Saturday, April 25, 2020

Scarlet Street (1945)

This is my very belated entry to the 2020 Literature on Film blogathon, hosted by Paul Batters of Silver Screen Classics on April 3, 4 and 5. Yes, I know, I cheated a bit. So there.

Of Human Bondage
“Every painting, if it's any good, is a love affair.” Christopher Cross
Scarlet Street was a remake of the French movie La Chienne, appropriately translated into English as The Bitch. What may have worked in France in 1931 didn’t fly in Hollywood in 1945 with Breen and his sanitation crew. Those boys liked to take bucketloads of strong disinfectant to morally suspect stories and proceedings.
So director Fritz Lang decided to take a more discreet approach, but not by much.

Scarlet Street was directed by Lang, together with its companion piece The Woman in the Window a year prior. That picture had been a big success, so Lang decided to get the band back together and give it another try. Lang always had problems fitting into the studio system that, he reasoned, stifled his creative impulses and mandated too many script changes, most notably in the aforementioned The Woman in the Window. Lang disliked the studio-imposed ending of the film which was Noir all the way through until the end when it pulled the rug out from under the audience and got a deadly case of the cutes. To circumvent studio interference he formed his own production company, Diana Productions (together with Joan Bennett and her husband Walter Wanger) to make Scarlet Street. While The Woman in the Window is constructed as a dream and presents a world of fantasy, Scarlet Street turns the nightmare into reality. The picture is a bleak masterpiece right to the closing frame, with a pitch black ending that doesn’t take the easy way out.

In the darkest - aka best - Noirs, the impossibility of hope is a central tenet. Scarlet Street is unsparingly desolate. Hope is not even an option, despair is the only constant. The movie is a study of lust, larceny, obsession, guilt, revenge and damnation without redemption. 

Lowly bank clerk, henpecked husband and amateur painter Christopher “Chris” Cross (Edward G. Robinson) - obvious metaphor is obvious - is leading a life of soul-destroying monotony. Like a prisoner serving his time, he’s worked in his dead-end job as a cashier at the same bank for 25 years. Into the bad bargain, he’s trapped in a marriage so frigid Siberian winters would feel balmy compared to it. He’s nearing a midlife crisis, and not just any old midlife crisis. The mother of all of them.

Already facing a jury
One evening - after a celebratory dinner in his honor for his servitude - on his way home he takes a detour through Greenwich Village and happens upon Kitty March (Joan Bennett) who’s being beaten up by her lover/pimp Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea). Chris comes to her aid. No good deed goes unpunished. Very quickly he falls under her spell and soon sets her up in style in a swanky apartment. Kitty though is an expensive hobby. Chris starts to lavish money on Kitty that he doesn’t have though can always procure through embezzlement, first from his wife then from his company. Chris descends deeper and deeper into a web of lies, deceit, obsession and finally murder. And we all know, once you’re caught in that whirlpool there’s no escape.

Scarlet Street is about dreams. Chris’s coworker Pringle tells him: 
“When we are young we have dreams that never pan out, but we go on dreaming.”
This quote is the entire film in a nutshell. Dreams that turn to sawdust, dreams that never had a chance, dreams that are ruined by messy human failings.

Chris is the born loser, the biggest sucker in town. He’s the perfect "nice guy" which translates in Noir into being the perfect pawn in other people's games. After 25 years at the same company, he’s still just the cashier. All he has to show for is a gold watch, and not much else. The celebratory dinner in his honor is not only the high point of his career, but the high point of his life. For once he is the center of attention. It’s just that Chris doesn’t quite realize that he’s being congratulated on a lifetime of insignificance. 

Chris is Thoreau’s man who leads a life of quiet desperation. The powers that be handed him down a life sentence of unending joylessness, never-fulfilled yearnings and crushing regrets. He married his harridan of a wife Adele because he was literally dying of loneliness. Adele has completely emasculated her husband. Still carrying a torch for her saintly first husband who supposedly died in the line of duty, she has an oversized painting of the fallen hero hanging in the living room, displacing poor Chris in his own home and showing him his place. Besides, she needs someone to do the dishes. Which Chris does, in a flowery apron! He’s not a husband, he’s a housekeeper.

