Friday, April 12, 2019

Scarlet Street (1945)

USA, 102 minutes
Director: Fritz Lang
Writers: Georges de La Fouchardiere, Andre Mouezy-Eon, Dudley Nichols
Photography: Milton R. Krasner
Music: Hans J. Salter
Editor: Arthur Hilton
Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea, Margaret Lindsay, Rosalind Ivan, Arthur Loft, Samuel S. Hinds, Jess Barker

Scarlet Street is just as much a dream state film noir as The Woman in the Window, but everything is a little more frayed at the edges, beat down, wretched, and pointless. Edward G. Robinson is once again the middle-aged patsy for Joan Bennett, but instead of Richard Wanley, a professor who belongs to a private walnut-paneled club in Manhattan, he plays Christopher Cross, a humble henpecked minor clerk who thinks he's a painter. The Joan Bennett character is the same, but a few rungs down the ladder. In The Woman in the Window she was Alice Reed, a woman with no visible income. In Scarlet Street there's no question that Kitty (Bennett) is a prostitute. And she's in love ("love") with her pimp—Johnny (Dan Duryea). Duryea slaps Bennett around like last time, even more actually, but this time she's crazy mad for the guy. The most haunting line in the whole movie might be, "Jeepers, I love you, Johnny."

There's a lot of crossover between the two movies but perhaps the most intriguing is the theme of painting. In The Woman in the Window it's a painting that draws Wanley to Reed, but here painting and the world of art are much more enmeshed with everything. Cross, it turns out, is not a wannabe but actually an undiscovered genius, whose talent is unveiled within hours when Johnny lifts a few samples of his work and takes them down to Washington Square to see what he can get for them. Johnny had the impression he could get more, a lot more, but we can see what really counts is that the Most Important Art Critic in New York simply must know who this artist is (he happened to walk by Washington Square, apparently). So Johnny tells him it's Kitty. What could possibly go wrong? Spoilers, of course.

Everything, of course—everything inevitably goes wrong in Scarlet Street. It's that dream again, the one where Robinson's middle-aged afterthought pathetically sees glimmers of hope where we can see there is none. Here he doesn't even have the solace of a family, the children and loving wife he had in the first movie. His wife Adele (Rosalind Ivan, who does this kind of thing well) is shrewish and horrible, a widow on her second marriage who only thinks the worst of Chris, keeping a painting (!) of her first husband in the living room as a constant reminder to them both and mocking all his aspirations. "I was lonely," Chris tells Kitty trying to explain his marriage to Adele. "I couldn't stand my loneliness."

But no one has any respect for Chris, not even director Fritz Lang, who among other things puts him in an apron for his kitchen responsibilities in his life with Adele. Scarlet Street may be more downbeat, but it does have more sly fun with some of its touches. Chris goes beyond being mild-mannered and gets off on masochism and submissiveness. The apron is one thing. In another scene, Chris tells Kitty he wants to paint her. She puts her bare foot in his face and hands him a bottle of nail polish—and he gets on his knees and goes right to work. Painting her. Even his name is sexually ambiguous. There's a kind of willfulness to Chris Cross's shambling naivete that looks more real in these scenes.

Another interesting point about Scarlet Street is that it's that very rare movie in Hollywood of the era where a criminal—in this case a murderer no less—is seen getting away with the crime. In a fugue state of jealous rage, humiliated by Kitty's mocking laughter, Chris is propelled to stab her to death with an ice pick (some nice foley work there). But by luck and circumstances, and maybe even a little guile, Chris hangs the crime on Johnny, who goes to the chair for it (like Duryea's character would have too in The Woman in the Window). In the final minutes of the picture we see Chris's ultimate punishment—"Jeepers, I love you, Johnny" echoing—tormented forever by love lost he never had and no future no future no future. It was all not a dream. Chris might as well be in hell. In case this goes over anyone's head, there's a guy on a train on the way to the execution who explains the fine points.

It's an interesting pair, The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, with all their harmonies of themes, players, styles, and dream touches. The Halliwell's film guide says The Woman in the Window is the better picture and I certainly have come to agree it's the more purely entertaining. The Woman in the Window is almost intricate, and most dreamlike, the way it springs from one suspense setup trap into the next. It's much better than I used to think. Over at IMDb, meanwhile, 12,358 voters have lifted Scarlet Street to an average 7.9 (of 10) rating versus 11,893 voters bringing The Woman in the Window to a close 7.7. I used to be certain Scarlet Street was the better of the two because it's so very authentically dark. The only thing that might be love in the movie is Kitty's feeling for Johnny though it's explicit to everyone other than Kitty that that is lust. Chris means well but might deserve hell because he's weak—hell, he might enjoy it. And the way the murder scene goes down. Though it can be sardonically funny, Scarlet Street is more glum, but it stays with you. A score of 7.9 to 7.7 sounds about right, although my own numbers might be more like 9.3 to 8.9.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed reading your complementary reviews of "The Woman in the Window" and its semi-sequel, "Scarlet Street", Jeff, especially your admission that you've reversed your preference between the two films over the years, now going for Woman in the Window by a slight margin. I appreciate and echo all your comments about both, though I'm still with the IMDb crowdsource at this point, voting for Scarlet Street, I think primarily because it obeys Film Noir's basic mission of portraying an existential hell the characters CAN'T wake up from, they've made their guilt and now have to reside in it. I also like the way Edward G. Robinson makes his Scarlet Street henpecked-artist-husband so totally believable, just as he would do opposite-side-of-society gangster Johnny Rocco in "Key Largo" in 1948 -- talk about multi-dimensional acting!

    -- Richard Riegel