Scarlet Street

Kitty and Chris

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

The Woman in the Window

Alice and the professor meet

Not to be confused with the 2021 movie of the same name, 1944’s The Woman in the Window is the second of three film noirs Fritz Lang made with Joan Bennett and the first of two he’d make with Edward G Robinson. It’s a queer beast – noir with a plot trick picked up from The Wizard of Oz, a trick used so brilliantly it rescues what looks like a film that’s gone weirdly off the rails.

Robinson plays the tweedy psychology professor called Richard, Dick to his friends – Sigmund Freud bubbles around beneath the surface of this plot and that name is no accident – who, while admiring a portrait of a hot babe in a gallery window, turns to see that Alice, the babe herself, is standing in the street beside him. Rapidly leaving his comfort zone, Dick is soon improbably in a club having a drink with Alice, a femme so fatale that you can see her nipples through her sheer top.

It’s all too good to be true, of course, and the fact that the prof is bathed in the sort of gauzy lighting usually reserved for female stars, while Alice is not, suggests that he’s more the quarry than the hunter, an impression only emphasised when she invites him up to her place to see her etchings (sketches of her, in fact).

One death later and the dream has turned to a nightmare, the professor has a body to get rid of and the cops are on his tail. More to the point, though no one actually suspects him, he’s almost giving the game away repeatedly with a series of blunders that the professor’s old friend and drinking buddy, District Attorney Frank Laylor (Raymond Massey), cannot help but have noticed, surely?

The plot is a light lift from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and its theme of self-incrimination would later be used week in, week out in the Columbo TV series (which also acknowledged its debt to Dostoevsky). But in 1944 it was more likely 1930’s The Blue Angel – professor loses head to a nightclub singer – that came to mind.

Heidt blackmails Alice
It’s blackmail: Heidt and Alice

The casting is interesting. Both Bennett and Robinson had started out with completely different screen images than the ones on display here. She’d been the breathy blonde ingenue in a string of films, but after dying her hair dark, pitching her voice a bit lower and swinging the equipment around a bit more, became a classic (and hugely popular) screen vamp. Robinson, by contrast, had risen to fame as a gangster in movies like 1931’s Little Caesar, but then stayed at the top by broadening his range, often playing men like the professor – quiet, unassuming guys with hidden depths.

Playing to type, on the other hand, is Raymond Massey as the DA, Massey’s bark and gimlet eye suggesting he knows that the professor is guilty of something even though the script insists he doesn’t – it’s the tension between Massey’s performance and Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay that give the film much of its fizz.

A technical whizz, Fritz Lang’s fluid camera slides in and out of scenes, often on a crane even on low shots, which is how he’s able to glide over obstacles and get right up into the fact of the professor or Alice at key moments. The dialogue, too, is taut and there’s barely a line in Johnson’s screenplay that isn’t the setup to a later payoff.

With half an hour still to go, it all seems to be a case of not if but when will the professor finally expose himself. And then Dan Duryea (again, playing right to type as the “heel with sex appeal”) turns up as a blackmailer trying to shake Alice down.

In the weird finish alluded to in the opening paragraph, Heidt (Duryea) is dealt with in a way that satisfies none of the rules of storytelling, or film noir, or anything at all, until, in a bravura reverse, Johnson’s screenplay brings the whole thing to a conclusion with a twist that is not only satisfying but asks us to look again at some of the storytelling twists and turns we were doubtless only too happy to go along with earlier in the film.

The end. Lang, Bennett, Robinson and Duryea would be back the following year with Scarlet Street, in which something like the same characters run through another satisfying noir scenario featuring silly Edward G, mercenary Joan and bad Dan.

I’m linking to Eureka’s Masters of Cinema Blu-ray, a decent version (there are some bad ones out there).

The Woman in the Window – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

Walk a Tightrope

Dan Duryea

Walk a Tightrope, a British B movie from 1964 packs more of a punch than you might expect, thanks to a properly ingenious story and a great performance by Dan Duryea, who adds the all-important element for British B movies of the era, a starring role for a second-string American actor at the tail end of his career.

Duryea was 57 when this was made and looks older. Often cast as a villain, this “heel with sex appeal” (as the New York Times called him in his obituary) would be dead of cancer within four years and looks gaunt here, so maybe it was already taking its toll on his health.

His appearance doesn’t hurt this strange combination of the kitchen sinker and the noirish thiller, which starts out in a drab bedsit where silly and stupid Maisie (Shirley Cameron) is trying to appease her surly, exasperated and broke man, Carl (Duryea) with offers of a nice bit of steak.

Carl has other plans and beetles out on “a job”. He’s a hitman, unbeknown to Maisie, and is soon shadowing Ellen (Patricia Owens), a hoity toity blonde with a husband who will wind up dead before too long. Apologies for the spoiler, but it happens really very early on, and in any case Ellen’s husband, Jason (Terence Cooper), is so uxorious he’s clearly being lined up for something.

Who done it? Carl, obviously, but the interest comes from Carl’s later insistence that Ellen contracted him to do the job, and that she owes him the money for it. Ellen, for her part, is the butter wouldn’t melt sort – good casting of Owens – and puts up a stout defence that she has no idea what Carl is talking about. And even though it’s obvious something doesn’t fit in Ellen’s story, the plot’s ingenuity is such that it keeps her in play right to the end as the innocent party who might be guilty, or the guilty party who might be innocent, depending on whose story you believe.

Duryea is particularly good and oozes seediness, but it is notably a good cast all round – Shirley Cameron as the way-too-eager Maisie, Richard Leech as the avuncular friend of Ellen’s husband, a man with too keen an interest in Ellen, Trevor Reid as the cop on the case, Inspector MacMitchell, a finicky but smart detective who seems to have swallowed the old world manners and speech patterns of Wilfrid Hyde-White. As said, Owens is good casting – is she bad, is she not? – even though her accent doesn’t quite mark her as an American in London. Owens is in fact Canadian, but sounds like a Brit.

Richard Leech and Patricia Owens
Richard Leech and Patricia Owens

Nor does the plot quite add up, and the more you think about it, the more “hang on a minute” moments you are likely to find. And there’s also a protracted courtroom sequence which strains credulity but does give Duryea an opportunity to show us some more aspects of his skillset.

Quibbles, really, because there is a nice ta-daa reveal which you might see coming if you’re the sort who tries to work these sort of things out.

Added interest come from the London locations – Westbourne Grove early on, though the bulk of the action takes place down on the River Thames, at Strand on the Green, a nice part of town now with some fine riverside pubs, and Isleworth, further up river, where The London Apprentice pub features prominently (it’s still there today).

It’s noirish-ish rather than noirish – too brightly lit, too well spoken, too well appointed to really make the grade, though the suspect motivations of almost everyone involved do fit the ticket.

At one hour nine minutes it doesn’t hang about either.

Walk a Tightrope – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022