Fritz Lang's nasty thriller will plunge you into a morass of disreputability, deception, and greed.


hen you’ve lived your whole miserable, shriveled life devoted to duties you’ve taken on without even really knowing why, what does it take to shake you out of your torpor? And what beast might awaken inside of you once you’ve fallen under an entirely different, and much more exciting, spell?

Scarlet Street, a 1945 picture directed by Fritz Lang, provides a positively morbid (in a good way!) answer to the question. The movie stars Edward G. Robinson as Christopher Cross (no, really), a meek bookkeeper for a clothing manufacturer and devoted husband to a spectacularly shrewish harridan. Robinson became a screen icon in the 1930s by playing feral gangsters, but he had an equal facility for portraying milquetoasts. Scarlet Street opens with Our Chris receiving a commendation from his colleagues and his boss, who is observed getting into a car with an attractive blonde maybe a third his age as he leaves a dinner. What must that sort of thing be like, wonders Chris, who, as we’ll see, literally wears an apron during most of his domestic hours with his harridan spouse.

He’ll find out, sort of. He soon encounters a very sultry streetwalker, Kitty March (Joan Bennett), freshly stung in a fight with her slimeball pimp Johnny (Dan Duryea). Resplendent in her transparent rain slicker, Kitty represents a vivid erotic ideal almost immediately, but at first the very meek Chris only offers Kitty a shoulder to cry on. Trying to impress the girl, he tells her that he’s an artist. And he is—a Sunday painter, as they used to call them, but Cross’s work is actually startlingly odd and original. Kitty thinks she’s hooked a big fish. Johnny encourages her: “Didn’t you always say you wanted to be an actress?” So Kitty goads Chris into renting her an apartment, one that Chris can use as a studio. Soon things accelerate to the point that Johnny and Kitty are raking in the cash selling Chris’s paintings with Kitty’s signature appended to them.

Director Lang was one of the stylistic architects of film noir; his silent and early sound features in his native Germany, including the crime epic Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1929) and seminal serial-killer film M (1931), represented cinematic expressionism at its most galvanizing. Not to mention expensive: his sci-fi vision Metropolis (1929) practically bankrupted his German studio in the late ’20s. U.S. studios often kept him on a tighter leash.

Scarlet Street is almost entirely set-bound but no less delirious for that. The shadows cast over its backlot simulation of arty Greenwich Village are long and deep, apt to swallow its lost souls. Chris’s paintings, done in real life by Lang’s friend John Decker, are uncannily weird, including a vision of an oversize Old Testament serpent snaking its way down from an elevated train track to fix its eyes on a streetwalker.

The movie’s views of male-female relations are almost entirely retrogressive, but that’s not a liability; it’s part of what makes the film so loopily powerful. Bennett’s portrayal of the predatory Kitty is deliciously overdone: the fake piety of her pronouncements that she won’t sleep with the very thirsty Chris because it’s against her ethics to fool around with a married man is an apex of hilariously epic dissembling. Similarly, the look of disgust she barely bothers to conceal whenever Chris draws her near is staggering in its contempt. She’d seem like a truly dangerous operator—except for the dumb way she tumbles for the utterly worthless Johnny, who’d dismember her and sell her off for parts if he thought he could get away with it. Duryea, a specialist in playing smirky sleazoids on screen, was apparently a genuinely swell fellow in real life.

People today sometimes complain about films or books if they lack “likable” or “relatable” characters, but what makes Scarlet Street great is precisely because there are no likable characters. Chris, the ostensible protagonist, is at heart a sniveling worm who’s subjected himself to a life of misery and turns to a life of utter amorality—lying, cheating and swindling—as soon as he’s offered something that he takes as a ticket out, as false as we know it to be. While we may derive some satisfaction at the way he turns the tables on a blackmailer in order to walk out of his loveless marriage free and clear (or so he thinks) he doesn’t really represent a “rooting interest". Despite being depicted in a way that indulges in an ocean’s worth of misogynist tropes, Bennett’s Kitty is maybe the least hateful character of the lot—miserable judgment in boyfriends (both actual and fake) aside, she’s just trying to survive. Each of the three figures in this twisted love/hate/exploitation triangle is a great deceiver, but Kitty is the best improvisor of the bunch. Once she starts getting courted by an art critic and a prestigious dealer, she barely has to do any inventing to make her case as a genius female artist in a big bad man’s world.

The movie is adapted from La Chienne, a 1931 French film made by the great Jean Renoir. It’s a first-rate early talkie from the maestro, not as galvanic as his subsequent Boudu Saved From Drowning (1932). As it’s French, it has more latitude in matters sexual—after the opening dinner it’s understood that the salarymen (save for milquetoast Maurice, played with shambling expertise by Michel Simon) are repairing to a brothel. But its overall approach is relatively subdued, realistic in a mode that would influence both Italian and French cinema of the next generation. Scarlet Street, on the other hand, glories in luridness. Even though it can only go so far in laying out how Kitty makes her living, Bennett’s erotic indolence does sufficient labor to push implication pretty far over the line necessitated by Hollywood self-censorship.

Since I’m recommending the movie, I don’t want to give too much away—suffice it to say that it does indeed culminate in a murder, and the wrong person is sent to the chair for the crime. The party who gets away with it cannot enjoy their triumph, though, and subsequently wanders through life with the voices of two ghosts in constant pursuit. (In La Chienne, the guilty party is similarly ruined—the movies are nearly identical with respect to incident—but isn’t dogged by guilt.) I guarantee you that after watching this picture, you will never hear the exclamation “Jeepers” the same way again.

The best-looking version of Scarlet Street is available to stream for free on Tubi. It's also available to stream for free on Pluto TV and Vudu, and is available to rent or purchase from Amazon Prime, YouTube, Apple TV, etc.

Glenn Kenny writes about film for a variety of publications including the New York Times and He is the author of the forthcoming “The World Is Yours: The Story of ‘Scarface’.”

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