Blog Directory CineVerse: Welcome to Scarlet Street--where the road runs red with blood and nail polish

Welcome to Scarlet Street--where the road runs red with blood and nail polish

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The great thing about classic noir films is that even the lower-budget and lesser-known examples from the genre are usually grade A pictures that continue to reward new generations that discover them and are willing to take a closer look. Exhibit A is Scarlet Street, a great little crime thriller from 1945 and directed by Fritz Lang and starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea. Here is a summary of our CineVerse talk about this movie (click here to listen to our recorded group conversation):

What did you find interesting, curious, or unexpected about Scarlet Street?

  • It’s pretty “adult” for a 1945 movie subjected to heavy censorship standards. While the filmmakers couldn’t come out and say or show it, it’s suggested that Kitty is a prostitute and Johnny is her pimp. (For symbolic proof, think about how Kitty lives in her own “filth,” with cigarette butts and dirty dishes all around.) Also, the concept of Kitty being a “kept” woman or mistress to Chris would have been controversial at this time.
  • This is a surprisingly bleak, haunting, and tragic film, and the hand of fate at work here seems especially cruel. As in many of Lang’s films, all types of characters—virtuous and corrupt alike—can be suddenly struck by terrible misfortune.
    • Even though he steals money to fund Kitty’s dreams and is attempting to cheat on his wife, Chris comes across as sympathetic and likable. Arguably, he doesn’t deserve the treatment he receives from others, including Kitty, Johnny, and his wife.
    • Johnny, while completely unsympathetic, doesn’t deserve to die in the electric chair because he’s been framed for a murder he didn’t commit.
    • Also, think about how unkind and heartless the world is to Chris, a person who has a heart. Bad things happen to good people in Lang’s cosmology.
  • Scarlet Street predates even the earliest instances of slasher films. We witness Chris kill Kitty with an ice pick, a quick and sudden scene that develops and which would have been shocking to mid-1940s audiences for its explicit violence and for the fact that we never expect Chris to perpetrate this action.
    • In some ways, Scarlet Street is arguably more a horror film than noir, thanks to the ice pick murder scene, the failed hanging, and the haunting guilty conscience ending that some people say makes this the “creepiest, darkest old film they’ve ever seen,” according to DVD Savant critic Glenn Erickson.

Themes crafted into Scarlet Street

  • Inescapable doom, fate, and destiny. Consider our lead character’s name: Chris Cross, which suggests a marked man, a star-crossed tragic fool. Lang explores this theme of unavoidable providence in many of his movies. Ponder how everything eerily falls into place, as if set up by the Greek fates, for Chris to murder Kitty, including his proximity to an ice pick.
  • Karmic irony. Perhaps the cruelest punishment Chris has to endure is knowing that his paintings are treasured and worth a fortune by others, all while he is penniless and unable to benefit.
  • The “corruption of innocence,” Erickson posits, and the suddenness with which a good person can be compelled to kill someone.
  • The most worthy and talented artists aren’t driven by pride or ego. Erickson wrote: “Chris is an artist because his paintings are pure emotion without an investment of ego…Chris is truly inspired and tragically pure.”
    • Interestingly, Lang could be making a subtle self-commentary here that his best work may come more from smaller “labor of love” type projects like Scarlet Street, which may not be appreciated by the masses until long after he’s gone or able to enjoy the adulation.
  • Gender debasement
    • Think about how Chris is emasculated time and again by his henpecking wife, being forced to wear the apron as she figuratively wears the pants in the relationship.
    • He’s also dissed by his boss, who suddenly departs the party he’s holding for Chris so that he can instead spend time with his young mistress, and by the patch-eyed ex-husband, who suddenly returns and draws a stark, more stereotypically masculine contrast to Chris’ meek and humble image of a male spouse.
    • We also see Chris paint Kitty's toenails, a task many would consider belittling for a man.
    • Likewise, Kitty is physically abused and demeaned by her pimp boyfriend—behavior that she twistedly finds attractive and desirable.

Other movies that Scarlet Street brings to mind

  • The Woman in the Window
  • La Chienne (The Bitch), an earlier adaptation of this story directed by Jean Renoir
  • Numerous films noir of the classic 1941-1958 period

Other notable films directed by Fritz Lang

  • Metropolis
  • M
  • Fury
  • Man Hunt
  • The Woman in the Window
  • The Ministry of Fear
  • The Big Heat
  • Human Desire
  • Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

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