Culture

Art, Lust, and Doing the Dishes: The Controversy of Scarlet Street

“Scarlet Street’ has so many beautifully subtle touches in it that it really has to be seen several times in order to be fully appreciated: the parallel between Kitty and Chris’s flower (his ‘problems with perspective’); the expression that flashes over Kitty’s face when Chris ‘confesses’ that he’s a married man; the brief reference at the beginning to Chris’s superstition, which will eventually bring about his psychological downfall. Like many Lang films, it deals with the concept of criminal justice, and is a clever, cruel and fascinating film — a little dated technically, but far ahead of its time, and one of the greatest and blackest film noirs from the forties. The climax is still one of the most chilling in film history — more frightening than most of the great horror films.”

In my latest edition of “Movies for Grown Ups,” I’m introducing you to another film without robots, car chases or “cool” special effects.

Scarlet Street is a film noir, but not one of those detective centered ones like The Maltese Falcon or Kiss Me Deadly.

Because it was directed by a refugee from Hitler’s Germany – Fritz Lang – this movie features the kinky backstreet misanthropy – a kind of doomed, sadistic stoicism — that’s standard issue with Teutonic filmmakers. Think of Billy Wilder’s dingy, (un)romantic comedy The Apartment or von Sternberg’s grotty The Blue Angel.

Those two movies deal with erotic obsession — never thought of Jack Lemmon as a stalker before, had you? — and so does Scarlet Street. Yet it is so much more.

Here’s the plot:

Chris Cross (played by Edward G. Robinson) is an aging, lowly clerk whose miserable marriage and tedious job are only made bearable by his hobby. He’s a painter whose expressionistic canvases are painted in the bathroom — when his shrewish wife permits it. (Note: the video below was ripped from a public domain copy of the film. Keep reading to find out how to view a superior print.)

Mostly he’s shown wearing an apron and cleaning up the apartment, while she nags him in the background.

One evening, fate brings Cross into the path of a lazy, slovenly “actress” named Kitty (who’s really a prostitute, but the Hays Code forbade Lang from spelling that out.) To his own amazement, the timid clerk rescues Kitty (played by Joan Bennett) from a brutal attacker. She repays the favor by pretending to befriend him.

“Pretending” because Cross doesn’t know that Kitty’s attacker was really her boyfriend/pimp Johnny. (Actor Dan Duryea specialized in skinny, snake-like wife-beaters on the make; he’ll remind modern viewers of an unsavory mutation of Richard Widmark and William H. Macy.)

Flattered by her attention, Cross lets Kitty mistake him for a famous artist – a fib that inspires the vulgar pair to take the old guy for all he’s worth.

Kitty talks Cross into renting a studio apartment in Greenwich Village so he can paint in peace (in fact, she just wants a fancy new place to live.) He duly sets up an easel, and moves his finished canvases out of his own home before his wife makes good on her cruel threat to throw them away.

A series of twists and misunderstandings leads a renowned art critic to mistake Kitty as the artist responsible for these unusual paintings. She can’t very well deny it, and Johnny won’t let her, now that “her” paintings are commanding high prices in upper crust galleries.

When Cross finds out what’s happened…

I’ll leave it there.

It pains me to do so, because Scarlet Street’s intricately plotted, edge-of-your-seat twists are among its greatest achievements, and I’d get a little frisson of excitement retelling them to you right now. However, it wouldn’t be fair.

Let’s just say that “following your dreams” can sometimes become a nightmare, especially when three people decide to blithely believe what they want to believe, with tragic consequences.

Here are a few background tidbits to enrich your viewing experience:

●  Lang shares a lot with Hitchcock: the pessimistic view of the human condition, and the fascination with the wrongly accused.

If you enjoy Hitchcock’s black and white, plot-heavy pre-Psycho movies like Strangers on a Train or Shadow of a Doubt, you’ll appreciate Scarlet Street.

●  Scarlet Street seamlessly melds many different genres together, from the Hitchcockian “wrong man” thriller, the femme fatale noir, the German Expressionist silents (like Lang’s immortal M) and even the French “door slamming” farce.

