“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.
Chris 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.
Kitty 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.
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.
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.
In 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