Lazy Legs
There are a few semi-comic interludes in the film, which led some viewers to mistake this for a black comedy. One example is when Adele’s first husband reappears. Unbeknownst to Adele, the dearly departed never really departed. He’ll turn out to be a thief who faked his own death. Yet even the “comic relief” in this film is infused with bitter irony. Hubby was on the run - not only from the law but also from her.

Undesired his entire life, not only does Chris not have friends. He never had a lover either. “I never saw a woman naked”, must be one of the saddest confessions ever. He’s the guy who’d always lose the girl even if the competition is Larry, Curly and Moe. Chris sees his aging boss drive into the night with his young and gorgeous mistress. It hammers home the importance of money, status and power and his own impotence in such matters. Chris is ready to lose his soul for an illusion of love. 

Chris’s desire for an affair is not at all born out of simple lust, a sense of gratification, a need adventure or simply boredom, as was the case in The Woman in the Window. Prof. Wanley had a comfortable yet dull existence. Chris’s life is hell on earth. His need is born out of sheer desperation. For this simple need he will have to suffer the torment of the damned. Lang paints a terrifying picture. A horrific destiny can befall anybody regardless of good character or inherent worthiness, and in Noir the vagaries of fate always like to kick the runt of the litter.

Life is nothing but a cruel arbitrary game of Russian Roulette. There is no benevolent higher power to intervene. Fate does not show mercy and compassion to people who need it most. It would simply answer the anguished question of “why me?” with a flippant “why not you?”.

Punishing transgressions is a prominent theme in Noir. I have no problem with this, after all Justice should be blind. She is, even in Noir, but not because she’s impartial and fair-minded. It’s just that she doesn’t care and impassively looks the other way.

The allure of the see-through raincoat 
After the celebration Chris decides for the first time to stray out of his comfort zone. He decides to go home by a different route and turns a corner -  literally and figuratively - into a fantasy West Village (back then a crummy neighborhood) which has exactly the right air of decay about it. What starts as a casual nighttime stroll that should take Chris only a few blocks out of his way leads him directly into a labyrinth without exit. It’s another important theme in Noir. A single misstep, a wrong turn off the beaten path, precipitates disaster. 

The city in Noir is always a dark, dangerous and corrupt place, virtually synonymous with wickedness and promiscuity. It casts its net to draw the innocent into dark alleyways, cul-de-sacs and blind alleys. And no maps are being sold here. You’re on your own.

Scarlet Street, as so many other 40s Noirs, was shot entirely on the sound stage. This artificiality may lack authenticity, but it doesn’t matter at all. Terrence Rafferty writes in his NYTimes article Noir and the City: Dark, Dangerous, Corrupt and Sexy: “What the studio-bound Noirs sacrifice in authenticity, they make up in a heightened claustrophobia.” The characters in these films exist in a confined, closed-in world.

Foster Hirsch calls it the fabricated city in his book The Dark Side of the Screen. These studio-created cities deliberately lacked the fullness and density of the real world. As in any good Noir (indeed any good movie) there is a co-relation between environment and crucial elements of the film. Shown usually at night, the studio city is a rain-slicked netherworld, eerily deserted, full of shadows and menace, providing the perfect backdrop for stories of entrapment, loneliness and isolation. They could be straight out of an Edward Hopper painting. These cities have no connection to the real world and their maze-like sets have no visible exit, thus making the protagonist and the viewer feel boxed in. The sound stage city is a microcosmos that contains actions and emotions to a confined setting offering no escape from danger. In Scarlet Street cinematographer Milton Krasner’s Expressionistic lighting hems in the characters with walls of shadows.

Painting is the only thing that brings Chris joy. Art is his escape mechanism, his creative and emotional outlet. His childlike view of the world becomes more than evident in his two-dimensional paintings which can be filed appropriately under “naive art”. As he says, his depictions on canvas emanate from pure feeling. “No one ever taught me how to draw, so I just put a line around what I feel when I look at things”. What makes Chris’s art brilliant is the same thing that makes him a born sucker. He sees what isn’t there. 

Lang comes precariously close to belaboring the point that Chris has “a little trouble with perspective”. A painting without perspective lacks depth, and Chris lacks the depth of character to see the truth about Kitty. He’s not the only one though. No character in this movie has any insight. Kitty and Johnny certainly don’t have any, they’re just working angles. The only one who isn’t lacking perspective is the director who shows us every facet of a perverted power game.

