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Scarlet Street (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on February 12, 2013

Chris Cross (Edward G. Robinson) is a meek cashier, thoroughly emasculated by his shrewish wife Adele (Rosalind Ivan).  His only joy is painting.  One night he “rescues” the young, vivacious Kitty March (Joan Bennett) from a beating.  Feeling flirtatious, he lets Kitty believe that he’s an artist with a lucrative career.  Kitty’s sleazy boyfriend Johnny (Dan Duryea) gets an idea… milk Chris for all he’s worth.  As Kitty seduces him, Chris tries to come up with enough money to keep her happy, unaware that he’s being duped.  Things get even more complicated, however, when his paintings start to attract attention.

In my first review, I did a lot of comparing to La Chienne, Renoir’s earlier adaptation of the same source material.  I’m not going to do that this time, for several reasons.  One, I don’t remember Renoir’s movie that well anymore.  Two, it’s just a dumb thing to do.  Comparisons can be useful but they only go so far.  And three, it reeks of snobbery and showoffiness.

Looking at Lang’s adaptation without these contrasts in mind — and with a ton more film noir under my belt — it’s much better than I gave it credit for.  The ending is a bit moralistic, but actually it’s far more grim than the average film noir.  It’s certainly not sunshine and roses.  The cinematography is in general not that inspired, but there are some nice moments.  The emotional climax especially is really quite haunting (great scoring and sound during that scene as well).

The principal actors are all pretty terrific.  It’s not a place to look for nuanced characterizations… these people are pure archetypes, but they play it to the hilt.  Bennett isn’t a favorite of mine, but she’s usually good (especially in Lang’s hands, as in the superb Secret Beyond the Door).  She’s a lot of fun here, stringing Robinson along and flinging her cigarette butts every which way.  Robinson is a perfect milquetoast, you really believe he actually is gullible enough to fall for Bennett’s line.  And Duryea… oh, Dan Duryea.  Why did I once dislike you so much?  He’s wonderfully hammy in this one, a nasty little snake with all that slimy charm.

The film does move a little on the sluggish side, maybe a bit too much of a slow burn.  But there’s a lot of great material here and a genuinely cynical bite.  It’s predators versus prey, only the ruthless will win.  I underrated this the first time for sure.  Rating: Very Good (84)

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5 Responses to “Scarlet Street (rewatch)”

  1. A nice enough film. I prefer Lang’s M and Big Heat. Great review. Perhaps I need to check this one out again to see whether I will develop a better appreciation of it.

  2. I like your analysis of the characters. I read that this was the first film to have a character get away with murder. I haven’t seen Secret Beyond the Door but The Woman in the Window (1944) makes an interesting comparison to Scarlet Street because it has the same three leads. I completely agree: Chris Cross is “thoroughly emasculated by his shrewish wife.” His loveless marriage is one reason why he is duped. He is trying to escape from reality. I wrote a short essay on Scarlet Street called “The Pursuit of a False Dream.” If you would like to read it, here is the link: https://christopherjohnlindsay.wordpress.com/2014/03/26/scarlet-street/

    • Thanks! I doubt it’s the first film to have a character get away with murder. Maybe the first out of Hollywood during the Hayes code, but I’d bet money it happens in some pre-code movie. Secret Beyond the Door is one of my favorites, you should check it out.

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