When it comes to bleak and beautiful noir, it’s hard to top Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street. This 1945 motion picture is based on Georges de La Fouchardière’s novel La Chienne and features a screenplay by Dudley Nichols. The material is dark and cynical and glorious, with characters traipsing through life in various stages of desperation.
Scarlet Street is often compared to Lang’s 1944 film noir The Woman in the Window. The principal cast is the same and blackmail is a feature, as is the artistic world, but Scarlet Street is far more malicious in construct and far more injurious in its exploration of decadent desire.
Edward G. Robinson is Christopher Cross, a cashier. He’s married to Adele (Rosalind Ivan), who calls the shots and refuses to support her husband in any way. After being honoured by his boss (Russell Hicks) for 25 years of service, Cross saves Kitty (Joan Bennett) as she’s being beaten by Johnny (Dan Duryea).
It soon becomes apparent that all is not as it seems. Johnny and Kitty are lovers, for starters. When Kitty erroneously believes Cross is a rich artist, she develops a scheme with her boyfriend and puts the screws to the besotted old man.
Scarlet Street builds things out of the gate with some resourceful character development. Cross’ work party suggests a submissive celebrated by his peers and boss but fairly detached from existential consummation. His reluctance when accepting a cigar is a nice touch, as is his reaction to his superior’s distinguished infidelity. Later, he tells his wife he’s never even seen a naked woman.
When Cross walks an acquaintance (Samuel S. Hinds) home, he muses about art being his sanctuary. He invites the man over to see his work on Sunday and comes across the pussycat up a proverbial lamppost. A drink and a smirk later, Christopher is smitten by a lie he’s unconsciously forged his way into. On Sunday, he’s disparaged in front of his buddy by his crone of a wife. Note the bloomy apron.
Lang builds Cross’ discontent with care and it isn’t long before the character is ultimately sympathetic. The audience knows that Kitty and Johnny are rip-off artists. They know Kitty is a broken individual, a languid and muddled rat who gets by on her looks and is only barely respected by her roommate Millie (Margaret Lindsay).
Interestingly, even Millie is swept into Kitty’s web. She is, after all, paying the lion’s share of the rent and gets involved in the scam when she’s assigned the role of Johnny’s bogus sweetheart. She knows Johnny smacks Kitty around, but what the hell can she do about it?
Duryea and Bennett work well as the toxic couple and their poison even impacts the art world. Esteemed critic Janeway (Jess Barker) is led to believe that Kitty is responsible for Cross’ paintings and he’s impressed with her ostensible gifts. True to form, Duryea’s character sniffs out more cash and is only too happy to carry on the ruse.
Bennett’s Kitty is about as far from blameless quarry as she can get. She plays equal partner to Johnny’s parasitic clown. She adapts his language, using his expressions in moments of anger, and lashes out anytime someone says the dude is bad for her. She can scarcely secrete her scorn for Cross, snuffling when she’s not looking and lashing out when he is.
Scarlet Street piles a mountain of complications on top of the more concise character drama and that’s where the movie loses a little heat. There are issues with Adele’s departed husband that seem unnecessary and the painting con runs a little long in the tooth, even if the effect is appreciated in the final analysis.
But as a miserable and dirty film noir, Scarlet Street is a must-see. Lang’s well-documented frustration with Hollywood doesn’t play as sharp a role here as it did in The Woman in the Window and the concluding moments gratify in that nobody’s happy except the dead. Now that’s dark.