Scarlet Street (1945). 102 minutes. Directed by Fritz Lang. Starring Edward G. Robinson (as Christopher Cross), Joan Bennett (as Katharine “Kitty” March), Dan Duryea (as Johnny Prince), Margaret Lindsay (as Millie Rae), Rosalind Ivan (as Adele Cross), Jess Barker (as David Janeway), Charles Kemper (as Patch-eye Higgins), and Russell Hicks (as J. J. Hogarth).
Scarlet Street is a remake of Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (1931), but whereas La Chienne was made at the beginning of a decade that offered merely the seeds of film noir, Scarlet Street was made by Fritz Lang in the greatest period of this cinematic mode. The remake works splendidly, and Renoir’s story is right at home in a moody 1940s American nightscape replete with darkened streets, shadowy relationships, and moral turpitude. Above all I recommend it because it stars Edward G. Robinson, who is so often typecast as a tough guy or gangster, as a sensitive painter who is taken advantage of by two clever hustlers. Although the movie functions primarily as a crime drama, it also manages to serve as an exceptional reflection on the line between fantasy and reality, especially insofar as that line interacts with our professional and creative aspirations.
While walking through Greenwich Village one night, cashier and amateur painter Chris Cross thwarts a man who is attacking a woman in the streets. The man runs off before we can get a glimpse of him, and the woman, Kitty March, takes Chris out for a drink; he is smitten with her. We soon learn that the man attacking her was her boyfriend Johnny, although Chris does not know this. Johnny and Kitty believe that Chris is a successful professional painter with strong economic ties, and Johnny suspects that if Kitty pretends to love the vulnerable Chris, they can financially manipulate him.
Soon Chris, who is unhappy in his marriage to his wife Adele, is stealing money from her and his boss, J. J. Hogarth, to put Kitty up in a posh apartment that he also uses as a painter’s studio. Johnny, who secretly also spends time there, steals some of Chris’s paintings to sell in the streets and attracts the attention of a major dealer, but when the dealer demands to know who the painter is, Johnny tells him it is Kitty. At first Chris believes this is his ticket to success, and he paints under Kitty’s name, even supplying her with art for a major exhibition. What he cannot tolerate is the fact that Johnny and Kitty are together. In a fit of rage he murders Kitty with an ice pick, but he evades justice when Johnny is tried, convicted, and executed for the crime. Chris goes mad, hearing Johnny and Kitty’s voices in the night and believing that they are together in the afterlife. The movie ends with him destitute and homeless, roaming the streets of New York: he is unknown for his creative work, while his paintings sell for thousands of dollars, and he insists to police that he is guilty of Kitty’s death but no one will listen to him.
We can tell a lot about Chris based on the first painting we see him working away at in his bathroom at home—the only place his wife will allow him to paint (she does not appreciate his art). I am thinking of the strange flowers he paints, based on a single flower that he takes from Kitty on the night that they share the drink after hours. The flowers on canvas look unreal, fantastic, and nothing like the flower in the vase that he observes. We might think that this is the movie’s way of telling us that Chris is inventive and creative. Perhaps, but this painting also reveals that what Chris sees and what we see are not the same thing. Fantasy is going to be a problem for this character, and we should pay attention to the ways that his rendition of reality diverges from what we know to be true.
On the subject of fantasy versus reality, Scarlet Street is fundamentally about a creative person who gets into trouble because he tries to pass himself off as something he is not. When Chris finds himself sharing a drink with the attractive Kitty early in the movie, she asks what he does for a living, and he tells her that he is a painter, rather than truthfully reporting that he is employed as a cashier. This movie thus subtly raises the issue of who we are and what we can claim to be to strangers: are we what we do at work, or are we what we do in our spare time, in between our hours at the office? To be fair, Chris says he is a painter in part presumably because he believes that is what will impress the beautiful Kitty the most. But Chris sees this conversation with an attractive younger woman as an opportunity not merely to flirt but also to pretend. The movie implies that he is a bit of a schlub: conventional, subservient (both to his wife and his boss in many scenes), full of longing and in need of an exit but not having the will or determination to make changes in his life through less than duplicitous means. In the moment that he lies to Kitty, he sees the opportunity to know a beautiful woman, the allure of living his dream, and a chance at being a bohemian—creative, free, satisfied.
