Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Noir Reviews: Scarlet Street, December 1945

Continuing our guilt-sodden adventure through film noir, we arrive at Scarlet Street, the first of our entries directed by Fritz Lang.

Lang was one of the great directors of the German Expressionist period. His work includes the historical fantasy Die Nibelung and the science fiction epic Metropolis (both silent) as well as the proto-noir M, starring a young Peter Lorre in the lead role of a child murderer. His American work includes several understated noirs that I think should be better known.

These include both Scarlet Street and its sister film, The Woman in the Window, which feature the same principal actors (Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea) and follow a somewhat similar plot. The Woman in the Window came out earlier, and is well worth watching, aside from one almost fatal flaw. If you've seen it you know what I mean. Maybe I'll come back to it later.

Incidentally, Scarlet Street is in the public domain: watch it here or here. As usual, I've taken this as an invitation to decorate my post with my favorite stills.

Based on the French novel La Chienne (I'll let you Google-translate that), which had been dramatized and turned into a film in the 1930s, Scarlet Street is, by parts, a sex farce, a satire on the art world, and a psychological thriller. More than anything, it's the cruel dissection of a shy, naive little clerk who becomes an adulterer and murderer and literally descends to hell.

Strangely, it's also full of intentional humor. I actually laugh out loud when I watch it. Some scenes might almost have come from a Frank Capra film. The cheap, chiseling duo played by Dan Duryea and Joan Bennett seem like they'd be more at home in a screwball comedy. And Edward G. Robinson's character could be one of the artistic eccentrics in You Can't Take It with You.

One scene in particular, which provides an unexpected twist toward the end, cracks me up every time I see it. Taken as a whole, it's hard to know what to make of Scarlet Street. It's like a Capra film gone off the rails, ending in perdition.

Chris Cross (Robinson) is a lowly cashier who just received his gold watch for long and dedicated service to his employer. We first see him at the foot of the table, viewing the back of his round head well before we see his face. All eyes are on the opposite end of the room, making him a dark counterweight to the center of attention. He, too, is focused on his host, but our own eyes are drawn to his negative presence. He already looks like a culprit.

The city into which he emerges is a lonely closed world. Maze-like sets with no visible exit make the viewer feel boxed in. Squalor and shabbiness seem ubiquitous. In one of the film's many strange, striking shots, Chris balances a jewelry sign on a broken umbrella as he waits with his friend for a bus. Nothing says noir like dark, rainy streets with neon signs.

Chris is a Sunday painter with no formal training, somewhat like Henri Rousseau, on whom I suspect his character is partly modeled. Like Rousseau, he plods through a workaday existence while pursuing his art when he can, however he can.

He paints in the bathroom because his domineering landlady-become-wife is quite vocal in her contempt for his pastime. Indeed, it's her threat to destroy his work that drives him over the brink. There's a delightful scene in which Chris, after having listened to her shrilly berate him and order him to do the dishes (a task for which he dons a frilly apron), sits through the opening of "The Happy Household Hour" and a brassy soap commercial blasted from the radio downstairs.

Nevertheless, for all his amateurishness, self-effacement, and desperation, Chris is a true artist with the heart of a poet, dedicated to his vision of reality and his craft.
Sometimes [it takes] a day [paint a picture], sometimes a year. You can't tell. It has to grow...
     Feeling grows. You know, that's the important thing, feeling. You take me. No one ever taught me how to draw, so I just put a line around what I feel when I look at things...
     It's like falling in love I guess. You know, first you see someone, then it keeps growing, until you can't think of anyone else...
     The way I think of things, that's all art is. Every painting, if it's any good, is a love affair...
     There aren't many people you can talk to this way. So you keep it to yourself. You walk around with everything bottled up.
Kitty March (Bennett), a.k.a. "Lazylegs," an attractive but stupid and slovenly young woman who stands in for the prostitute of the original story, enters the picture when Chris "rescues" her from her boyfriend, Johnny Prince (Duryea), as the latter beats her for holding out on him.