At home Chris is forced to paint in the tiny bathroom because it’s the only place his wife allows. She doesn’t want his amateurish doodlings to clutter up the house. So he moves them to the apartment he’s renting for Kitty. Both Kitty and Johnny think Sunday painter Chris is a rich and successful artist whose paintings go for $50,000 a pop, a notion Chris never bothers to correct. It sounds better than “I’m a cashier”. They have dollar signs in their eyes and see their chance for a big payday. As if a free pad weren’t enough, Kitty starts passing his paintings off as her own. With dizzying success. She becomes a sensation.

That girl is not only gold-digging, she’s strip-mining. So unselfish and servile is Chris that he’s glad for her. Love - or lust - is a mind-altering narcotic. He agrees to keep doing the paintings and having Kitty sign them. He even compares it to them getting married but with him taking her name! By stealing his art they essentially steal his soul. 

Chris only wants one thing, that she allow him to paint her portrait. Her sarcastic answer? “Sure, and you can start right now,” as she hands him a bottle of nail polish so he can paint her toenails. “They’ll be masterpieces”.

If many Noir protagonists exist in moral limbo between good and evil, this can’t be said about Kitty and her swain Johnny. Kitty is Joan at her flooziest best. Alluring and mysterious, she wears some fabulous clothes. She may look like a classy dame, but the veneer is thin at best. Her affections are negotiable, for adequate renumeration. Everything about her is the promise of sex. Her tight-fitting dresses, her strappy sandals, the way she lounges languorously on the sofa. She slinks more than she moves. To Chris she passes herself off as a struggling and lonely actress who’s just looking for a break. Nothing is easier than taking advantage of Chris’s quixotic and completely misplaced notions of chivalry. Poor little Kitty is just soooo helpless. A damsel in distress whose plight can make the angels weep. 
“I can’t afford to pay my rent. Oh forget it. I shouldn’t have told you….I couldn’t take anything from you…no, no I couldn’t! I’ve never taken money from a man and I’m not going to now.” 
Good grief, if he buys that line, he must be out of his mind. Sob stories, no tramp can do without them.

So pure of heart is Chris that he really believes all the lies Kitty tells no matter how obviously thick she lays it on. When he first meets Kitty, he doesn’t bother to ask what a nice girl like her was doing in a dubious part of town like this, and why she would then go to have a drink with him in a grubby basement dive. There’s never been an easier mark for a con. Virtue has always been an irresistible temptation to every crook. 

Kitty doesn’t really have to do anything to get money out of Chris, just dangle the promise of sex in front of him. She doesn’t even need to deliver on that promise. It’s interesting to note that again his relationship to Kitty will remain unconsummated. His love and the affair is really just a sad, lonely man’s delusion. No sugar daddy ever got himself such a lousy quid pro quo deal. In Noir everyone is out for himself but the cruelest punishment is reserved for the trusting.

They'll be masterpieces
There is a casual cruelty about Kitty. She doesn’t for one second consider the feelings of Chris. All her thoughts are focused on her lover Johnny. Johnny for his part keeps his girl Kitty on a short leash through threats and slaps that she can’t seem to get enough of. She loves him despite the abuse. Scratch that, because of it. She just comes back for more. Love’s a battle field. She despises Chris for the single reason that he’s nice to her. 
“If he were mean or vicious or if he’d bawl me out or something, I’d like him better.”
Johnny holds Kitty in a sexual thrall. “I don’t know why I’m so crazy about you,” she says. He replies with a smirk “Oh, yes, you do.” 

To top it all off, Kitty is a vulgar slob, a trait she carefully hides from Chris as he sees her as a helpless innocent. She isn’t improving the dumpy digs she lives in by letting dirty dishes pile up in the sink and spitting grape seeds around the place. Classy. But wait, there’s more! Saying she’s bone-idle is an understatement. Aptly nicknamed Lazy Legs by Johnny, she’s tried modeling for a living but really, getting to work on time is just such a drag.

Kitty’s girlfriend Millie has Johnny pegged alright. He’s pimping his girl out. “He’s turned you into a tramp”, Millie says. In the opening scene Johnny slaps Kitty around and shakes her down for money.
Johnny urges Kitty to use her “charms” to milk unsuspecting cash cows and it’s clear that means more for Kitty than flashing her suitors nothing but a coy little smile.