That Chris tells such a revealing lie about himself is rather touching but also pathetic. He entrusts his fantasy about himself to the wrong person—a stranger whom he is trying to impress and who he does not realize is waiting for someone like him to take advantage of. The naïve Chris soon installs Kitty in a spacious artist’s studio. We never see them discuss his paintings together in detail, and when she does talk about them with Johnny, it is with bewilderment and contempt. So the creative side of Chris’s life is never appreciated by the object of his affection, even when she becomes his muse, even when she pretends to be the author of his art.
Scarlet Street provides us with multiple plots that involve scamming, lying, or omitting truthful details. The movie focuses on painterly arts, but it also tells a story about people who have made deceit an art form as well. Johnny and Kitty get taken in by Chris, who they believe is a legitimate artist. Of course, Chris is taken in by Johnny and Kitty, who determine that they can sponge off of him to inhabit a dreamy apartment and experience the finer things in life. Johnny decides that Kitty will pose as the artist of Chris’s paintings to bring in more money, and Chris consents to being impersonated. Chris plays the part of a faithful cashier at work while he steals from his boss. Even Chris’s wife Adele and her bizarre ex-husband Patch-eye Higgins are the subject of conniving in one brief subplot: when Higgins secretly makes contact with Chris in an extortion attempt, Chris creates a trap that exposes Higgins and ends Chris’s own horrid marriage to Adele. Chris learns a great deal from Johnny and Kitty, and we wonder if at the movie’s beginning he would have been capable of solving the problem of his unhappy marriage in such a sneaky way.
Indeed, Chris absorbs a great deal from his conniving friends, although his final violent act grows largely out of his own fractured mentality. When Chris kills Kitty with an ice pick near the end of this movie, we do not see the details of what must be a brutal murder, but we get the idea. We should reevaluate our take on Chris after that scene. He seemed sweet and forlorn when the movie began, but if we accepted that, we were missing something—we, too, were duped. But we cannot remain duped if we are to fully appreciate this movie as a film noir. Chris is an active participant in his own downfall, a deeply flawed person who seems very sensitive at times yet gets sucked into the city’s underworld too easily. He seems all too eager to use the low-down tricks of Kitty and Johnny to his advantage in other areas of life. The great film noir heroes are usually complex creations, touched by the darkness that they detect all around them. Even though they are surrounded by bad people, their awful endings normally are accompanied by their own poor choices, their own bad deeds. We see in them the parts of us that can be tempted in spite of our goodness, that can be persuaded by the shadows of the city to do wrong if it means bringing satisfaction to some part of ourselves that could not otherwise be fulfilled.
When the movie ends, we see Chris wandering the streets, trying to tell people both that he painted Kitty’s masterworks, now selling for thousands of dollars, and begging the police to believe that he killed Kitty and is responsible for Johnny’s execution. It is a quest for credibility and legitimacy that he has been undertaking in different ways all throughout the movie. Fundamentally, Scarlet Street is about Chris’s fragile identity and the way it is fueled by desperation, unhappiness, and fantasy. The movie ironically juxtaposes one man’s willingness to believe an absurd dream about the object of his affections, about who he is, and about who he could be—with the reality that in the end, no one is willing to believe him. So we are left with a dilemma apart from what the other characters might think: has Chris become a great artist at the end of the movie, even though no one knows that he is the painter behind Kitty’s art? And which is the more crushing blow for this character: the fact that he is unknown or that his crimes are unknown?
Chris is a devastated wreck at the movie’s end, possibly mad, the sort of mumbling, disheveled street person we sometimes see in American cities. But weirdly, as Chris wanders off into obscurity in the final scene, we observe someone who in many ways has come out on top. His account of himself has been both accepted and rejected at key moments, in both ways to his benefit: he is able both to live as an artist because Kitty believes him and to evade justice because no one believes him. In any other story and with a different context, we might call his end a triumph. It is certainly an unusual conclusion for film noir, the genre that eagerly punishes even its protagonists merely for leaning towards the dark side. But here it is clear that wallowing disbelieved and unknown in the crowded streets is a fate worse than death, the ultimate living hell. It makes for one of the most pathetic stories in 1940s crime drama.