Compare it – especially the lead actresses final cruel tirade — with another film about a slattern and a would-be artist, Of Human Bondage.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UUqnVVAEuT0

● Kitty hates kissing Chris. Johnny – who, it is broadly hinted, can’t get off except through violence – hates kissing Kitty. This doesn’t prevent Chris and Kitty from living in complete denial about who loves who.

● Lang’s depiction of a prostitute and her pimp lines up nicely with another (surprise!) German emigre creation, “The Ballad of the Pimp” in Brecht/Weill’s The Threepenny Opera.

● The paintings in Scarlet Street were by noted Hollywood portraitist John Decker. They succeed admirably as believable examples of what a talented yet untaught folk artist might create in mid-century America.

My theory (and I need to research this further) is that, instructed to create pictures that could have conceivably been painted by either a man or a woman, Decker consciously imitated the styles of Frida Kahlo and Tamara de Lempika with some Henri Rousseau thrown in.

In his brief but gem-filled essay exploring the multi-leveled symbolism of Scarlet Street, Roger Westcombe points out that timid Chris Cross’s “obsessive love of painting becomes a metaphor for a life lived at arm’s length.”

● If you’re used to thinking of Edward G. Robinson as a jumped up, snarling gangster, his performance in Scarlet Street will surprise you. Not for a moment do you fail to accept him as a nebbish who’s wasted his life, and will react to betrayal by unleashing decades’ worth of tightly wound fury.

● Incidentally (or not), in real life Robinson was an art connoisseur whose collection of Renoirs, Picassos and van Goghs was the envy of many, proudly displayed in a special gallery he had built on his Hollywood property.

SPOILER ALERT:

Scarlet Street violated a number of items on the Hays Code (click to enlarge Life magazine’s satirical composite image, left), the self-censorship provisions adopted by Hollywood to stave off constant threats of harsher oversight from Washington.

Lang telegraphed Kitty’s true profession by introducing her to the audience while she is standing under a lamp post, wearing a see-through plastic raincoat – a way for Lang to depict her as cheap and disposable, like a penny candy and its cellophane wrapper (as well as being clothed yet frankly, publicly naked).

Thanks to some metaphysical sleight of hand in terms of plot, Scarlet Street (sort of) got away with being the first American film to depict someone getting away with murder, although the movie was briefly banned in three cities, including New York, and condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency.

Essays have been written about the significance of the characters’ names, as well as the movie’s title.

Like another femme fatale noir, Sunset Boulevard (i.e., “the road to darkness”), the title of Scarlet Street perfectly conveys the film’s themes of “scarlet” women and “red light” districts, and evokes a “road to hell” or “path to shame.”

● Alas, for years this movie was available only on shoddy VHS or as a free public domain torrent, but next month, KINO releases a definitive Blu-Ray version of Scarlet Street, struck from restored Library of Congress 35mm elements, with an exceptional commentary track by Lang expert David Kalat.

I normally don’t enjoy commentary tracks but Kalat’s is truly worth listening to after your first go-round with the film. Certainly worth the price of the DVD.

As the Wonders in the Dark blog noted last year:

Lang’s worldview is much more cynical and realistic than most of the fluff Hollywood was producing in those days. He knew the misery that people could inflict on each other just by looking at his own native country’s descent into temporary madness. He was also unwilling to gloss over the inescapable reality that death and anguish can befall anyone regardless of character or inherent goodness. Life and happiness comes at us like a roulette wheel. Some of us bet black and hit. Others put everything on red and see our fortunes disappear in an instant, never to be retrieved. It may not be pretty or particularly inviting to our psyche but it is the plain truth. Life is a gamble without an arbitrator to validate one’s worth over another’s.

Scarlet Street is a dark film. The bleakest noir ever created in the classic era. It’s becomes more horrifying knowing that Lang’s gloomy outlook may be based on certain undeniable truths.

And on that concluding note, remember to check out the previous installments of Movies for Grown Ups: