Scarlet Street (1945) Fritz Lang

scarlet-poster

“They’ll be masterpieces!”

 

Kitty March (Joan Bennett) is not one of the brightest femme fatales to grace the screen though she certainly ranks up there as one of the nastiest. She would even give Ann Savage in “Detour” a run for her money. When her milquetoast admirer Chris Cross (Edward G. Robinson) finds out she has been selling his paintings under her own name, instead of being upset, he seems actually glad. He has only one demand, that she allows him to paint her portrait, to which she replies, “sure, and you can start right now,” as she hands him a bottle of nail polish so he can paint her toenails.  “They’ll be masterpieces” she slyly sneers as the scene fades. 

This is just one of many masterful scenes in what is arguably Fritz Lang’s greatest American film and one of his finest overall. Based on the French novel “La Chienne” (The Bitch) with a screenplay by Dudley Nichols, “Scarlet Street” is a brilliant, dark tale of an emasculated husband who naively yet willingly subjects himself to humiliation and being made the fool when he falls in love with a beautiful heartless streetwalker. The novel was previously filmed in 1931 by French master Jean Renoir. “Scarlet Street” has been available for years in cheap low grade public domain copies until KINO, in 2005, released a solid pristine newly mastered print preserved by the Library of Congress.

ss-0n-sidewalkChris Cross (Robinson), a mild mannered cashier and Sunday afternoon artist, is being honored at a dinner in a Greenwich Village restaurant for twenty-five years of loyal service to his company. Later that night, on his way to the subway to go back to his Brooklyn apartment, he sees a woman being smacked around by a man. He comes to her rescue, surprisingly knocking the man down with his umbrella. When he goes to calls out to the police for help, the man runs off. The woman is Kitty March, who Chris becomes quickly captivated by. After walking her home, he ask to see her again.

Chris’ home life is lonely, dominated by his tyrannical wife Adele (Rosalind Ivan), who brow beats and criticizes him every minute of the day. Chris’ only pleasure is his painting which he is forecd to do in their tiny bathroom.  If that is not enough, Adele keeps a large painting of her first husband (he supposedly drown trying to save a woman) hanging on the wall looking down on everyone who enters the apartment.

 scarlett-streetKitty gets the impression that Chris is a rich and well-known artist, a notion he hopes impresses her, and does nothing to dispel. Her “boyfriend” Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea), the guy who was slapping her around earlier, convinces Kitty that this old man is a goldmine and she should continue to pursue a relationship with him even start asking him for money.  This dirty scenario sets in motion events that will lead to everyone’s eventual demise.

Chris soon sets Kitty up in a fancy studio apartment in Greenwich Village. Unbeknownst to both Kitty and Johnny the only way Chris can afford all this is by stealing from his company, also by cashing in an insurance policy of his wife’s (from her first husband, policies she was saving for her old age). Johnny’s next scheme is to sell Chris’ paintings, over Kitty’s half-hearted objections. When an influential art critic and gallery owner praises the paintings and offers to sell them, Johnny convinces the two art experts that Kitty is the artist going by the name of Katherine March.

Shopping one day, Adele passes by the art gallery now displaying “Katherine’s artwork.” At home, Chris is cutting up some freshly purchased liver when Adele arrives back home furious. She demands to know how long Chris has known Katherine March. Chris, believing Adele discovered his secret passion for Kitty, is visibly shaken but denies knowing the woman. As the scene evolves with Adele demanding to know about this Katherine March, Chris begins approaching his wife with the knife in his hand. We and Chris soon discover Adele mistakenly thinks Chris has been copying her artwork and that his “lousy” paintings are not even originals. Denigrating him for being nothing more than a copycat, she stalks off to another room. Chris drops the knife; its point sticking into the floor.   scarletstreet1

When Chris confronts Kitty about the paintings being sold, he is surprisingly happy to let her sell them under her name. His one demand is he wants to do a portrait of her.  Soon after, Adele’s first husband shows up alive which frees up Chris now to  propose marriage to Kitty who laughs in his face at the proposal, telling him he is “old and ugly and I’m sick of you, sick, sick, sick!” In a fit of sexually frustrated rage, Chris, using a handy ice pick stabs Kitty multiple times to death.

