It starts with a lonely middle-aged man observing another middle-aged man getting into a car where a beautiful woman waits inside. The observing middle-aged man (he’s called Christopher Cross and is played by Edward G. Robinson) wants some of that. But what is the ‘That’ that he wants? The woman? To be loved? Or is it an aspect regarding beauty?
As Chris walks home that night he “rescues” a beautiful woman from an attacker, an event which happens so quickly it’s almost as though he did nothing at all. Still, he has now met a beautiful lady (she’s called Kitty and is played by Joan Bennett, although her “friends” call her ‘Lazy Legs’) and even though he’s old enough to be her father it seems he might not be quite so lonely from now on after all.
Kitty seems to think Chris is an artist which is odd because everyone at the bank Chris works at believes he’s a bank clerk. Even Chris’s wife — oh, did I forget to tell you Chris is married? It’s okay though, as they don’t love each other — seems to think he’s a bank clerk. She most certainly doesn’t think he’s an artist what with all that horrible nonsense he paints. She doesn’t even want it in the house, cluttering up the toilet and whatnot.
But who cares as Chris seems to have found a possible lover and a definite muse whilst Kitty has found a poor schmuck… I mean a tender, understanding man who might soften her cynical heart.
So starts Fritz Lang’s ‘Scarlet Street’ (1945) and all the pieces are in place for a typical Noir murder/mystery as we wait for Chris to knock off his awful wife and steal a load of cash from his work so he can run off with Kitty. Except that’s not what happens with the focus shifting away from the thriller angle and plunging, instead, into the world of art, art appreciation, creative authenticity, social snobbery and self-expression as Chris’ paintings takes centre stage. Suddenly the only question we find ourselves asking is not so much ‘is Chris going to murder his wife?’ but ‘is his art any good?’
All this is played out with some incredibly funny, and very racy, dialogue meaning for much of its running time ‘Scarlet Street’ feels less a Noir and more a full-on comedy (you can understand why Ernst Lubitsch was, apparently, originally set to direct this). So many of the scenes illicit laughter with the only warning signs being the way Kitty smiles at Chris when she knows he isn’t looking and the fact she claims to still be smitten with her thuggish boyfriend Johnny Prince but there’s no way she can actually love such a brutish guy, right? There’s also some great jokes regarding Chris’ paintings too with the line ‘And that snake is strictly from the Bronx’ being one of them, although it might be Chris’ wife who holding his art in almost as much contempt as she does her husband, gets some of the best put downs and digs. ‘Scarlet Street’’s script is extremely funny and very well written.
Throw in some sizzling sex — “Paint me, Chris” — and ‘Scarlet Street’ positively bubbles along… until Lang, inevitably, plunges us headlong into total hell after a horrific explosion of violence and if there’s one thing Lang knew how to do well it was horrific explosions of violence. The Noir nightmare that we could sense was deliberately being held back is suddenly fully unleashed and all the little crimes we expected to be carried out before-hand we now realise have been saved up for this one big one near the end and all the proceeding, albeit uneasy, breeziness is blown out the window. It’s shocking but it’s a reminder of how so much of Lang’s work was about violence and art and the question of whether or not he could tell the difference between the two.
The nightmare also infects the visuals. Notice when Johnny breaks the glass in Kitty’s door, the splintered slices of space where the shards should be pointing directly to the outline of his head with geometric precision, with even Johnny’s hat having made an unrealistic outline in the glass. Johnny has been captured and frozen in time like an artist’s model and it’s a striking and terrifying piece of visual design as well as an intimation that he might not be the only person to end up frozen in time.
Love and shattering seem inextricably enmeshed together in ‘Scarlet Street’. Every time we know Kitty and Johnny have had sex it’s signalled by a broken record skipping and when Kitty tells her girlfriend down the phone “That’s love, honey” it’s immediately followed by the sound of breaking glass. The sound design for the entire film is amazing and becomes even more important, and overwhelming, at the film climaxes.
Yet, despite being in the midst of psychological turmoil Lang, amazingly, still keeps the gags coming, even keeping some of the biggest and blackest laughs till the end. Has an embittered ex-wife ever been given a finer final dig at her ex? And should I really be laughing so hard at a certain person’s terrible fate?
The acting is fantastic with Edward G. Robinson playing meek yearning perfectly whilst Joan Bennett as Kitty is as captivating as she is slippery. Although it might be Dan Duryea who starts to steal the show, especially as his nasty piece of work Johnny becomes more embroiled in the art world and he starts sniffing opportunity. And his little speech about actors in Hollywood? He’s not talking about the fact he could be an actor one day; he’s telling us he could easily be a psychopath.
I was really surprised by ‘Scarlet Street’ and couldn’t help thinking it must’ve influenced Tony Hancock’s excellent ‘The Rebel’ (1961) with both films revolving around a hapless office worker with burning artistic ambitions and longing to escape a nagging presence back home. It’s certainly the film I was reminded of watching ‘Scarlet Street’ more than any other Noir I can think of. It’s as much about artistic self-expression as murder or crime so maybe Chris just needed a little more faith in himself as an artist, although as Kitty untactfully informs him, your faith doesn’t mean a thing.
Ouch! Now that’s brutal.