The MUBI Cinematheque: Scarlet Street (1945)
Scarlett Street (1945) is one of the better known of director Fritz Lang’s American offerings. It’s also a well loved one, though at the time of it’s release it was viewed as mostly lame follow-up to Lang’s The Woman in the Window, which included the same casting triangle of Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea. However, history has been kind to Scarlet Street and many cinphiles now count this atmospheric noir as a favorite.
Robinson stars as Christopher Cross, a sympathetic cashier receiving a 25th anniversary lifetime achievement award from his boss. Receiving a gold watch and a big party in exchange for a lifetime of tedium and self effacement counts as one of the best nights of his life for Cross. Even this small kindness is sullied – Cross’ boss cuts out early to visit with his mistress – and Robinson’s superb performance demonstrates just how broken and without hope Cross is. In fact, Robinson’s exquisite pathos during these initial scenes is crucial to both his character’s disintegration and the audience’s empathy.
Which is why viewers of Scarlet Street will forgive Cross for the critical mistake he will make in the next scene. While walking home from his party, he saves (or believes he does) a beautiful young woman, Kitty March (Joan Bennett) from a mugging. The two go for a drink and when Kitty assumes Cross is a wealthy artist – well, he doesn’t exactly agree, but he doesn’t correct her either. And that’s the moment that seals Cross’ fate, a brief spark of hubris is an otherwise unremarkable life. For the first time in – forever? – Cross dares to hope for something beyond a tedious bank job and a nagging wife.
His real home life — married to the aforementioned shrew (Rosalind Ivan) who won’t even grant him space or a few bucks to indulge his amateur painting — can’t compare with his perceived budding romance with Kitty. But Kitty is not what she seems, of course. She’s interested only in the money that she and her boyfriend Johnny (a stunningly smarmy Dan Duryea) thinks he has. And thus that tiny moment of hubris for Cross morphs into an obsessive (and expensive) attempt to satisfy Kitty’s needs. When his paintings attract the attention of a prominent art dealer, Cross believes – in a larger moment of hubris – that his life is coming up roses. It’s a charade and it can’t last.
As always, Lang brings an expressionistic touch to the images in Scarlet Street, this time neatly echoed in the expressionist (yet terrible) paintings of Cross. The camera work imparts a subtle sense of unreality that remains grounded, and thus more effective, by Robinson’s truly brilliant, heartbreakingly pathetic performance. And while Cross is imminently likable – we never really blame him – the audience will find themselves culpable as well. Who among us hasn’t received a karmic comeuppance for a moment when we thought just a little too much of ourselves?
A Gallery of Images from Scarlet Street