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Scarlet Street (1945)

by on 2012/03/28

“If he were mean or vicious or he bawled me out or something I’d like him better.”

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Directed by Fritz Lang, of Metropolis fame, Scarlet Street is an early film noir, one which proved difficult for me to view objectively. While I strove to appreciate its merits — make no mistake, it has many — it struck me as too derivative to forgive or, at the very least, to forget.

Starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea (all from Lang’s previous movie, The Woman in the Window) it concerns a mild-mannered, middle-aged clerk named Chris Cross. Set in 1934, New York City, he’s feeling understandably down. He’s been doing his job for 25 years, and is trapped in a marriage of convenience. What time he has available for fun, he spends painting in an unusual style.

One night, as he walks through Greenwich Village, he rescues a woman, Kitty March, being attacked. They go for a drink, and he develops an affection for her. Though they don’t advance their relationship, they do continue to meet. In fact, her attacker proves to be her boyfriend, and essentially a pimp, Johnny Prince. He becomes interested in Cross’ art, and exploits their connection to acquire it.

Let’s get the technicalities out of the way up front. It’s an attractive enough affair. It’s visibly noir or, rather, it’s noir in its visuals. Sound-wise, on the other hand, it really got under my skin, especially the overly cute dialogue. “Jeepers!” Kitty says, over half a dozen times. “For cat’s sake!” Johnny often responds. He refers to her as “Lazylegs” so often, it might as well have been her real name.

Beyond these slight distractions, however, there’s not much to critique. It looked good, sounded okay, with an interesting story, fine performances, and so on, and so forth. Like a later Lang piece, 1953’s The Big Heat, it was generally solid, but nevertheless a little standard. (What do you do when you’ve already made Metropolis?)

I must admit, I was often distracted by a sense of “been there, done that”. It wasn’t unusual for productions of the era to share directors and casts, even in unrelated projects (i.e. non-sequels or series entries). All the same, I was still surprised by the tide of likenesses between 1945‘s Scarlet Street and 1944’s The Woman in the Window. Produced a single year apart, they’re based on different sources, but clearly Lang was drawn to their similarity.

I don’t believe either is poor enough to warrant spoiling, so I’ll keep the parallels general and shallow. Both involve the longings of a lonely, aging milquetoast: Robinson’s protagonist. Both begin pathetic, eventually driven to desperate ends. Both are smitten with Bennett’s female lead. Both feature Duryea as a bully exploiting the lady. And both employ the artistry of paintings.

Where they differ most significantly is in the plot resolution, and how it repays or forgives the main players for their actions. Each in their own way, neither really “ends”. Personally, I favour the denouement given to us in Scarlet. It’s more an “un-ending” than Woman’s “non-ending”, a substantial improvement to a now-familiar wind-up.

As I watched, I wondered if Lang had reacted as John Hughes would four decades later, unsatisfied with his earlier effort. (In Hughes’ case it was 1986’s Pretty in Pink.) Was he revisiting a lesser success with an alternate approach? (Hughes changed things up in his gender-inverted script for 1987’s Some Kind of Wonderful.)

I’ve come to the conclusion the follow-up(s) did benefit from the revisiting, albeit to a limited extent. To judge the difference, you’d need to watch them both, which could find one or the other suffering in comparison. Scarlet Street’s first and middle acts — while haunted by deja-vu — encouraged me to think, whereas The Woman in the Window made me feel. The trouble is, at the end of the latter, I felt quite disappointed; at the end of the former, I thought it all worked out reasonably well.

Long story short, and all things being equal, if you see just one, make it Scarlet Street.

* * *

Full movie (public domain) available here:

Not Rated

101 minutes

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