In the very first scene of Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street, we see Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson, The Ten Commandments) – a genial, mild-mannered, middle-aged cashier – receiving an expensive watch from his employer (Russell Hicks, The Little Foxes) as a reward for twenty years of service. It's a happy moment for Chris, who hasn't had an abundance of happy moments in his life. He doesn't find much satisfaction in his humble job, and he's married to a spiteful woman (Rosalind Ivan, The Corn is Green) who thinks little of him. Chris takes comfort in his painting, a hobby which permits him to create an artistic world more vibrant and comforting than the one he actually inhabits. Then, a chance encounter changes his life.
Chris sees a woman (Joan Bennett, Father of the Bride) being attacked in the street, and he quickly comes to her rescue. She thanks him, and he takes her to a nearby bar for a cup of coffee. He learns her name is Katherine “Kitty” March, but Kitty hides that fact that the assailant was actually her abusive boyfriend Johnny (Dan Duryea, The Pride of the Yankees). She asks Chris about his career, and a combination of assumption and misunderstanding leads her to believe that he's an esteemed painter. Flattered by the notion that a beautiful woman would think so highly of him, Chris goes along with the story. Both parties lie to each other about being single – he does so out of desire, she does so out of embarrassment and pity.
That might have been the end of it, but Johnny learns of Kitty's encounter with a “rich artist” and sees a financial opportunity. He encourages Kitty to use Chris' obvious feelings for her to extort money from him. Kitty initially declines, but Johnny isn't the sort of person one simply says no to. He'll try sweet-talking charm, and if that fails, he'll employ physical force. So, Kitty works on separating Chris from his money (he has very little, but pretends otherwise in order to keep up appearances) while Johnny goes a step further by stealing some of Chris' paintings and attempting to sell them. The paintings catch the eye of a noted art critic (Jess Barker, Cover Girl), who inquires about the artist. Johnny claims that Kitty painted them, and soon Kitty finds herself labeled an important new artist. Meanwhile, Chris quietly daydreams about finding a way to break free of his marriage and start a new life with Kitty.
That's only the beginning of Scarlet Street's labyrinthine plot, but the film remains focused on its characters despite its tangled web of a narrative. Lang and his three principal actors (all of whom had previously collaborated on the well-regarded Woman in the Window) offer fresh variations on familiar noir types: the poor sap who gets in over his head, the femme fatale and the slimy villain. We meet them, form impressions of them and then watch as each character begins to subvert those impressions.
Robinson is so authentically sweet and humble in his early scenes, and those moments prove essential to allowing us to feel for him even when Lang (adapting a French film by Jean Renoir, which was in turn based on a play by Georges de La Fouchardiere) begins taking Chris to some rather dark places. It's hard to imagine that the film's final fifteen minutes – a strange, heartbreaking cinematic nightmare which exists halfway between Edgar Allan Poe and The Twilight Zone – exists within the same film as those opening scenes, but Robinson sells us on his character's troubled journey. This isn't a hard-boiled noir protagonist whose resilient toughness ultimately fails him. This is a soft, gentle man who has been mistreated by life, and finds himself contemplating dark impulses as a result.
Likewise, Bennett's femme fatale is more vulnerable and complicated than most. She isn't a self-serving man-eater, but another victim of circumstance who finds herself forced to act like one. It hurts her to take advantage of a nice guy like Chris, but she's well aware that Johnny will hurt her even more if she doesn't play along. It's a fascinating performance from Bennett, who shifts from predator to prey from scene to scene and is equally convincing playing both sides of her character's life. Johnny is, admittedly, a much more predictable character in terms of behavior (he's a scumbag and he acts accordingly), but the manner in which the film uses him is less conventional. He's a bad guy, but he's by no means the darkest force at work within the film. He's merely a cockroach crawling around in a hard, cold world.
It's no surprise that the film looks terrific (Lang's movies always look great, particularly when he's operating within the realm of noir), but the movie is so much more than an exercise in style. This is a bleak film even by the standards of the genre, and it weighs the consequences of violence with surprising depth. There are clumsy moments that appear in the third act – talky, heavy-handed scenes which seem designed to appease the needs of the production code standards of the era – but these seem to exist in order to permit the existence of the film's most powerful moments. A different filmmaker might have seen this story as a tale of corrupt people getting their just deserts (complete with one of those familiar “We're bad people – we deserve each other!” dialogue exchanges), but the humanist Lang views Chris and Kitty with mournful empathy. Look at what this world has made them do.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 103 minutes
Release Year: 1945