Chris believes his crimes are discovered when two cops show up at the office where he works. Believing they are about to arrest him for Kitty’s murder he is stunned they are there only to charge him with the embezzlement of $1,200 previously stolen from the company. His boss fires him but decides to not press charges.

The police find enough circumstantial evidence to charge Johnny for Kitty’s murder. At the trial, Chris denies knowing anything about the paintings, sealing Johnny’s faith to the electric chair. Though his revenge is complete, Chris’ guilt is only beginning. Haunted by Kitty and Johnny’s voices, Chris attempts suicide by hanging himself. Six years later, still haunted by voices, Chris is living on the streets. Two policemen, kick him off a park bench where he was sleeping, telling him to go down to the bowery where he belongs. We next see him as he passes by an art gallery that just sold the portrait of Kitty for $10,000. Chris walks by the gallery, unknown, curled up, hunched over still tortured by the voices of Kitty and Johnny. No one get away with murder.

Edward G. Robinson has played mild meek men before (The Whole Town’s Talkin’) but nothing prepares you for Eddie G. in a frilly apron with his over bearing wife constantly pouncing on him to wash the dishes. Lang, with sly humor, arranged several scenes where he puts Robinson in an apron. Robinson’s Chris Cross has lived a life of dull repetition and constant submission consisting of a nine to five job as a cashier, a loyal employee for twenty-five years, and a nagging wife at home. His only pleasure is his art work which he can only do on Sunday’s in between the constant complaining from Adele that he does not make enough money for them to even afford a radio. For Chris, Kitty is a breath of fresh air, a chance to have a life. Edward G. Robinson has never given a bad performance and he is terrific here. The final part of the film as we watch his decent into hell is especially noteworthy.

For Kitty and her slap happy boyfriend Johnny, Chris is an instrument to be used for ill gotten financial rewards. Chris is a sap to Kitty. He believes anything, she says. Johnny convinces Kitty to lead him on and she does. Sure, she tells Chris, she would marry him, but hey, he’s married, so what can you do. They’re both using Chris to extract as much money as they can, though Johnny seems to be the one who ends up with every dollar that comes Kitty’s way. No matter what Johnny does, nor how he treats her, Kitty stills love him.

 Though it is never clearly stated, due to the restrictions of the production code, Kitty is a streetwalker (she doesn’t seem to have any other job) and Johnny’s her pimp, which make clearer his actions on how he is constantly treating her, more as a commodity than a girlfriend. Joan Bennett, in her third of four films she would make with Fritz Lang is a convincingly nasty piece of work, beautiful, seductive and evil. Dan Duryea is credibly slimy as dirt bag Johnny Prince.

There are no likable characters in the film, everyone is corrupt, Chris who only married his battle-axe wife out of loneliness admits he has never seen a woman naked, which you could interpret to mean his marriage to Adele has never been consummated. His wife doesn’t disagree and comments, and I’m paraphrasing here, “I should hope not.” Kitty and Johnny are two bottom feeders, ready to snatch every dollar they can from Chris. Chris’ wife is a nagging, demanding, complaining, unhappy individual. Returning from the dead, Adele’s first husband whom she treasured (he was a police officer!) turns out to have been a thief and actually was on the run faking his own death. Chris’ boss who eventually fires him for embezzlement, left Chris’ party early because he has a beautiful young lady waiting patiently for him out in his limo and she is not his wife!

 

 If the film has a weak spot, it is the return of Adele’s first husband from the dead. It is totally contrived and unbelievable. The only reason for his return seems like a forced plot device that will get Chris single so he will go to Kitty and propose marriage, setting up her laughing fit and vicious verbal tirade that will result in his ultimate violent revenge.   

 joan-bennett-fritz-lang-scarletstreet   I’d be remiss if I did not mention Lang’s use of the song “Melancholy Baby” throughout the film. The song is as bleak and dark as the characters that fill the screen. Finally, the amazing cinematography of Milton Krasner who made the dark and damp wet-filled back lot version of Greenwich Village glisten in the early part of the film as he does for the rest of the film.

