardiere and Andre Mouezy-Eon

Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea

Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson), upon receiving a watch on his 25th Anniversary as a bank cashier, laments his life so far; he is stuck in a loveless marriage where his wife values the memory of her departed first husband above all else; his love of painting, much maligned by his wife, has not formed the career he had hoped for and he has never had a chance of love with a beautiful young woman.

Whilst walking home, Christopher witnesses a man’s attack on the beautiful and young Kitty March (Joan Bennett), in the street.  Instinctively, he sees off the attacker, and he walks her home.  Naturally, he is smitten with her immediately and she goes along with that to see who this guy is and what she might get from him.

Christopher is delusional; he’s taken in by her looks and the fact that she doesn’t seem in a hurry to get rid of him and in doing so; he blinds himself to the reality of who she is.  He suggests she may be an actress, which she is more than happy to go along with, even claiming that the play she was in closed that night.  After all, she does have aspirations to act, so it’s only a white lie.  She dodges his questions and turns the conversation back to him.  She suggests he may be a banker; now this would bring the reality back and possibly cost Christopher any ounce of interest Kitty may have in him, so he denies it.  Kitty then makes an assumption that Christopher must be an artist and Christopher goes along with it; he does paint and so he could class himself as an artist; it’s only a white lie.

Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea) is Kitty’s boyfriend and, is seems implied, sometime pimp.  He was the guy beating her up and upon learning of her encounter with a famous artist; he sets in motion a scam to get his money.  It is a scam that spirals out of control and into fantastical realms that almost push it to the point where it becomes absurd.

The cynical view of life, so often associated with film noir, is ubiquitous in Scarlet Street.  No single character, given anymore than a few minutes screen time, is a straight up citizen.  Even Christopher’s boss, the authority to which Christopher tries to hide his stealing, is carrying on with a mistress.  This is a bleak view of a dog eat dog world, where everyone has some sort of scam going on someone else.

Christopher is portrayed as somewhat of a sap (a departure for the often seen gangster heavy Robinson), but he embarks on a line of deceit of his own that leads to dramatic consequences.  His “love” affair with Kitty is a one-sided affair from both parties; the both provide lies to enchant the other and to attempt to achieve their goals; in his case he wants her love as his wife and she wants his money.  So blinded by their individual lusts, they fail to notice that neither has what the other wants; he has no money and she has no love to give him.

The plot becomes, at times, far-fetched; as Kitty becomes a famous artist via another Johnny scam (the guy can certainly think on his feet) using Christopher’s paintings and Christopher’s wife’s first husband turns up alive.  But these become the catalysts for the brutal climax and Christopher’s descent into madness.

Edward G. Robinson excels as Christopher; he has a lot of screen time and has to cover a complex range of characteristics:  Christopher is a dreamer; he dreams of being an artist and his vision of the world.  He’s emasculated by his wife, her admiration for her dead husband and her disdain for him (perfectly encapsulated by his frilly apron).  He’s besotted by Kitty and his lust for her; at times he becomes disgustingly clingy and you can see why Kitty grimaces as he nuzzles at her neck.  Above all, he is desperate; desperate for a life that offers more and that will cost him dearly.

The cast and crew, as often happened in that era and even today, had previously successful (The Woman in the Window) and so were reunited for this movie.  Edward G. Robinson is known to most as a gangster shows his versatility and went on to become a screen legend.  Joan Bennett brings an earthy quality to her streetwise Kitty, she is quite remarkable in this movie.  Dan Duryea steals the show for me; he is the smiling crocodile of the movie; grinning his way through every menacing and malicious move he makes.  Fritz Lang is probably mostly associated with Metropolis and he brought his European cinematic ideals to America and heavily influenced the noir genre.

This movie is available on dvd and is part of the public domain; which means you can find it on-line and watch it for free.

Noir Cynicism 10/10: all of the characters given any reasonable screen time lie, cheat, steal or kill
Noir Femme Fatale 08/10: Kitty’s charms suck Christopher in and drive the whole plot.  She loses 2 points for actually being in love with Johnny
Noir Anti-Hero 05/10: There is no anti-hero.  Even the sap Christopher is a contemptible character once his head is turned by Kitty.  Johnny racks up some points for his blatant manipulation and grifting.
Noir Crime 09/10: a faked death, a dirty cop, fraud, theft, prostitution, assault, murder and an innocent man sentenced to death.
Noir Dough $50,000 seems to be the figure they are all chasing for a prized painting.
Noir Body Count 2
Noir Style 08/10: Lang is a major influence on film noir, but at times the sets and the lighting is clunky.  The hotel room sequence with Christopher contemplating what he has done is classic noir, complete with the flashing neon sign outside the window.

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