Scarlet Street Review
In 1944, the expatriate German director Fritz Lang made a fascinating thriller entitled The Woman in the Window. Combining some stunning monochrome cinematography with fine performances, it is as dark and brooding as you could possibly wish for… right up until the last five minutes when it cops out with a quite extraordinarily lame final twist. As if in answer to the prayers of everyone who felt that a truly great film noir needs to acknowledge the unrelenting hopelessness of the world it portrays, Lang reunited with the same cast a year later to make Scarlet Street and in the process produced one of the greatest examples of the way in which noir can act as both cruelly logical morality tale and a probing inquiry into the darkness of an ordinary man’s soul.
Christopher Cross (Robinson) is a cashier for a successful business who is trapped in a loveless marriage and desperate for a break which will enable him to make a career as a painter. One night, after receiving an award for long-time service, he meets a girl, Velma (Bennett), who seems to be in trouble and tries to help. Desperate for the love of a pretty young woman, he swallows her story of being mugged, not realizing that the man troubling her was Johnny (Duryea), her fiance. Chris – who has lied about his life to impress her - begins to think that he can make a life for himself and Velma, if only he could get his nagging wife out of the picture, and it’s not long before Velma and Johnny see a chance to take advantage of Chris’s apparent good nature. What they don’t realize is just how deep the undercurrents of an unappreciated man can run.
Although many noir directors have scant regard for the characters they portray, one of the key factors that make Fritz Lang’s work in the form particularly chilling is the cold objectivity with which he views his protagonists. It’s not so much that he doesn’t like the people in his films, more that he seems to have no real feeling for them one way or another. It’s a cliché to say so but his perspective seems to be that of the coldly rational scientist, viewing the world from a lofty remove. Frequently, characters seem to be trapped in a grand design from which escape seems impossible. Sometimes, the design may seem to be of their own making – as is the case with Dana Andrews in Beyond a Reasonable Doubt - or the result of their own hubris, foolishness or naivety, as with the two Edward G. Robinson films, but you always get the sense of something above them all, the cruelly mocking laughter of an unforgiving god. Lang’s noir cinema strikes me as cruel and devoid of human warmth, beyond that naturally supplied by Robinson and some of the other actors.
So, in Scarlet Street, it would be possible for Chris to be portrayed as nothing worse than a self-deluding sap and then made loveable so the audience are rooting for him. But Lang refuses to do this. At the start, he seems likeable enough, filled with dreams of loving a pretty girl and becoming a great painter. But as soon as he meets Kitty and dissembles to impress her, it becomes clear that we’re meant to see the portrayal as increasingly damning. In the first half hour, Chris’s hopes and dreams are counterpointed with his drab bourgeois existence but not, I think, in a particularly kind way. Lang sees them as weaknesses and as the portrait builds, it becomes more damning. Time and again in Scarlet Street, Chris is shown to be, by turns, weakly pathetic, deluded and hubristic or stupidly self-destructive and at the end, it’s not so much guilt which haunts him – as perhaps it should considering what he does - but the nagging sense of how he has been deluded and robbed of what he sees as the success which was his by right. When he confesses his love for Velma, he kisses her only on the side of the face and the neck, as if weirdly emasculated by his passion. He talks in euphemisms and suggestions – his arid marriage indicated by his assertion that he has never seen a woman in the nude or his burgeoning desires to kill his wife through saying “if something would happen that would make me free” – and the body language is often just as important as what’s said. As the plot of the film goes on its inexorable course towards Hades, Chris seems like a squirming insect pinned down by Lang’s camera. The final scenes - when his actions seem to have managed to bring together the two people he was trying to keep apart - are devastatingly powerful.
Yet the irony is that the more Lang seems to dislike Chris, the more feeling we extend towards him, largely because of Edward G. Robinson’s beautifully nuanced performance. Robinson had been great before in films ranging from Little Caesar to Dr Erlich’s Magic Bullet, but Chris is perhaps his most complex work; a fully realized picture of a small man bowed down with complex things which finally break him. We feel for him deeply I think, but we never doubt that Chris, although an essentially tragic character, is not only doing the terrible things he does because of the wicked manipulations of Bennett and Duryea but because there is something inside this mild little man which has been set loose and can’t be put back where it was hidden. It’s a great picture of how chaos descends upon the most banal, bourgeois life and changes it forever. Robinson and Lang made great collaborators because their conflicting talents – cool academicism and overflowing human feeling – combine to make something emotionally complex.
Although things are simpler when we look at the ‘villains of the piece’, the standard of the performances is such that they never descend into simplistic cliché. Joan Bennett is a great femme fatale, manipulating Chris with the casual assurance of someone who knows she can do anything, but her unquestioning love for the appalling Johnny makes her just as much of a sap as her quarry. Equally, Dan Duryea’s hideously garbed Johnny – all brash pin-stripes and fancy ties – seems to be a vicious bastard but he’s not really particularly bright (or even all that tough), he blames everyone else for his failings and he has achieved nothing in his life. His one genuine achievement in the film – as Michael E. Grost points out in his excellent study of Lang’s work which you can read here - is to discover the truth about Chris’s paintings and it’s this which ultimately leads – in Lang’s strict moral schema – to his own destruction.
Scarlet Street is an artistic triumph and the film where Lang brings together the most successful elements of his German work with the new avenues of subject matter he found in America. The noir was an ideal vehicle for Lang, a genre upon which he could pin his own interests and his taste for strictly formal visual compositions. Milton Krasner’s stark cinematography is a key element here as it was in a number of key noirs - Woman in the Window, The Set-Up, The Dark Mirror – and the use of shadows and matrices of dark over light is overwhelming in the context of the narrative as a trap from which the characters cannot escape. Hans Salter’s score is also noteworthy, using popular music of the period with a slight twist to make it first antic then increasingly sinister.
Fritz Lang seems somehow set free in Scarlet Street. This can partly be ascribed to the inherent qualities of the construction of the script – written by the great Dudley Nichols who (with Lang’s encouragement) turns the black comedy of the original version of the film (made by Renoir as La Chienne) into something dark and brooding. The construction of the film is like that of one of the great Golden Age detective stories – when the ending comes, it is so satisfying because you are convinced that there is no other way it could possibly have finished. The freedom can also be explained through the knowledge that it was the first film Lang made for his own Diana Productions, a brief triumph of individual achievement which went bankrupt within four years. This may well explain why the film seems a good deal more edgy than Woman in the Window, even though it was subject to the same censorship restrictions. There’s an overlay of moral rot upon everything, similar to that found in Polanski’s Chinatown though painted here in shades of grey rather than rich, sun-drenched colour. In outline, the film is a cautionary tale about the dangers of, depending on the way look at it, either telling lies to beautiful girls or encouraging mild little men to get rid of their wives. In practice, it’s about the horrors of a completely corrupt world, depicted by a master who, as you realize in retrospect, has absolutely no human feeling whatsoever. Fritz Lang said that it was his favourite among his American films, probably because of the complete creative freedom he was afforded, and many viewers will share this view. I certainly do. Scarlet Street is not only one of the great film noirs. It’s a great film.
Scarlet Street has been available for a number of years on various DVD releases, all of which can be summed up as worthless shit. This new Kino version is in a completely different league to those previous discs and even though it’s certainly a disappointment in some respects, it does finally allow viewers to see the film in a form which does it a certain amount of justice.
The film is presented in its correct 1.33:1 aspect ratio and in the original monochrome. Although there are distinct problems with the transfer, it’s streets ahead of anything else available in terms of sharpness and detail. Indeed, there are things here which you couldn’t see in the earlier versions which were either murky or slightly blurred. You’ll still find a considerable amount of minor print damage and an excessive level of grain but given the absence of anything better, Kino’s version is the one to get. The soundtrack is also improved. There’s less hiss and more clarity, with the music and dialogue in a fine balance. Again, this is speaking in comparative terms.
The main extra on the disc is a commentary from film historian David Kalat, author of a book about Lang’s work. It’s an interesting and insightful piece, although I found it better on Lang himself than in teasing out the psychological strands of the film. We also get a pleasant, if unexceptional, gallery of images.
The film is divided into 12 chapter stops. There are, shamefully, no subtitles.
The definitive release of this wonderful film is still to come. However, in the absence of anything better, Kino’s release is a step forward and worth a look.
Last updated: 28/04/2018 00:54:37