Chris Cross (Edward G. Robinson) is a man who lacks perspective. Not only in his paintings that are the sole source of joy that life has to offer, but also in his hum-drum, monotonous everyday life. After the opening credits for Fritz Lang’s film noir “Scarlet Street” (1945) have ended, we see Chris sitting at a formal dinner with his co-workers and boss, congratulating him on 25 years of exemplary service as a trusted cashier. He is married to a bitter, mean-spirited widow (Rosalind Ivan) who obviously has no love for Chris and even requires a shrine to her dearly departed spouse to watch over them. In fact, their entire marriage seems to be one of convenience… and nothing more. It’s almost as if this honorary dinner is congratulating Chris on a lifetime of insignificance and disappointment.
Then Chris gains some perspective. On his slightly inebriated, middle of the night walk home, Chris sees a young woman being assaulted in the distance. Enraged, perhaps because of the alcohol, or perhaps because deep down he knows he has little reason to live, Chris rushes to her aid and hits the man with his umbrella. Staring down at Kitty (Joan Bennett), sitting seemingly helpless in the gutter- looking discarded and dirty, Chris regains his normally safe and sound composure and goes to fetch a policeman. What he couldn’t possibly know at this point (and what we as the learned film noir loving audience already have guessed) is that the man he has just struck is Kitty’s boyfriend, Johnny (Dan Duryea), and while Chris is getting the policeman, Kitty gets Johnny out of there.
Chris is instantaneously smitten with Kitty and invites her for a drink. She mistakenly thinks he is a wealthy artist and he does nothing to fill her in on the reality of his dreary existence. He continues to send her letters of affection, which she discards until Johnny sees the potential to make some money. Johnny convinces Kitty to play the part of the young love-struck girl, pining over a man she can never have because of his marriage. Chris wants to keep her with him, so he sets Kitty up in an apartment (that he can’t afford), doubling as his studio. Unfortunately, in order to keep up the ruse of being wealthy and successful, Chris has to steal money from both his wife and his employer to keep Kitty living in her extravagant ways. Things get even more difficult when Johnny begins selling Chris’s paintings (passing them off as Kitty’s), keeping the money for himself and forcing Kitty to continue her charade.
I don’t think that there is anyone out there who can honestly say that director Fritz Lang is anything but a genius. His films are revolutionary endeavors that completely redefined the way the cinematic world functions. Sadly, like a handful of other directing legends, Fritz Lang is mostly remembered for his early films like “Metropolis” (1927) and “M” (1931). Granted, these groundbreaking and near-perfect movies are themselves the very best of Lang’s work, but to overlook his later films would be an injustice to his filmography. I have yet to see a Lang picture that doesn’t have something of significance to offer, and “Scarlet Street” in no exception. Despite unnecessarily negative reviews upon its initial release, this film has an assemblage of technical and aesthetical aspects for any audience to enjoy… and to teach.
As Chris meets Kitty, sitting on the dirty sidewalk, frustrated and tired, waiting for some poor sucker to see her and be overcome by her exuberant sex appeal, we, as the audience, are already aware that Chris is doomed. From the second that they meet, Chris is helpless. Just the way she sits there and stares up toward him says everything. Both Robinson and Bennett give amazing performances in “Scarlet Street”, not flashy or overly intense, because they aren’t playing characters that require anything that extravagant. They actually have to pull back the reins and stay grounded because they are playing ordinary people, living smaller, less prominent lives. Then there is Dan Duryea, who is flashy because Johnny is a man who requires attention and danger. Every time he appears on the screen you can’t help but somehow enjoy his seedy behavior. It’s one of Duryea’s very best performances, and at points he actually steals the attention from the film’s stars.
It’s unusual to see the great Edward G. Robinson as the loveable loser. He’s even more extreme than the usual heart-strung characters we see in other noir films. He typically plays the smartest, most observant man in the room, especially in his other film noir pictures like “The Stranger” (1946)) and “Double Indemnity” (1944). As Chris in “Scarlet Street” he isn’t smart- or at least he doesn’t act that way. He is blind to the reality of his situation, and has no way to stop spiraling out of control. He also happens to be scary as hell, particularly when he gets that crazy look in his eyes once he realizes what a fool he has been. He is the loser to beat all losers.
Likewise, Joan Bennett doesn’t just play your typical femme fatale, she is an extreme version of a femme fatale. (If you don’t believe me, just look at the way she glares at Robinson, while laughing about his simplistic stupidity.) She also happens to be incredibly sexy here, in a way that is extremely alluring and intoxicating. It’s rather surprising, not because she isn’t capable of being sexy, but because here she quite simply makes all the other women blend into the background. Everything just oozes with raw, passion filled sexuality-the tight-fitting black dress, her high-heeled shoes with the straps that wrap her ankles, the way she lies on the sofa or sprawls out on the bed-everything about her screams “look at me!I promise to give your life whatever it may be lacking”. Incidentally she also promises to ruin you.
In many ways “Scarlet Street” is film noir taken to the edge. The sordid, disreputable city seems dirtier than other films. (Milton R. Krasner’s cinematography helps in this area greatly.) Because these details are taken to the extreme, the climax and consequences of these characters and their various decisions are all the more extreme as well. “Scarlet Street” is one of the true, without-a-doubt film noir movies. It embodies everything that is great about the genre, and Fritz Lang’s genius is apparent in every frame, making this picture one that should not to be missed.