Scarlet Street (1945)
“The things she does to men can end only one way – in murder!”
Director: Fritz Lang
Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea
Synopsis: When a man in mid-life crisis befriends a young woman, her venal fiancÃ© persuades her to con him out of some of the fortune she thinks he has.
Was ever a man more downtrodden than poor old Chris Cross in Fritz Lang’s Noir thriller, Scarlet Street? Here is a man who clearly has limited experience of the opposite sex, who married a battle-axe out of loneliness in middle age, and whose naivety makes him the perfect target for a hard-hearted schemer like Kitty March and her opportunistic slug of a boyfriend, Johnny Prince. He might as well have loser stamped across his forehead in bright red letters — and this broad characterisation, coupled with a plot that grows increasingly far-fetched, is what ultimately drags down an otherwise good movie.
Cross is a loyal and valued cashier of a brokerage house who, when we meet him, is the subject of a celebratory dinner marking his completion of twenty-five years’ service. He’s played by Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar, Double Indemnity), a small man whom Lang goes out of his way to look even smaller here. Robinson could play timid and fierce with equal proficiency — although he just doesn’t look like a ‘Chris’ — and his advancing years gave him something of a dog-eared look that is well-suited to roles like this. When Cross somewhat fortuitously rescues a woman from an attacker on his way home from the dinner party, he unwittingly sets in motion a chain of events that will result in his downfall. The woman is Katherine ‘Kitty’ Marsh (Joan Bennett), the kind of pretty young woman who wouldn’t ordinarily notice a mousy little man like Cross, so as they engage in conversation he can’t resist exaggerating his accomplishments in life. Cross is an amateur painter, but he allows Kitty to believe that he’s a successful artist selling works of art to galleries across the world. He doesn’t notice the dollar signs revolving in her eyes as he talks, but the audience does.
It’s not long before Kitty’s hooked poor old Chris and begun reeling him in. But what neither of them realises is that, in a strange kind of way, they’re kindred spirits. It never occurs to Chris to question what Kitty was doing out on the street so late on that fateful night, and he simply assumes that her attacker was after the contents of her purse. But her assailant was Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea — Al Jennings of Oklahoma), a man with whom Kitty shares a somewhat ill-defined relationship. Censorship laws of the time meant that it was impossible for Lang to come right out and state it, but Kitty is clearly a prostitute and Prince is her pimp who was roughing her up for not bringing in enough dough. Whether this is a permanent arrangement or simply a stopgap measure when money is short isn’t clear, but what is obvious is that Kitty’s view of their relationship bears little resemblance to Prince’s. She’s convinced he loves her in the same way that the deluded Cross comes to believe that Kitty loves him. The gullibility of each is something of a stumbling block which the movie never quite manages to overcome, although the quality of Dudley Nichol’s screenplay at least manages to paper over some of the cracks.
Anyway, at Prince’s urging, Kitty persuades Cross to ‘lend’ her some money to rent an apartment in which she can live and in which he can paint without being badgered by his shrewish wife, Adele (Rosalind Ivan). But while Cross might paint there and Kitty might live there, it’s Prince who decides on the decor. Duryea, with his lanky frame and sing-song voice, is an odd casting choice for the true love interest of a woman like Kitty, and the fact that he’s dressed like some fairground huckster complete with straw boater does nothing to help him put across the image of Kitty’s amoral manipulator. And unfortunately, it’s through Prince’s increasing involvement that the story starts to come unglued. When he more or less bullies Kitty into claiming credit for painting Cross’s pictures when they come to the admiring attention of an influential art critic, the story becomes increasingly detached from reality. This error of judgment is then compounded when Adele’s first husband — who was believed to have died years before while trying to save a woman from drowning — appears out of the blue to offer Cross a convenient (and contrived) way out of his marriage.
Had Scarlet Street been written and directed by people less talented than Lang and Nichols it’s highly likely that it would have ended up as something of an embarrassment for all involved. But this is one of those rare occasions where the writing surpasses the story (it’s a remake of Jean Renoir’s La chienne) just enough to elevate it above a station it probably deserves. Robinson is perfect as the downtrodden little man who grabs at the fleeting chance of experiencing a taste of the life of which he’d previously only been able to dream, and Nichols’ script handles Cross’s slow corruption at the hands of his own desire with skill and sensitivity. He succumbs by degrees, a drowning man blind to the water rising about him until it’s too late, and the scales never truly fall from his eyes even after the truth is exposed, thereby providing him with a punishment far worse and more enduring than any prison sentence.
(Reviewed 11th August 2014)