Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street is one of three Films Noir the German ex-pat director had released in the U.S. during 1945 (Woman in the Window, Ministry of Fear) , and it contains all the hallmarks of Film Noir. A doomed protagonist in Edward G. Robinson’s Chris, a sad sack, emasculated cashier. Joan Bennett as rotten to the core femme fatale Kitty. Claustrophobic interiors, shadowy exteriors and in the opening scene, a nighttime avenue dampened and lit in a way that it oozes that Noir street sheen. Where it differs from many Noir of the period is in the ill fate of Robinson’s Chris Cross and the event that leads to that fate, fitting into British critic Raymond Durgnat’s subheading “Middle Class Murder” in his 1970 essay Paint it Black: The Family Tree of Noir (1).
Christopher Cross is not a detective. He is not a gangster. He is a cashier and amateur painter. It is not past sins that destroy him. It is not the pushing by the femme fatale towards committing crimes that dooms Chris, it is his kindness. His fate is sealed not in committing crimes, but in halting one. And in his weakness following a party thrown by his employer JJ to honor Chris’ years of loyal service. Seeing JJ get into a car with a young woman Chris says to a coworker he offers to walk to catch a bus, “I wonder what it’s like to be loved by a young girl like that.” Walking the man to the bus stop takes Chris out of his way and renders him lost. He comes across a policeman and receives directions to his subway stop. Moments later Chris witnesses a women(Kitty) being assaulted by a man (later revealed as Kitty’s boyfriend Johnny, played with slimy gusto by Dan Duryea). Chris runs to her aid and knocks the man cold with his umbrella. In his following interlude with Kitty, he tells her he is a painter. Her having seen a Cezanne that sold for $50,000 leads Kitty and Johnny in to believing Chris is wealthy and ripe for a fleecing. This sets in motion events that lead to Chris’s estrangement from his brow beating wife, his paintings becoming recognized (though Kitty is believed to be their painter), losing his job, and ultimately Chris’s murder of Kitty.
Despite New York Times critic Bosley Crowther’s assertion that Robinson’s performance is “monotonous,” (2) it feels like the monotony of it is designed to payoff the murder of Kitty. The bullied, weak man finally snapping gives the scene all the more intensity. It allows the filmgoer to forget that they are watching the man who played Little Caesar long enough to make the act as shocking as Lang’s staging of it is. Upon Kitty’s revelation to Chris that she hates him and is in love with Johnny, Chris stabs an icepick into her several times in a scene that doesn’t contain a cut away to a shadow of the deed as was standard at the time. Kitty covers herself with a comforter, but we see the explosion of violence. Through circumstance Johnny is arrested and executed for Kitty’s murder. This is where the film begins its subversion of the Hollywood code of the time, that left criminals in jail or dead at the conclusion of the film. Chris runs into a crime reporter on the train who tells him of his theory that no one gets away with murder, because even if not arrested for it, having committed the crime will drive the responsible party insane. Chris begins hearing Kitty’s voice saying “Johnny,” “we can be together now,” and her repeating things she said on the night of the murder. Finally Chris decides to hang himself, though he is saved by a man in his building. But homeless and guilt-ridden, Chris doesn’t want to be saved he wants to be punished. He is not given that out, and must suffer further. Andrew Sarris called Lang “the cerebral tragedian of the cinema.” (3) This is worth remembering at the finish of the movie as Chris’ painting of Kitty and it’s wealthy new owner pass by him and Cross wanders alone into a fate worse than jail, a fate worse than death.
(1) Reprinted in The Film Noir Reader Alain Silver and James Ursini, Editors
(2) New York Times 2/15/1946
(3) The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968