Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
One of the best films noir and Fritz Lang's personal favorite of his American work, Scarlet Street is a perfect expression of the director's themes of innocence corrupted and the price of being a feeling person in an uncaring world. Lang's deterministic images lay a web that traps a fatal triangle of romantic deceivers, yet as portrayed by Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea, character and fate are inseparable.
Kino's wonderful disc presents Scarlet Street in an almost perfect print restored from a 35mm negative preserved by the Library of Congress, an excellent use of tax revenue if ever there was one. This will probably be the first time most of us will be able to see this classic in a quality presentation -- previous videos were always Public Domain eyesores with garbled audio. Here, every nuance of Fritz Lang's typically adventurous soundtrack comes out perfectly - the buzzing weirdness of Chris Cross's guilty nightmares, and the haunted, whispered voices that chill to the bone:
"Come here, Lazylegs!" "Jeepers ... I love you Johnny!"
Cashier Chris Cross (Edward G. Robinson) is impressed to find that his boss has a mistress, and considers himself lucky to chance upon Katherine "Kitty" March (Joan Bennett), a trollop being beaten up by her boyfriend Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea). Soon the underhanded pair are using Kitty as bait to get money from Chris, who they take to be a rich man and a famous artist. But Chris is really a Sunday painter henpecked by his shrewish wife Adele (Rosalind Ivan), and he's innocently enraptured by what he thinks is a lonely actress. Kitty and Johnny's cruel plan works well until art critics try to track down the painter behind Chris' unsigned works --- the influential trend setters think Chris' paintings are great modern art. The trouble is, Kitty is already claiming they're her own work.
Fritz Lang and Joan Bennett were part of a creative partnership called Diana Productions that struck gold with 1944's The Woman in the Window, itself a noir classic about a mild-mannered man drawn into an erotic nightmare. Enchanted by the reflection of a real woman who matches a painting in the window of an art dealership, Robinson spends time with her only to find himself ensnared in the murder of a loutish young man played by Dan Duryea. As skillful as it was The Woman in the Window's dream framework was sort of a narrative cheat, possibly to evade censorship. As if improving on an earlier draft, Lang returned to a similar formula for Scarlet Street.This time the nightmare is no dream from which the fatalistically-named Chris Cross can wake up. The moment he sees Kitty March in a transparent raincoat like a piece of candy wrapped in cellophane, he's hooked beyond rescue. He'll risk matrimonial humiliation and embezzle from his job to maintain the illusion of love with the venemous Kitty. When he finally realizes he's been duped, he'll do a lot, lot more. Caught in his crimes after throwing his life away "because of a woman", Chris seems to age ten years in a few seconds, as he's castigated by a man who himself openly carries on with a mistress. Chris may illustrate an extreme example of a man in a mid-life crisis, incapable of making sound decisions for himself. To Lang he's an everyman, ready to lose his soul over a dream of love.
Scarlet Street apparently cleared the censors but was banned in three states anyway for its 'immoral' story. In the original book (filmed by Jean Renoir under its original French title, which translates as The Bitch) the Kitty character is much more openly a prostitute. Dudley Nichols's script does some fancy footwork to explain that Kitty is just the pampered, masochistic girlfriend of Johnny Prince, and not being pimped by him. There's hardly a distinction, as Johnny clearly spends wild drunken nights with Kitty, and encourages her to "charm" both Chris Cross and an art critic who might lead them to some easy cash. We're attracted to Kitty but are more dismayed by her effect on Chris, whom we like a lot more; he's so unaccustomed to lies that Kitty is able to manipulate his feelings with the cheapest of tricks, all the while laughing behind his back. We see Robinson's misadventures in The Woman in the Window from the outside but Scarlet Street often lets us identify with him directly - we experience both his outrage and his twisted sense of justice.
Scarlet Street also has a lot to say about the relationship between art, love and happiness. Chris Cross's uncomplicated urge to express his feelings come through in his crude but expressive canvasses, which for once convince as 'amateur' paintings that might be recognized as great modern art. Chris is an artist because his paintings are pure emotion without an investment of ego. If Kitty wants to call them hers and put her name on them, he thinks it's great, like a marriage. Chris is truly inspired and tragically pure. He's the exact opposite of the venal and corrupt Johnny Prince, but Lang tells us both are apt to be burned by the hand of fate. It's as if the Furies of the opening of Crime Without Passion are drawn to destroy men as virtuous as Chris and as corrupt as Johnny --- they upset the balance of good and evil.
(Some big spoilers this paragraph) More than one scholarly analysis has examined the actual murder scene at length, noting Kitty's reflection in the mirror, the illusion of her crying/laughing and especially the way Lang keeps Chris Cross's moment of violent decision off-screen. The victim, the motive and the weapon seem to assemble themselves into a pattern encouraging Chris to lose control. Kitty cruel laughter that Chris would be so dumb to think she was crying ("You idiot!") suddenly turns to terror. We immediately know why, as we'd like to puncture her with the ice pick as well. Lang invents the basic convention of the slasher film: An impotent man 'penetrates' a castrating female by piercing her with a sharp weapon, repeatedly.
Most Lang films about murder are acutely aware of the social implications of capital punishment. Fury, You Only Live Once, this movie and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt are all investigations of the nature of capital crime and what it means when a mob or a government takes a life. In a way Scarlet Street is the purest horror film of them all - an innocent man is convicted, sentenced and executed for a crime he didn't commit. That goes completely against the Production code, but Scarlet Street invents a dramatic punishment for the real guilty party more horrible than execution. As a cynical reporter tells Chris Cross, a man who gets away with murder soon learns that he'd be better off being given the works by a judge, than be tortured by the pitiless judge and jury of his own conscience. The film concludes in an extended coda that's one of the darkest in film noir. The guilty party has destroyed or lost everything dear to him, even his own identity. He lives in a haunted world where only the voices of his victims are heard: "Come here, Lazylegs!" "Jeepers ... I love you Johnny!" The echoes ring in the mind. Woman in the Window was able to end on a whimsical note of reassurance that spelled box office success. By contrast Scarlet Street plays for keeps, with an incomparably oppressive doom-laden finale. Viewers often come away saying it's the creepiest, darkest old film they've ever seen .... but they never forget it.
Kino's DVD of Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street is just great. The solid, clear image and sound completely rescue this winner from the obscurity of crummy Public Domain copies. Milton Krasner's cinematography is so carefully rendered that we can tell a couple of places where deleted scenes appear to have been pulled out. Perhaps Kino can also get its hands on the third Lang-Bennett collaboration Secret Beyond the Door. The Woman in the Window came out from MGM ten years ago as a laserdisc, but hasn't as yet appeared on DVD.
A couple of the deleted scenes are shown as stills and script excerpts in a brief but informative still gallery, where we also learn that the film's Spanish title is Perversidad ( "Perversity"). But the real icing on the cake is David Kalat's fact- and insight- packed commentary that analyzes the film from four directions at once. Kalat knows how to interpret all of Lang's visual road signs (Dan Duryea dissolving into the image of a painted snake), and a transcript of his words would easily be the most definitive examination of the film. One of the few things Kalat doesn't mention is that Ms. Bennett was practically blind without extreme corrective lenses and could barely focus enough to see who she was acting with. Fooled us - those big eyes seem to look right through a man.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Scarlet Street rates:
Supplements: Commentary by Author David Kalat, still and art gallery with photos from deleted scenes
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 14, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson