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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Scarlet Street

Pick of the Week: Classic

Scarlet Street (Blu-ray) (Four Stars)
U.S.; Fritz Lang, 1945 (Kino Video).

1. Fritz Lang and Scarlet Street
Scarlet Street — a great Golden Age movie that takes us to the lower depths of a lost soul in Greenwich Village — is generally regarded as one of the classic film noirs, as well as director Fritz Lang‘s highest Hollywood achievement. It is.

Adapted from another film classic, Jean Renoir‘s lively and perverse 1931 French crime movie La Chienne, Lang’s vintage noir has one of the unforgettable Golden Age screen triangles: Joan Bennett as a classically slutty femme fatale, Dan Duryea as her pricelessly sleazy pimp-lover, and Edward G. Robinson solid as a volcano as Chris Cross, a part based on Michel Simon’s old role, in La Chienne, of the henpecked husband cashier/painter who stumbles, out of love and lust, into the dark side. They’re reputed to be one of the best noir threesomes. They are.

Scarlet Street was made in the high noir year of 1945 and it has a top pedigree behind the camera. There was Lang himself — maker of the darkly magnificent German epics and crime thrillers Metropolis, Die Nibelungen, Spies, the Dr. Mabuse films, and the American drime and war classics Fury, You Only Live Once and Hangmen Also Die, and the all time crime movie masterpiece M.

It was produced by Lang together with (uncredited) Bennett’s husband Walter Wanger (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), scripted by Dudley Nichols (The Informer, Stagecoach), photographed by Milton Krasner (The Set-Up), art-directed by Alexander Golitzen (Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent), and based, like Renoir’s picture, on the novel and play by Georges de La Fouchardiere and Andre Mouezy-Eon. It’s a compelling tale of exploitation, adultery and murder: a nightmare that sings.

The movie is set in that little Manhattan sub-island of art and politics and sin, Greenwich Village, in 1934. (The look though, is pure ‘40s.) At a convivial, well-liquored employee party for a local bank, Chris Cross (Robinson), trusted cashier, is about to receive the standard gift for “25 years of faithful service” from his suave, silver-haired boss J. J. Hogarth (Russell Hicks) — a gold watch, with inscription — right before J. J., who’s as old or older than Chris, rushes off for a hot limousine date with an adoring blonde bombshell, admiringly spied on from above by his employees. “I wonder what it would be like to be loved by a young girl like that,” Chris muses to a work friend as they stroll toward the subway. Fate answers him almost immediately.

Across the dark, wet, shiny street of one of those memorable film noir night-city sets (done by three-time Oscar-winner Golitzen, one of whose awards was for To Kill a Mockingbird), the beautiful young Katherine “Kitty” March is being beaten and kicked, even as she lies on the sidewalk, by the decidedly-less-than-gallant Johnny Prince (Duryea, in one of his expertly nasty villain performances). Chris rushes to her aid, beats off the decidedly-less-than-brave Johnny with his umbrella, and walks Katherine home, then invites her for a coffee. Kitty is not too bright a conversationalist, but she has soft dark eyes, Hedy Lamarr hair and a big bosom, and she knows men. Chris is quickly smitten — love-happy enough to rent Katherine an apartment where she can live and he can paint (his life-long Sunday hobby), paid for partly by money he starts to pilfer from the bank accounts.

What Chris doesn’t realize is that Kitty is a professional whore, Johnny is her pimp, and Johnny isn’t  shy about fleecing him for everything he’s got — especially since Chris has lied and told Kitty he was a wealthy artist. Furthermore, despite the physical abuse, she’s crazy about that slimy streetwise cur Johnny: “Jeepers, I love you Johnny,” she likes to tell him, while he calls her “Lazy Legs.“ And Johnny’s regular appearances at the apartment, in full smirk — sometimes with Kitty’s embittered fashion model girlfriend Millie (played by a slightly masculine-acting Margaret Lindsay) — greatly disturb Chris, who can’t quite recognize Kitty’s nocturnal assailant in the grinning high-pants glad-hander Johnny who keeps popping up at Kitty’s like a thousand bad pennies.

Meanwhile, Chris’ home life is a hell of bullying and verbal abuse from his harridan wife Adele (the perfectly cast Rosalind Ivan), who keeps carping about the smell of paint (before Chris gets his studio), and ceaselessly singing the praises of her late husband, a real man (as opposed to Chris, who’s often either painting or in an apron), “Patch-Eye” Higgins, played by that excellent porcine character actor, Charles Kemper (The Southerner, Wagon Master, On Dangerous Ground).

But things change,  strangely enough, even though the same plaintive big band ballad, “:Melancholy Baby,” keeps echoing and re-echoing on the sound track, like an anthem of the sentimental inner life Chris can’t expose. and that may doom him.

Through some only slightly outrageous coincidences, Chris‘s somewhat Frida Kahlo-like paintings are shown by Greenwich Village sidewalk painter Pop le Jon (Vladimir Sokoloff, the evil landlord of Renoir’s The Lower Depths) and spotted by pretentious big-time art critic David Janeway (Jess Barker). Since Johnny — who was trying to peddle the paintings for walking-around money — has falsely attributed them to Kitty and gotten her to sign them, and since, when Janeway meets Katherine to check out her other work, she has the same soft dark eyes and Hedy Lamarr hair that struck Chris, and Janeway has the same reaction, Kitty, in a way, is set to become the media pet painter. the Jean-Michel Basquiat, if not the Andy Warhol, of her day.

Oddly enough, Chris doesn‘t seem to mind the subterfuge and the theft of his work — partly because he doesn’t believe that his paintings, if the art experts had seen the real painter as he really was, would have aroused the same response. (He‘s probably right, even though tastemaker Janeway first became enthusiastic after seeing the paintings by themselves.) Chris is happy, because he thinks he’s found out what it’s like to be loved by a young girl, what it’s like to be admired and maybe even adored — and even, second hand, what it’s like to have your art appreciated, at last.


But this is one of the darkest of all the classic noirs — as well as one of the most complex, plot-wise. And before the darkness closes down completely, on a view of a man alone, his life shattered, his job and friends and future gone, his existence turned into a cruel joke, endlessly tortured and humiliated by voices (“Lazy Legs!” “Jeepers, I love you Johnny!”) — those voices that keep softly and insistently running through his brain — we will have sampled the anguish and delight of life at its worst, Lang and noir at their best.


2. Edward G. Robinson and the City of Night

Lang‘s personal favorite of all his American movies (his favorite among his German films was M), Scarlet Street pulls us into that special noir world we recognize from the other great dark hard-boiled, high-style masterpieces of the ‘40s: Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, the 1946 The Killers, Out of the Past, Laura, Detour, Criss Cross, Phantom Lady, Raw Deal, Caught, T-Men, Gun Crazy, Force of Evil, and The Maltese Falcon — a world of shadowy buildings and glistening, rain-slickened streets, of hot jazz wailing in an after-hours bar or a seething dance hall, of sultry dames with low-cut dresses and inviting eyes, of cynical hard-guys wearing rain coats and tipped fedoras, cigarettes drooping from their lips and guns clenched in their pockets, of killers to whom slaughter is just a job, nothing personal, and of maniacs and psychos for whom it’s very personal indeed. It’s that dangerous film domain — inspired by writers like Chandler and Hammett and Cain and executed by directors like Hawks and Huston and Wilder and Siodmak (and Lang) — of suspicious cops and trigger-happy gunsels and wise cracking shamuses and suave gangsters and fall guys and femmes fatales, and of corpses who keep showing up uninvited in the rooms and the alleys, crimes that flare up beneath the neon signs and knife through the darkness like a shiv in the ribs, a scream in the night, a bullet in the heart.

You know the place. You’ve been there before. You’ll go there again. It’s the city whose king and queen were Bogart and Bacall, and it’s also the city of sleepy-eyed tough guy Robert Mitchum and short-fused John Garfield and hot Barbara Stanwyck and that chump Fred MacMurray; of Robert Ryan and Burt Lancaster and the nastier Kirk Douglas and mercurial Edmond O’Brien and va-va voom Ava Gardner and naughty Gloria Grahame and hapless Elisha Cook, Jr. Of Laird Cregar and Claire Trevor and two-faced Mary Astor and the evil duo of hysterical Peter Lorre and urbane fatman Sydney Greenstreet, and of quintessential B-movie heavy Raymond Burr and tall stern Sterling Hayden and falsetto-giggling Richard Widmark and Jimmy Cagney, yelling his lungs out at the top of the world.
And, apropos of Scarlet Street, it’s the city of Edward G. Robinson, a.k.a. Emmanuel Goldenberg. One of Film Noir’s First Citizens. Eddie Robinson could play it tough and mean (Key Largo), or sharp and upright (Double Indemnity), or meek and beleaguered (The Whole Town’s Talking), or scared and confused (The Woman in the Window), or relentless and moralistic (Orson Welles’ The Stranger), or lovable and paternal (Our Vines Have Tender Grapes), or just plain kill-crazy (Little Caesar). He’s at least a little bit of all of those in Scarlet Street. But mostly, he’s a basically good man gone horribly, horribly wrong. He‘s the classic upstanding citizen who makes one false step and stumbles into Hell. He’s Chris Cross, the perfect patsy.
Scarlet Street fools us a little in the beginning. It presents Chris as a nice guy, modest, talented but unappreciated as an artist, a troubled but kindly man caught in a well-paid but uninspiring job (counting up the cash and locking it away), and in a domestic trap with an awful wife — a discontented man who reaches out for something more beautiful, more stimulating. It presents Kitty as a brainless but street-smart bitch and Johnny as a stupid but street-smart, selfish little rat.
But, beneath Chris’ fatherly manner, there’s a monster of sorts, even if it’s unleashed accidentally, for only a few seconds and four icepick-thrusts. (Many gifted artists have their monstrous sides.) Beneath the destructive, exploitive, bad-to-the-bone selfishness of Kitty the dumb sexy hooker and Johnny the psychopath, are two overgrown children playing with fire. And Scarlet Street, unlike Sartre’s “No Exit” — a play directed on stage by noir master John Huston — puts them all in their separate Hells.
Like Robinson, both Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea could be noir immortals for this film alone — though Joan also has, to her credit, The Woman on the Beach and The Reckless Moment and The Secret Beyond the Door. Duryea, a perfect sometimes spineless villain, has Ministry of Fear and Black Angel and Criss Cross. And all three of them, plus Lang, have the previous year’s The Woman in the Window, which is also a nightmare for three players, about a good man gone wrong, and a woman in a painting, but doesn’t go as far, cut as deep.
There is, surprisingly, some controversy about whether Scarlet Street or The Woman in the Window is the better movie, the better Lang picture. But though Woman in the Window is very good and a model thriller, Scarlet Street is great (as is its model La Chienne). For one thing, it’s a noir that, like Double Indemnity, stays dark to the end, and gets even darker when you think about it afterwards. Wanger, and, to a lesser extent Lang and Nichols, battled the censors all the way with Scarlet Street (which passed the Breen Office gauntlet, but was banned in New York and elsewhere), even though strangely enough, the enforced moralism of the Hays Code era films may have helped Lang’s unusually frank movie, a picture whose narrative strategies concentrate on finding ways to say the unsayable, and to help the audience think the unthinkable — and whose main theme after all, is “Crime Does Not Pay.” Nowadays, if the film were ever remade, most directors would probably opt for Renoir’s ending (a sublimely goofy denouement depicting Michel Simon as a happy bum) rather than Lang’s.
Scarlet Street is one of Lang’s most personal films, one of his best films — though not his very best. (See below.) And though Scarlet Street does show a matchless director in his top form, it‘s a little deceptive to see this masterpiece purely though Lang‘s eye (the good one). Nowadays many of us tend to view film, or at least film art, as the work primarily of the director. But movies, as any good or great director will probably tell you, is a collaborative art, and most great films are the result of great collaborations.
Lang is the most important artist in the collaboration here, and almost certainly the most inspirational to his fellow filmmakers. He was not the only one. Yet you have to applaud him even more maybe, because, as the producer, he, along with Wanger, brought all these people together: Golitzen and Krasner, Robinson, Duryea and Bennett (who was married to one of her producers, and it was said, sleeping with another.) And Dudley Nichols, the screenwriter, who worked for Ford and Hawks, Renoir and McCarey, Kazan and Anthony Mann.  A great one.
Fritz Lang believed he never made a better movie in America than Scarlet Street. He didn’t. But though it might be gratifying to say that he never made a better movie, period, than this one, it’s not his best picture. M is. But then, few filmmakers have ever made a better movie than M — which is also another picture that tells us, in even more complex ways, that crime doesn’t pay.  Maybe it doesn’t. Or maybe it’s variable, changeable, merging. A sort of criss-cross.

Extras: A fine Commentary by David Kalat; Photo gallery.


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