One of the most interesting things about Fritz Lang's classic Edward G. Robinson vehicle, Scarlet Street, is how it makes us think about what we're watching and more specifically about the character motivation. It's obvious, at least on the surface of the film, that some of the characters are doing what most would consider literal 'wrong' but when you step back and take in the larger picture, do their reasons for their actions justify what they've done? When someone does 'wrong' for the 'right reasons' does that somehow reverse it?
That's the basic train of thought that runs through the story of Christopher Cross (Robinson), an everyman type who has worked for the last few decades of his life as a lowly cashier. He doesn't have much to show for his years of service aside from the standard gold watch and, in the grand scheme of things, he really hasn't accomplished a whole lot with his life. He's married to a woman named Adele (Rosalind Ivan) who doesn't appreciate him and who is constantly comparing him to her late husband, a police officer who was killed in the line of duty. Cross can never measure up to her standards, now matter how hard he tries and her overly frugal ways with money aren't so much a matter of keeping their finances clean but more a way of keeping him under her thumb.
One night, completely by change, Cross finds himself playing savior to a gorgeous young woman named Kitty March (Joan Bennett) who has run afoul of her physically and emotionally abusive long term boyfriend, Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea). Christopher soon falls head over heels in love with Kitty, and who can blame him, she's a knockout from head to toe and guys like him don't often get a shot with girls like her.
As Christopher and Kitty get to know one another, at first over a nice dinner, he soon winds up fooling her into believing that he's not a lowly cashier but in fact makes himself a healthy living as an artist. Things get more complicated from here on out but soon Christopher has set Kitty up in her own apartment, much to Johnny's delight. When Kitty encourages Christopher to paint for her, it's Johnny who reaps the rewards as he's swiping the work and selling it as Kitty's artwork and soon local critics are starting to take notice. When Christopher wises up to how he's being used, at first he goes along with it as he values Kitty's companionship too much to let her go or to take action against her, but soon, no matter how noble Cross' intentions may have been all along, it all comes tumbling down.
As bleak as any other noir I've seen, Fritz Lang's less than optimistic outlook on mankind comes to the front and center in this film. The story just builds and builds until, when Cross finally decides to stand up for himself, it's too late and he has no choice but to go as far as he does to right the wrongs that have been committed against him. Robinson is fantastic in the lead and while at times his performance might seem a little hammy thanks in no small part to bad impersonations and parodies throughout the years, he really is excellent in the lead. He's perfectly believable as Cross, he completely looks the part of a worn down man but when Kitty walks into his life, you can tell by the spark in his eyes that he's found some small glimmer of hope, making the finale all the more grim. Those accustomed to seeing Robinson play a rat bastard as he did in so many other films may find themselves surprised by just how genuinely sympathetic he is in this part, a tribute to his skills as an actor and a very sure, very wise casting choice on the part of Lang and company.
There are a couple of moments in the film that drag but as a whole, the pacing is quite tight in this film and it moves along nicely – even the slower bits have a purpose as they do further the plot and while some of the talkier scenes aren't exactly exciting, they do let us into the characters' heads a bit so they fit here. The cinematography, the use of light and shadow, and the shot set ups are marvelous – just watch the opening scene of the film where Robinson is walking down the dark, rainy street and try not to get pulled into the film. It's a beautiful, quiet moment that foreshadows what is to come. The last half of the film is tight, riveting, and pretty suspenseful in spots and once it takes a sharp right turn into darkness, you know that there's no looking back.
Aside from the bleak atmosphere and backstabbing characters in the film, there are lots of other Lang traits in this one. The camera focuses on the oddities of the architecture in the film, notably the apartment where Cross sets Kitty up. The moldings in the rooms and the shape of the apartment lend themselves to the shot setups and compositions and these are some of the most impressive visuals in the film – they just look really cool. The camera also seems to pay close attention to the art gallery where Cross' work ends up being displayed under Kitty's name.
Ultimately, however, as great as the movie looks it is the story and the three main performances that really hit home in Scarlet Street. Robinson is sad and sympathetic, while Bennett and Duryea are nothing short of despicable. Plenty of visual and metaphorical contrasts make the film an interesting one with lots of replay value, and this is definitely one of those films that deserves the classic status that it has been awarded.
The 1.33.1 fullframe image is solid as a rock. While the film has usually only been readily available on DVD in the form of low budget public domain releases that all seem to look like they were sourced from a washed out old VHS tape, Kino's new transfer is a huge improvement and a true thing of beauty. Yes, there is still some print damage but the contrast levels are dead on, the picture is nice and sharp, and the amount of detail present here compared to, say, the Alpha Video release is like night and day. Unlike previous editions, the detail in the film doesn't get swallowed up by murky blacks or shadows and instead we have a picture with proper contrast levels and an image that looks like a black and white film, rather than a black and white VHS transfer. The grain and print damage, as stated, are present but it's not really distracting at all and fans of Scarlet Street or noir in general should be pretty darn happy with this DVD in terms of how the movie looks.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack isn't bad at all. There's some mild hiss in a few spots and if you listen carefully you'll probably pick up a pop or two here and there but overall, there are no major issues. Dialogue is clean and clear and the score and sound effects are balanced against the performers nicely and nothing really seems to get buried in the mix as the movie plays out. You can't expect home theater demo material here, but it suits the film just fine the way it is.
The main feature on this release comes in the form of an enjoyable and highly informative commentary track from David Kalat. In this track he explains the origins of the film, how it's essentially a remake of Jean Renoir's La Chienne, and how it differs. He gives us plenty of background information on the cast members and provides no small amount of detail on Lang himself and how this film fits in with some of the other movies from his filmography. Part analysis, part trivia, Kalat's dissection of the film is pretty interesting stuff and it should go over well with film noir/ Lang buffs.
In addition to the commentary track, there's a nice still gallery that contains that contains some nice promotional art, and, interestingly enough, a few shots from some lost deleted scenes from the feature.
There's a whole lot to love about the new Kino remastered release of Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street. While you don't get the caliber of supplements that, say, Criterion put on their recent two disc special edition of M, the commentary is an excellent addition to the vastly improved picture and sound quality that this DVD offers to a true classic of film noir. Highly recommended!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.