Scarlet Street (1945)

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*. Scarlet Street is often categorized as a film noir, but it strikes me as being an older and simpler sort of story than that implies. You can see Christopher Cross as a noir hero (weak, compromised) and Kitty March as a femme fatale (amoral, dangerous), but the characters go back much further.
*. Most directly, they go back to a French novel, La Chienne, by Georges de La Fouchardière that had been published in 1929 and made into a film by Jean Renoir in 1931. The title translates as The Bitch, which for obvious reasons wasn’t going to fly in America. Instead they came up with Scarlet Street, which has no clear referent in the movie.
*. More immediately, the characters go back to another Fritz Lang picture made just the year before, The Woman in the Window. The theme of that picture was somewhat similar and it had the same leads (Robinson and Bennett) cast in the same roles, with Dan Duryea as the heel.
*. As with The Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street is the old story of an older (married!) man destroyed through his infatuation with a beautiful young woman. This film in particular had me thinking of Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie (1900; made into the movie Carrie in 1952) and The Blue Angel (1930). Chris Cross resembles the Hurstwood character in Sister Carrie quite a bit. Though not as affluent, he still loses his life of bourgeois decorum and ends up a derelict, on a street that ends in the potter’s field. What I’m getting at is that instead of the typical noir crime plot we have what Sternberg, describing The Blue Angel, called the story of “the downfall of an enamored man.” That sizes Scarlet Street up pretty well.
*. It’s a notorious film for being one of the first (if not the first) major release to have a hero who gets away with murder. This was softened by the speech — shoehorned into the script — that’s made by the newspaperman about how every man guilty of a crime is punished by his own conscience. More broadly, I think we’re meant to see Christopher as being punished in a very American way: having missed out on his chance at money and fame by being recognized as a great artist. His story of American Failure is a fate worse than death.
*. What’s even more surprising, though you don’t hear it talked about as much, is that we see an innocent man, Johnny, get sent to the electric chair. As horrible a guy as Johnny is — basically he’s a nasty parasitical pimp who lives off of Kitty and slaps her around for her pains — does he deserve this? The movie seems to suggest that he does.
*. The conventions of melodrama take a bit of a swerve with Christopher’s “discovery” by the art world’s gatekeepers. This takes a story of silly coincidences into parable territory. With a plot twist like that it’s hard to take anything else seriously, and things only get more bizarre when Homer Higgins (he of the insufferably smug portrait) returns from the dead.
*. I have to say that I also thought it odd that Christopher’s paintings became such a sensation. They struck me as awful, in sort of a naïf, Henri Rousseau style. They were done by John Decker though, who was becoming known critically as a serious painter after working for a long time as a set designer and caricaturist. It’s also true that Edward Robinson was a noted art collector. I wonder what he thought of the work his character was doing.
*. Robinson is, as usual, terrific. He was truly one of the screen’s great performers. Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea aren’t in his league, but this actually works as they are playing a pair of bad actors.
*. What I find most interesting about the movie is the psychological drama. Of course Kitty and Johnny are in a deeply dysfunctional relationship. She enjoys being abused by him and he knows it. Such a relationship makes no sense at all — we can actually relate to Christopher’s not understanding it — but it is mirrored in Kitty’s treatment of Chris. She is basically passing it along.
*. The movie is about as frank and explicit with this as it can be. Johnny tells Kitty that he knows she likes it as he slaps her, and the scene where a sneering Kitty makes Chris paint her toenails (“They’ll be masterpieces”) is like something out of the fevered fetish dreams of Buñuel.
*. Of course when Christopher is forced to wear a frilly apron and do the dishes in his apartment he is clearly being de-masculinized, and when he grabs the ice pick at the end to puncture Kitty it’s hard to miss the point being made. That’s all pretty crude. But I do like the way the two couples mirror each other, as well as the complexity that’s introduced when Christopher learns that he’s become a star of the art world. We can understand his not being angry at Kitty because he is so proud of himself. And, being his muse, her taking credit for his work makes a certain psychological sense. Of course the painting of her is a self-portrait: she is its inspiration.
*. I don’t think anyone who has seen Scarlet Street can forget Kitty’s haunting voice over the final shot: “Jeepers, I love you Johnny.” But why does this particular line haunt Christopher so? This is what he remembers, her professing her love for the heel he despised? Does he imagine her saying it to him? Does he remember it as a way of justifying his actions to himself? Or does it just bother him because it’s something he doesn’t understand?
*. You can’t come to love too late in life. You have to become adjusted to it and (to some extent) inoculated. Christopher clearly doesn’t love Adele: he can’t even explain why he married her, and they’ve never had sex. His whole life has been nothing but a round of duty. He’s someone who’s always felt he’s been missing something. That’s why I think this movie has a happy, though admittedly ironic, ending. Kitty was a total bitch, but she was good for him.

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