Scarlet Street

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There’s a “strike while the iron is hot” aspect to 1945’s Scarlet Street, a quick follow-up to 1944’s The Woman in the Window which reunited the three key cast members – Joan Bennett, Edward G Robinson and Dan Duryea – with director Fritz Lang and the ace cinematographer Milton Krasner.

That was noir and so is this, a remake of Jean Renoir’s 1931 film La Chienne (literally, The Bitch). Renoir didn’t like Lang’s remake and nor, later on, would he like Human Desire, Lang’s remake of his La Bête Humaine.

Edward G Robinson was also in the Renoir camp. He didn’t like working on Scarlet Steet much, considering it too similar to The Woman in the Window. He’s not wrong. There are parallels aplenty, thematic and visual, some overt – Lang closes the film with a shot of a painting in the window of a gallery, which is pretty much how he started and ended The Woman in the Window.

Robinson, Bennett and Duryea could be playing clones of the characters from the earlier film. Robinson is Chris Cross (ho ho), a mild-mannered cashier who happens upon a heel beating up a young woman called Kitty one night in Greenwich Village, and saves her by beating off the man with his brolly. This noble deed wins Chris Kitty’s gratitude in the shape of a coffee at a diner, which turns into something a bit stronger as they get to know each other, a sequence of events cut and pasted from The Woman in the Window. Here as there, the mug is instantly smitten. What the unworldly Chris doesn’t realise is that Kitty is a prostitute (a scarlet woman) and the man beating her (Duryea, though his face wasn’t revealed) is her pimp.

She, also getting things all wrong, takes this penpushing weekend painter to be a seriously rich artist who can be systematically taken to the cleaners, which she proceeds to do, in an operation masterminded by the unscrupulous and feckless Johnny (Duryea).

It’s not a carbon copy of The Woman in the Window. In this one Robinson is married, to an absolutely awful, almost cartoonishly petty wife. She (played by Rosalind Ivan with shrewish relish) was married once before, to a cop who died bravely in the line of duty. Chris will never measure up. Kitty also has an appendage, Millie Ray playing the gal pal whose apartment Kitty is camping out in, and who uses the words “working girl” to describe Kitty, which was enough to get this film banned in three US states. Ray is refreshing but her character makes little sense. Perhaps she’s just there to dispel comparisons with the earlier film.

One of Chris's paintings
One of Chris’s paintings. Note snake

It’s a potboiler, heavy on the plot, which becomes more gothic as the hapless Chris is systematically bilked out of money he doesn’t have, robbing his wife and his company to keep within a shot of Kitty. And in a supreme ironic twist, Chris’s hopeless daubs suddenly become hot artistic property, allowing the film to take potshots at artworld hocus pocus of the familiar “my kid could have painted that” variety.

Though Robinson is particularly good, especially in his more despairing moments, Bennett is the film’s star. But then it is a good role. Kitty is the femme very fatale who becomes haughtier and more dirtily magisterial as this sad tale of woe plays out. Until, her facade eventually slipping, she makes the mistake of laughing in the face of the poor Chris, a sap, a dupe, “old” and “ugly”. He responds by… well… 

There are plenty of loose plot strands, which Lang and his writer Dudley Nichols deal with rather brilliantly in a courtroom montage sequence which neatly ties them off, one after the other. There is still, however, a plausibility issue – the character of Chris. For sure this is meant to be a case of “no fool like an old fool” but Chris isn’t a dunce, he’s smart. Which makes his regular misreading of the situations he finds himself in – from the first meeting with Kitty onwards – a bit of a headscratcher.

As regards discs, the Kino Lorber one is a good choice. It’s a hi-def transfer of the 35mm negative from the US Library of Congress. Generally it’s sharp and has a tonally satisfying picture quality thanks to Milton Krasner’s lighting. Because the copyright on this film lapsed there are some truly diabolical copies (or copies of copies) out there, be warned.

Scarlet Street – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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