By Philip Schweier
Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945) is one of those seminal movies that first turned me on to film noir. Sure, there have been other classics such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) or Out of the Past (1947). Heck, Rhonda Fleming is worth the price of admission on that one. But the thing about Scarlet Street is it doesn’t feature any private eyes or morally ambivalent gangster-type protagonists.
Edward G. Robinson (HEY! I said, no gangsters) plays Christopher Cross, who once had aspirations of being an artist. Painting takes him away to where he always heard it could be. The canvas can do miracles; just you wait and see.
Robinson was a well-known art lover, so clearly the role came easy to him, and rather than play the usual thug as he had in films such as Little Caesar (1930) or Key Largo (1948), it afforded him the opportunity to play a character closer to himself.
Christopher is married to Adele (Rosalind Ivan). The shrew is constantly comparing him unfairly to her first husband, a cop who sacrificed his life trying to rescue a woman who had jumped into the East River. Thanks to the first husband’s insurance policy, Adele has a tidy nest egg, yet she still badgers Christopher to buy her a radio so she won’t have to go downstairs to the neighbors to hear her programs.
As the film opens, Christopher is being feted by his boss, J.J. Hogarth (Russell Hicks), at a lavish dinner in honor of Christopher’s 25 years of faithful service to the firm. After presenting his loyal clerk with a gold watch, J.J. ducks out early to meet up with his mistress, whom all the guys see from the upstairs window. After the dinner, Christopher walks a co-worker to the bus stop. Why? Well, because it’s raining and the man has no umbrella, and Christopher is just a nice guy that way.
Leaving the bus stop, Christopher finds himself confused among the winding streets of Greenwich Village, where he finds Kitty March (Joan Bennett) being assaulted, and naturally, he runs to the rescue. A solid whack with his umbrella sends Kitty’s attacker to the ground, and Christopher throws up his arms to ward off the retaliation he knows will follow. But instead, the assailant is down for the moment, allowing Christopher time to fetch the beat cop from the next block.
Returning to the scene of the crime, Kitty sends the cop off in what is clearly the wrong direction, and she invites Christopher to join her in a hasty retreat. They share a late-night drink, where she tells him she’s an actress (rriiighhht), but he lies right back allowing her to think he’s a wealthy artist.
Christopher is clearly smitten with the young lady, and when her “boyfriend” Johnny (Dan Duryea) finds out about his interest, he urges Kitty to start milking Christopher for whatever she can get. Johnny and Kitty share an odd relationship. He’s a two-bit hustler/pimp and she’s got a jones for him only a masochist would understand.
Kitty convinces Christopher to foot the bill for a new apartment, the idea being he could paint there, rather than risk having his paintings thrown out by his wife. But Johnny takes a few of the paintings to sell, and eventually they land in the hands of a gallery owner, and Johnny convinces him that Kitty is the artist.
When Adele’s first husband returns from the dead, he puts the bite on Christopher, but the poor schlub is okay with it. After all, with Husband #1 alive, he’s not really married to Adele, leaving him free to marry Kitty. What soon follows is a series of blunders that result in everyone getting what they have coming to them. I’m not usually in favor of the innocent being punished, but in Johnny’s case, I’ll make an exception. The man is so incredibly dim, shallow and annoying, I consider it a mercy killing.
What I enjoyed about Scarlet Street over other film noirs is that Edward G. Robinson’s character isn’t a private eye or man thrust into extraordinary circumstances. He’s an ordinary Joe who makes some bad choices, the type any of us could conceivably make, and like most lies, it becomes an ever-growing morass of deception and doom.