Sunday 14 June 2020

Movie Review: Scarlet Street (1945)

A drama and tragic romance with pricks of humour, Scarlet Street applies noir touches to a story of calamitous naivete and deception.

In New York City, Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) is a meek cashier and amateur painter stuck in a loveless marriage with Adele (Rosalind Ivan). On his way home from a dinner marking his 25 years of employment, he stumbles upon part-time actress and model Katherine "Kitty" March (Joan Bennett) being assaulted by her boyfriend Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea). Chris chases Johnny away and is awestruck by Kitty's apparent sophistication. She mistakes him for a rich artist. 

But Kitty and Johnny are a despicable duo. He is a leach always looking to make a quick buck without working for it, and he convinces Kitty to milk Chris for all he is worth, believing his paintings sell for thousands. Kitty leads Chris along and convinces him to rent a studio for her, forcing him to start pilfering funds from his employer. Johnny next attempts to sell Chris' unremarkable paintings, leading to events spiralling out of control.

Scarlet Street travels to the merciless gorge at the bottom of the slippery slope formed by desperation meeting false assumptions. Director Fritz Lang and writer Dudley Nichols adapt the French novel and play La Chienne (literally The Bitch) into a mesmerizing noir, teasing out the ironies inherent in the ill-advised human desire for overreach.

Chris, Kitty and Johnny are three deeply flawed individuals not satisfied with their lot in life. Chris is 25 years into an invisible career, barely scraping a modest living and married to a nightmare. Yet he dreams of romance with a beautiful young woman, and suddenly Kitty falls into his life. He overlooks all her obvious conniving and just formulates an idyllic love in his head, leaving himself vulnerable for exploitation.

Oblivious to her own plight, Kitty is confined to her own version of hell with the less than useless Johnny. He abuses her physically, emotionally and financially, and yet she loves him, her self-esteem shattered beyond believing she can do better. From her moral gutter underlined by lethargy (her nickname is "lazy legs") she assumes Chris is a rich and famous artist (he is dressed the part for his 25 year celebration dinner), a case of two people blinded by their own failings.

And finally Johnny is an utter heel one step away from being defined as a pimp, a man whose big talk crumbles next to his miserable non-achievements. A serial exploiter, he pressures Kitty into giving him anything she has, then moves onto Chris.

Lang finds immense joy in taking the second half of Scarlet Street to unexpected destinations. Chris' artwork suddenly becomes the focus, and ever so briefly, vicarious happiness is in reach. But layers of lies make for an exceptionally poor foundation for bliss, and a tragic trajectory is reestablished.

The film features two magnificent performances. Joan Bennett sparkles in the role of a woman using basic seductive charms to weasel her way into a fool's heart, her best moments coming in the flashes when Kitty realizes, to her brief astonishment, just how gullible Chris is. Meanwhile Edward G. Robinson is almost heartbreaking as a tentative sad man, hanging onto pride and an unlikely dream of finding a soulmate, quickly sinking into the swamp prepared for him by two scoundrels.

When Chris encounters Kitty on Scarlet Street everything is briefly possible for both of them, but some streets are deceptive dead-ends.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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