Noirvember – on Scarlet Street (1945)

I failed the Noirvember Challenge, friends. All that really means is that I’ll finish up the remaining films on my list in December and probably be writing about them through the new year. I have three more films that I watched in the eleventh month that will count toward this completely arbitrary challenge: The Naked City, Call Northside 777, and Scarlet Street, which I’ll discuss presently. And coming soon, an appreciation of the short-lived comic book cartoon series, “Batman: The Brave and The Bold,” which has been one of my favorite discoveries (if you can call it that) of the year. Back to the topic at hand…

Scarlet Street (1945, Fritz Lang) is the story of Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson), a mild-mannered cashier who enjoys painting in his spare time when his wife isn’t nagging him about clearing the breakfast dishes. On his was home from an office party, he saves a young woman, Kitty (Joan Bennett) from a mugger, who turns out to be her loutish boyfriend Johnny (Dan Duryea). As Kitty and Chris share a cop of coffee after this incident, she comes away with the impression that he’s a famous artist, and later, she and Johnny devise a plan to bilk him out of whatever they can get. It’s all downhill from there…

scaret street

This film starts out as almost a comedy of sorts. It’s all so lighthearted early on, but when Johnny tries to sell some of Chris’ paintings under Kitty’s name, Scarlet Street ever-so-slowly goes darker and darker until it is black as pitch. Chris has been so henpecked by his wife, who lords her first marriage to a seemingly-saintly police officer over her current husband, that he never believed his art was worth anything. Kitty and Johnny find they can sell it for thousands, and when Chris discovers this – as well as the fact that Kitty’s been stringing him along with promises of romance – he breaks completely.

ScarletStreet

By the time Scarlet Street ends, we’ve been run through an emotional wringer, a vise that grips ever tighter and leaves us drained. The final shot, of a penniless Chris walking down a city street, Kitty’s voice on a loop in his and our ears, is one that hits like a low blow when we’re already down. We hope the best for Chris and what happens is the worst. It’s a cruel trick on Lang’s part, this film, yet still somehow gorgeous in how easily it moves from sweet joy to suicidal angst.  Perhaps Scarlet Street isn’t one of Lang’s best films – Robinson is great here, but also an odd casting choice as a pathetic sap – yet it sticks in my mind in the same way that M does. It’s one of the best films I watched for this Challenge, hands down, and one of the best new-to-me films of the year.

scarlet st

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