(1945) dir. Fritz Lang
Edward G. Robinson,
Review By Greg Klymkiw
"I've been waiting to laugh in your face ever since I met you. You're old and ugly and I'm sick of you. Sick! Sick! Sick!"
-Joan Bennett to Edward G. Robinson in Scarlet Street
If you've never felt - even once - that dreadful, sickening, soul-sucking feeling of digging yourself into a deeper hole, then good for you. You must obviously live a charmed life. Most of us know, however, when we're already in one of those holes and instead of clambering out while we still can, we shove our respective spades into God's good earth and just keep digging. Why do we do it? Especially when we know we're digging ourselves deeper than we can ever possibly hope to clamber out of? Well, sometimes one just hangs on to a wisp of hope that the thing you think you need is, like some buried treasure, just a few more feet below.
Once in awhile, a hand will thrust itself down and offer you a way out of the depths. Sometimes you'll take it but oft-times you won't. Even those who do accept the helping hand will, most of the time, do so with regret. They allow themselves to be hoisted up just long enough to grab a few fresh breaths, grab a bite to eat and maybe think about packing a box lunch and then dive back down into the open jaws of the hole.
When we first meet Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) in Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street, we hear a boisterous, heartfelt group of men singing "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow" so loudly that their voices are spilling onto the wet, dark streets of New York. Once we're inside the brightly lit party room of a private gentleman's club, remnants of a sumptuous meal with liquor still flowing, the singing builds to a rousing climax of cheers. A meekly appreciative Chris, is clearly the recipient of this gleeful admiration. His boss delivers an extremely moving speech that extolls the virtues of honesty, loyalty and hard-work that Chris has displayed over the years as a cashier with the company - capping off the tribute by presenting his "old friend Chris" with a gorgeous gold watch encrusted with jewels.
It's when the boss departs early for the reason that one can "never keep a woman waiting", Chris looks out the window just as his employer exits the building and enters the awaiting limo below - its only other passenger being a stunning, young, platinum blonde.
Chris knows this is not the boss's wife and he wonders aloud: "I wonder what it's like to be loved by a young girl." Cue hole-digging just about here. Chris has picked up the spade and is eager to use it.
Later that evening, Chris walks the empty streets. He hears a scream. From a distance Chris sees a woman under a lamppost being slapped around by a man. Chris surprisingly bolts into action and rescues the beautiful young woman by beating the vile pig with his umbrella. The weasel scurries away, clutching the money he's robbed from the woman. Chris walks the young lady home and they stop for a drink in a basement dive. Anyone else would have realized that the sexy Kitty March (Joan Bennett) is a common streetwalker (and not a fashion model as she claims to be) and that the rat-faced thug who stole her money is not some random thief, but Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea), her pimp and lover.
That Chris is oblivious to this and swallows all her lies, exaggerations and vaguely disingenuous flirting is pretty much the beginning of the end. His spade plunges deep into the ground. The hole-digging begins in earnest.
It's also to actress Joan Bennet and director Fritz Lang's credit that we almost believe Kitty, too. She's packed tightly and curvaceously into her - ahem - Sunday go to meetin' time best and her straight, lush tresses that hang down to her shoulders, progressively unravel into schoolgirl-like curls and frame her soft, square face with a distinctively high forehead, pert nose, soulful eyes and ready-for-kissin-and-a-slurpin lips. Yup, she's Madonna and Whore, but discretely dolled-up like a teenage Catholic High School girl. Bennett's sultry voice and the dialogue (courtesy of the great screenwriter Dudley Nichols) veer from innocence to slutty, from genteel to crass and from surprising erudition to white trash street smarts. She's an incredible and indelible female character - a smart cookie in the wrong place at the wrong time and getting by as best she can in what is decidedly a man's world. Even more haunting is that there are more than enough hints that she's suffered a great deal of abuse over the short time she's been alive on this planet. She takes the foul Johnny Prince's beatings with a grain of salt since they're almost a small price to pay for his "support", companionship and first-rate cocksman-ship. In another instance, she only seems to be half-cracking a wiseacre when she describes her feelings about Chris, Edgar G. Robinson's staggering portrait of the jowly, hangdog white-knight-moneybags-meal-ticket in this way: "If he were mean or vicious or if he'd bawl me out or something, I'd like him better."
Robinson, of course, is great - an actor who's never delivered anything less than a brilliant performance throughout his long and distinguished career. In Scarlet Street, we're moved and repulsed by his character in equal measure. He toils away as a cashier at the high-end men's clothing store, surrounded by handsome, well-dressed colleagues who all seem content with their manhood and place in the world. Chris, on the other hand, goes home every night to his wife, a shrieking harridan who might best be described by quoting George about Martha in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf - she's neither a woman, nor much of a human being, but rather represents a kind of "slashing, braying residue that calls itself" his wife. Not that Chris is a prize catch. He admits to marrying her, almost in a whine, because he was afraid of being lonely. It's sad as all hell, but frankly, pretty damn pathetic. And God knows if Chris was even able to perform his husbandly duties in the boudoir when he admits with only the slightest hint of irony (so slight, it might not be ironic at all) that:
"I never saw a woman without any clothes."
Even more pathetic is that he's clearly a gifted artist, but creates his work in an atmosphere of his wife's verbal abuse and threats that she'll toss all his paintings in the trash. Granted his painting is the only escape he knows, but he thinks so little of his work that he doesn't even sign his paintings.
Worst of all, Chris displays inordinate stupidity and weakness when he allows himself to be duped by Kitty and Johnny. He not only keeps handing her scads of cash he's embezzling from his employer, but eventually allows her to take full credit for his artwork which eventually catches the eye of a prominent New York art dealer and visual arts critic. For all of this, he's getting no nookie and when he tries to hug or kiss her, she shrinks away in disgust.
One of the most complex, brilliant and emotionally wrenching scenes in movie history occurs when he realizes he's been duped and still professes his love for her. He begs her to marry him and Kitty's response is unbearably vicious. What's amazing about this moment is that we're moved by both characters (and performances). We're shocked and saddened by how mean she is to Chris, but at the same time, we sympathize with this young woman who's been dealt far too many bad hands in life and is surviving in way that stems directly from her social situation. Looking at the deep hurt in Chris's eyes is also profoundly moving, but we also want to slap that pathetic, jowly face of his and demand that he "man-up".
Scarlet Street is an American remake of Jean Renoir's equally wonderfully picture La Chienne, but for me, the main difference is that Lang's film descends even deeper than Renoir's into a pit of the most foul, ugly human behaviour. And even though it does, the film is infused with a high degree of humanity.
From dramatic beat to dramatic beat, Scarlett Street moves lower and lower on the rung of humanity's ladder. Just when you think the picture has reached the lowest depths, it plummets even deeper. As such, the film is both courageously relentless and astoundingly ahead of its time.
Recent Friedkin and Ulrich Seidl excepted, Fritz Lang - in 1945!!! - managed to pull off a picture that seems more fresh and vital than most anything made today. Scarlet Street feels like it could have been made just yesterday.
After many years languishing in the public domain, the movie has been digitally restored from materials on deposit at the Library of Congress and brought to Blu-Ray via Kino Lorber. The Bluray features a stills gallery and an audio commentary by David Kalat.