Of course Chris misapprehends the whole situation. He comes to idolize Kitty and starts sending her schoolboy love letters. He naively translates the episode into paint, turning Johnny into a serpent from which Kitty must be protected.

The picture is a glimpse into Chris's brain, a visualization of his jarringly childlike view of reality. He never guesses that Johnny and Kitty, thinking him a well-respected, affluent artist, have hatched a plot to string him along and soak him for cash.

Incidentally, Chris's paintings, which I find reminiscent of Rousseau and other self-taught artists, were executed by the artist John Decker, one of whose works plays a central role in the prison noir Brute Force. Most of them look like deliberate attempts at naive art or outsider art, with the exception of a beautiful and unsettling portrait of Joan Bennett. (Funny that both Scarlet Street and The Woman in the Window revolve around portraits of Joan Bennett. I like this one much better.)

Looking at these paintings, we get the sense that Chris inhabits a very different world from the people around him. His work, however, is discovered by a highbrow art critic, and, because everyone thinks the beautiful Kitty is the artist, it's a sensation.

Because, obviously, no one would be interested in paintings produced by an ugly little cashier. Chris admits as much himself. But he's overjoyed by his "discovery," happy only to have his work appreciated and caring nothing for the fame.

Nevertheless, his many secret compromises, obviously never clearly thought out, are putting him in an impossible situation. As the strain increases, so does his willingness to do anything to escape. Every so often we glimpse how close he is to the edge. Like the subtly acted scene in which he tries to "help" his wife off with her coat while cutting liver.

It comes as a shock to see how close he is to murdering someone. But no one around him is aware of his increasing desperation. Then the walls close in at last and his illusions are shattered, leaving him with only one way out. Here the film takes an abruptly dark and nasty turn.

Now, if you're a member of the "literally" police, you might have noted my use of that word up above, and thought, what, are there fires and devils with pitchforks? Well, it all depends on what you mean by hell.

To the scandal of the Hays Office, Chris escapes punishment by the legal system. He doesn't know it, but he's got the perfect fall guy lined up.

(Dan Duryea must be one of my favorite actors of this period. His portrayal of cheap crooks ranges from cool and sinister to shrill and brassy. I've never seen him in a role I didn't like, and he's delightfully slimy in this one.) At first, Chris seems utterly unfazed by Kitty's murder and Johnny's going to the chair. "When do they throw the switch?" But the ghosts begin to haunt him as we reach the film's dark, throbbing little heart.

When the film had problems getting past the Hays Office, Lang supposedly went to see the censor, Joseph Breen, and said, in effect, "Look, we're both Catholics. We know that Christopher Cross goes to hell. That's a much greater punishment than prison." What he was getting at was the belief, explicitly portrayed in the film, that every sin carries its own burden of punishment. Hell is not a location. Hell is, literally, a state. You can find that in the Catechism. At any rate, Lang appears to have won the argument.

Nevertheless, Scarlet Street was banned in New York, Milwaukee, and Atlanta. The city censor of Atlanta branded it as "licentious, profane, obscure and contrary to the good order of the community." Now that's my kind of movie.

* * *

I give Scarlet Street a grade of B for bueno on the following scale:
  • A: awesome noir film, to be owned and watched a zillion times or until you have it memorized
  • B: good (bueno) noir film with excellent passages but significant flaws, to be watched on occasion
  • C: fairly commonplace noir film, to be watched once or twice
  • D: dud of a noir film, to be avoided if possible
Because I'm a horrible person, the stand-out scene for me is the flashing-sign hotel hell at the end of the film.

Takeaway quote:

"Paint me, Chris... They'll be masterpieces."


*** If you've enjoyed this review, maybe you'd enjoy my reviews of other noir films: IntroductionPhantom LadyDouble IndemnityMurder, My SweetDetour ***

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