    “Scarlet Street” opened to mostly positive reviews. Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, if you are familiar with his work, New York Times critic Bosley Crowthers (1) missed the boat on this film giving it a mixed review calling it a “sluggish and manufactured tale”….“an average thriller job.” As for Robinson’s performance, he “performs monotonously and with little illumination of an adventurous spirit seeking air.”  For Joan Bennett, she was “static and colorless.” He only had good word for Dan Duryea who “hits a proper and credible stride, making a vicious and serpentine creature out of a cheap, chiseling tinhorn off the streets.”  Most other critics of the time liked the film and more importantly, the film was a hit with the public. The previous year, Lang and the three actors made an almost equally as good noir with “The Woman in the Window.”     

    “Scarlet Street” was the first film for Diana Productions, a production company consisting of Walter Wagner, Joan Bennett and Fritz Lang.  For those who are not aware, the relation between the three was more than professional. Wagner was Joan Bennett’s husband and Lang was her lover, so the relationship, business and professional was “complicated, to say the least. In the early 1950,’s Wagner shot and wounded by then agent Jennings’s Lang, Bennett’s alleged lover at the time. Wagner spent four months in jail and Bennett’s film career was effectively ended. She did managed to make a few more films though most of her future work would be in television.   

 4280-scarlet-streetIn talking to Peter Bogdanovich (2), Lang mentions that he had no trouble with the film from the censors. Lang must have been forgetful or his memory of events has been distorted over the years. Depending on the state you lived in, the feverish stabbing of Kitty consisted of one to seven stabs (3). The film was banned by three state censor boards, New York, Atlanta and Milwaukee. The New York censors held up the release of the film until February of 1946. However, it was in Atlanta where the film was delayed for ten months! All this notoriety surely contributed of the film’s financial success, making it one of Universal’s biggest grossing film’s of the decade.

   

 

  

Sources:   (1) The New York Times Feb 16, 1946

                (2) Fritz Lang in America – Peter Bogdanovich

                (3) The Rough Guide to Film Noir – Alexander Ballinger & Danny Graydon

             

 

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16 comments on “Scarlet Street (1945) Fritz Lang

  1. David says:

    Great exposition John. Viewing it recently for the first time, and up until the stabbing scene, I didn’t know what all the hubbub was about regarding censorship. Then it happened. And it was vicious. It was even more so because it took me by surprise. Even after being laughed at and humiliated I thought Robinson’s character too meek and gentle to kill.

    Top-notch acting all around too. And I felt the same way the weak spot in the film. But if that was my wife, I’d want to disappear too.

    David

  2. matt says:

    This blog’s great!! Thanks :).

  3. John Greco says:

    David,

    thanks very much for your comments. I had seen the film some years ago but the stabbing did not make an impression on me until this most recent viewing. It was surprising for sure considering the period the film was made.

  4. R. D. Finch says:

    John, you described the plot of the film with obvious relish, and it does indeed sound juicy. I saw it once on TV many years ago, before I really knew much about movies, but was still very impressed. I wonder, though, if the movie might have been edited down, as so many were in those days. I saw its predecessor, “The Woman in the Window,” a few months ago and really liked it. There are obvious similarities to “Scarlet Street,” not unexpected with the same director and stars (including Duryea), but “Scarlet” sounds even darker and nastier. I’ll make sure to be on the lookout for it.

    What a shame that E.G. Robinson never got the acclaim he deserved. His stock Little Caesar character was well-honed over the years (I think it reached its apogee in “Key Largo”), but he was equally convincing at portraying meek characters who were victims of circumstances. You mentioned “The Whole Town’s Talking.” I saw it not too long ago, and he was sensational in his dual role playing in each of these modes to perfection. To see him play both characters in the same scene was a revelation. But he was also able to work in other modes. His performances in “Double Indemnity” and “The Stranger” attest to this. Hope you will one day write on “The Woman in the Window.”

  5. John Greco says:

    R.D. I really love this film. I saw it once a long time ago and while I remember liking it, I do not think I fully appreciated the artistry as I do now. I have to say with this recent viewing it moved on to my list of favorite films. “The Woman in the Window” is a great film also, somewhat similar as you mention and one I would like to write about upon another viewing.

    Robinson was a versatile actor. In addition to “Double Indemnity” and “The Stranger”, “All My Sons” is another good example of his versatility. One of my favorite films is “The Cincinnati Kid” with Steve McQueen. One of the fun things about the film is the reunion of Robinson and Joan Blondell, who had not made a film together since their days at Warner’s in the 1936 “Bullets or Ballots.” In the film, they greet each other as old friends who have not seen each other for some time and the scene comes across as a blend of fiction and reality. They don’t make a big deal out of it, it’s a throwaway however, if you know the history it adds a bit of substance to the scene.

    Always appreciate hearing from you.

  6. John Greco says:

    R.D. You mention if the film may have been edited down, “as so many were in those days.” From what I have read, the censors problems were with the stabbing scene and apparently depending in what state you saw the film, the number of stabs you saw would vary. In those days, with so many states having their own censorship boards, plus the Hays Office, it is amazing anything ever got passed.

  7. [...] just editing to say I had meant to include links to two good reviews of Scarlet Street,   at 24 Frames and Goodfella’s [...]

  8. John, I once more commend you for your impeccable cinematic taste. This is one of my all-time favourite movies and as you say one of Fritz Lang’s finest. Edward G. Robinson is simply superb in the role of Chris Cross, at times I am entranced by the little, fetishised, sequences of domestic disharmony. I’m quite certain that the Coen Brothers great neo-noir The Man Who Wasn’t There borrows heavily from much of the husband-wife relationship on display in Scarlet Street. The repeated use of “Melancholy Baby” throughout, beautifully underscores the unremittingly bleak chain of events and that climax is as chilling as you are likely to see outside of a horror movie. The Hungarian master filmmaker Bela Tarr creates a similar feeling of insular, oppressive, rain-soaked gloom and desperation in his wonderful late eighties movie Karhozat (Damnation), a film well worth checking out if you haven’t already.

    • John Greco says:

      Rohan,

      Glad to here you are a fan of this film. Robinson is just fantastic and seeing LITTLE CAESAR is an apron is priceless. Lang paints a bleak atmospheric work with hardly a decent character in the entire film. Good point about the Coen Brothers film, did not make that connection. I am not familiar with DAMNATION or the filmmaker Bela Tarr. Will have to check it out. Thanks!

  9. DorianTB says:

    John, your SCARLET STREET post is superb, a fascinating and devastating analysis of one of Fritz Lang’s most compelling films! You brought out elements in your detailed review that even I didn’t pick up on, like “Melancholy Baby” often playing in the background; I watched SCARLET STREET again and had to laugh at myself for not noticing the song earlier! :-)

    I knew that Joan Bennett and producer Walter Wanger were husband and wife, but I was bowled over at your revelation that she was, shall we say, performing double-duty, with Bennett and Lang being lovers. And you say Wanger also shot and wounded Jennings Lang (didn’t he produce the AIRPORT movies? Was he any relation to Fritz?), and HE was her lover, too?! Good grief, it’s a miracle these people had enough time to make movies, what with all the dallying on the side! Well, maybe it’s like Vinnie says: “Hey, on movie sets, they have lots of downtime to get into mischief.” :-) Bravo on a thoroughly entertaining review, my friend!

  10. Chris says:

    Interesting review of a movie that’s been difficult to watch for many years due to the awful print quality. I first saw it back in 1981 or so, and shortly thereafter interviewed Joan Bennett as a project for film school. She hosted that interview at her Scarsdale home, and though funny and gracious, had difficulty recalling many details of her career, though she seemed to have sharper recall about the men she worked with. Although I suspected she had had a relationship with Fritz Lang, I avoided that topic. And we only discussed the Jennings Lang shooting in the context of what it did to her career. The most stirring moment of the interview came when we discussed The Woman in the Window, and she led me to a hallway just off the living room where she’d hung the portrait of her character from the film. Other than a minor bit of damage from a fire, the painting was pristine and quite impressive to see in the flesh. After the two-hour interview, she asked her husband to pull out the brandy and delightedly regaled me with stories of Hollywood while we sipped from glasses carved out of whole jade. Unbelievably, until just now reading your posting, it had been years since I’d thought of that experience. Thanks!

    • John Greco says:

      Chris, thanks for sharing this. interesting stuff! SCARLET STREET would be a good candidate for Criterion to take on.

      • Chris says:

        Agreed. Alas, having seen the DVD struck recently, I’d have to conclude that the Library of Congress print wasn’t pristine either, though certainly an improvement on the public domain releases that were the only ones extant for decades.

      • John Greco says:

        We can keep our fingers crossed a nice pristine print will come along soon.

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