Monday, November 24, 2014

Another Film Noir: Scarlet Street

Fritz Lang’s 1945 masterpiece SCARLET STREET, with Edward G Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea, is disturbing to say the least. The film plays with appearance and reality almost in the same way that the characters do, conning each other into one thing or another, becoming one character or another as they all greedily, and without compunction go for the brass ring, the main chance, the big enchilada.

I wondered as the opening credits rolled if this was even going to be a noir movie. Maybe I had gotten mixed up when I was browsing Netflix and gotten hooked into some romance? The music over those credits seemed breezy and romantic, and I couldn’t see where we were going to get noir at all. The only detective in this piece turns out to be the deceased spouse of Robinson’s battle-axe of a wife Adele, and he was a dissolute bum who is more concerned with chasing down bribes than he is with chasing down criminals.

Robinson, playing the part of Christopher Cross, the same Edward G Robinson of the parts Rico in PUBLIC ENEMY and Rocco in KEY LARGO, plays an unassuming, diffident little wallflower who wouldn’t say sh*t if his mouth was full. He is too soft-boiled to be the protagonist of the typical crime drama.

In the opening scene, the guys from work are having a little party, and Robinson, a cashier who has performed faithfully for 25 years, is given the clichéd watch that you always get when you have been a wage slave for decades. He stands in the rain at the bus stop with a co-worker, both tipsy, and they seem like lonely guys, even though they are both married.

Robinson started out as a boarder in Adele’s place, and she acted sweetly at first, but she turned shrewish upon taking the wedding vows, just one of the people who gull Robinson throughout the story. She has insurance money from the sainted and dead husband (easier to be one when you are dead, as we will see later) but won’t spend any of it even for a radio, which she continually nags at Robinson to purchase for her.

Robinson dabbles at painting, turning mundane reality into beautiful fantasy even though he “could never master perspective.” Adele thinks his painting silly, and even accuses him of wanting to paint naked women. He protests that he has never seen a naked woman, and you feel sorry for him until you remember what Adele probably looks like in the buff (and how she behaves, clothed or not).

As Robinson walks through a depression era Greenwich Village, he sees a woman being accosted (Bennet being slapped around by Duryea), and rushes to the rescue, the sight of a woman in distress inspiring him to overcome his milquetoast nature for once. He whacks the fellow with his umbrella, and takes the poor girl home after going for a cop who goes after the fleeing attacker in vain.

This damsel in distress motif is extended into a sweet scene where Cross takes Kitty home and they have a soda in the basement establishment below her apartment, which she shares with a girlfriend. Kitty appears to be a sweet girl, and here we have the film trope of the “cute-meet” whereby the couple that will end up together first spark each other’s interests, before being blocked from being together in the second reel, and then finally united in the third.
But Kitty is far from what she seems to be. And Chris is not entirely honest either, telling her that he is a successful painter, or at least not disabusing her of that notion when she gets it into her head. He, who has seen his boss drive off with a young girl who is not his wife, and doesn’t consider that perhaps money has something to do with the pairing of a silver-haired oldster with a girl young enough to be his daughter, is playing the romantic role, and she, out of pity or for laughs, plays along.

Lang here is saying something important about human nature, I think. As human beings, we are self-conscious creatures, and we are aware of how we are supposed to act, and how we seem to others. So we create social personas, or masks, and use those masks to navigate our social world. And sometimes that mask is worn so long that we forget that it is a mask.

The movie merrily hums along in a romantic direction until the next scene, where we learn that the “attacker” was really Kitty’s boyfriend, who was just slapping her around because she wouldn’t give him any more money to gamble with. The two of them are as id-driven and libidinous as you could possibly be in a 1945 movie. Her apartment is filthy, and she lies around all day in her bedclothes, and throws cigarette butts into a sink overflowing with dirty dishes. “Johnny” practically lives there. He’s a hoodlum, a ne’er do well, and a grifter, but she doesn’t mind because, as she says to her girlfriend, she is in love. In a movie of the new millennium, I am sure there would have been violent sex, and it is intimated even here.

Neither Kitty nor Johnny is much for work, so they come up with a scheme for Kitty to induce Chris to get her an apartment she will “pay” for by modeling. Johnny gets hold of Chris’s paintings, which Chris has never been confident enough to sell, and Kitty starts to impersonate Chris, who doesn’t care, because now he imagines they will be together. The paintings begin to see like mad.

And then, of all things, Adele’s ex husband reappears. He supposedly drowned when he tried to save a woman suicide from doing so, but really he had been attempting suicide himself, because he had gotten caught taking bribes from speakeasies to allow them to stay open. He is mistaken for dead, and he doesn’t mind. He is a great big lout, a greasy, smelly, bear of a man, and a lush. He asks Chris to pay him off so he won’t tell Adele he is back.

And for the first time Chris really, and cleverly, is as duplicitous as those around him. He tells the ex that he can come by the house when Adele is out and get the insurance money she got from the insurance company upon his death, but of course she is home, she sees him, and now Chris, still deluded into thinking Kitty loves him, thinks he can finally be with Kitty. It is the ending of the perfect romantic comedy, lovers meet, lovers spark, lovers can’t be together, lovers can be together (when Chris’s marriage is dissolved).

But when Chris goes to see Kitty, he undergoes the same shocking reversal we did when we discovered Kitty’s attacker was really her lover (a not too complimentary view on what keeps men and women together, violence and sex, or violence followed by sex). She tells him he is old and ugly and she hates him. And when he finally must face that fact that perhaps he is, and that his romantic notion of love is ridiculous, he kills her.

Johnny gets blamed for the murder, but he is so obviously a hoodlum that no one believes him. It doesn’t help that he steals Kitty’s jewelry when he sees she is dead (“she didn’t need it anymore”). And no one believes that Chris was really the painter. Chris greatly enjoys Johnny’s death in the chair, until he thinks how Kitty and he will be lovers together in eternity, laughing at him. Chris is broke, fired for stealing from the boss to pay for Kitty’s apartment. He wanders the depressing Depression era streets, shattered, starving and crazed, and finally tries to hang himself, only to get saved by another boarder in the shanty of a rooming house he is living in. His mind gone, he tries over and over to confess, but no one will listen to him. He is in hell, but one of his own devising, not one for those who have sinned against other men, but for those who can’t come to terms with life without the social mask.

The twist in this particular noir film is that passion, combined with the inability to reconcile a romantic view of life with the harsh reality of life as really lived, is what destroys Cross. He never wanted to be a crook, a criminal; he never set himself against society. He just, as he says to his friend, wanted to know just once what it would be like to be loved by a beautiful young girl. It seems like a small crime to commit, his deluding of the self, but it leads to the killing of Kitty, and his inability to let go of the dream finally drives him mad.

© 2014 Mike Welch


  1. If people did not wear "masks" so-called civilized houses and buildings would be inhabited by savage beasts! tjstraw, a Manhattan dweller for over 40 years...

    1. I think you may have put your finger on the main premise of noir fiction, Thelma.

  2. To All My friends on CWC... Have the happiest Thanksgiving Ever! And eat sparingly - save some turkey for Friday! Thelma in Manhattan, eating takeout from delicious Dunlin' Donuts!