She doesn’t have too many compunctions about earning her money on her back. She knows how to use what she’s got to get a lot more. Her reluctance is purely perfunctory and the floozy’s feint at good-girl morality doesn’t fly with Johnny:  “You’ve been kissed before”, he smirks. Kitty doesn’t demur. It’s comforting for a girl to know that she couldn’t possibly sink any lower.

As mentioned before, the femme fatale is never a working woman, well, honest work that is. Kitty may want more out of life than a filthy fifth floor walk-up, but her indolence and her allergy against hard work prevent her from getting off the couch.
She is the type who would always choose the path of the least resistance. Scamming people is as far as her ambition and her imagination stretches.

We get an interesting twist on the femme fatale here. If Kitty is a manipulative tramp she in turn gets manipulated by her boyfriend. For him she’s just a meal ticket. Kitty wields the femme fatale’s favorite weapon - in fact her only weapon - sex. But so does Johnny. For him their relationship works on the grounds of basic economics. No money, no honey, baby.

The floozy and her pimp. Two cheap chiselers, devoid of humanity. A match made in hell.

Lending further amoral support to this already nefarious tale is Duryea, Noir’s favorite slap-happy heel. This picture wouldn’t be what it is without his patented oozing-slime-from-every-pore oiliness. Regular readers of my blog, all five of them, will know that I’m a fan of Duryea. (For more about him hop over to my review of Black Angel.) There was just something fabulously untrustworthy about this scheming arch-louse. A smooth operator with an itchy backhand, Dan knocked ‘em and socked ‘em, and never has he run more true to type than here. 
Johnny is a hustler who’s always on the prowl for some dodgy deal or other. A small-time crook out for a really big score. Well, at least he has aspirations. His suits are as loud as his mouth and his cheesy line of patter would make a used car salesman proud. He’s the guy who’d tell you cheerfully he’s in import/export, would you care to ask. One look at him should tell you you can trust this guy as far as you can throw a piano.

His approach to the law is relaxed. He likes to supplement his non-existent income with blackmail and extortion. “It's only blackmail when you're dumb enough to get caught.” It’s hard to argue with that rationale. And let’s not forget his little sideline as a pimp. Never has a man worked his fingers to the bone less for his hard-chiseled money.
And exactly like his ladylove he’s too greedy and ambitious for the daily grind but too weak and lazy to put in the hours. 

If art is like a love affair for Chris, for Johnny and Kitty art means cold hard cash. Art for art’s sake vs. art as commodity. It is interesting to note how readily everybody accepts the lie that Kitty is the painter. It is a clever commentary on art and image, reality and perception, avarice and artistry; incredibly modern and timely in times of Instagram where the most worthless things are effortlessly marketed with a pretty face behind it. Sex sells. It always did. It’s just natural that the beautiful paintings were done by a beautiful woman like Kitty, not a meek and mousy Joe Schmo who is nobody’s idea of a brilliant painter. There’s no doubt to Chris, had he gone to the art gallery with his pictures under his arm, he would have received a contemptuous reception. He knows he’s a failure. With Kitty’s name on it they’re not two-dimensional doodlings, they’re avangarde masterpieces. Painter and painting are the whole package. Kitty has just enough smarts to internalize Chris’s reflections on art and parrot them to the art critics. Art and commerce make the strangest bed fellows, like trollops and pimps.

One day though Kitty finally goes too far. She spits out her contempt for Chris, that he is no man, that he wouldn’t have the guts to kill anybody. 
“How can a man be so dumb? I’ve been waiting to laugh in your face ever since I met you. You're old and ugly and I'm sick of you. sick, sick, sick!”
...she says to a man with an icepick in his hand. How many shades of stupid is that? Everybody has his breaking point. Chris stabs Kitty to death with said icepick in an unexpected eruption of brutal violence. 

We could say now we didn’t see this coming, Chris being such a meek and submissive man. But the violence was clearly foreshadowed. Chris, at home in his frilly apron, was chopping liver for dinner. His wife cruelly mocks him and he, for the first time ever, menacingly comes towards her with the knife in his hand. Discontent and violence were always lurking in the hidden recesses of his mind.

If Lang had let everybody off the hook for their crimes the year before in The Woman in the Window, this time he puts the knife in and twists it slowly. Isn’t it wonderful when Noir leaves you with a warm and fuzzy feeling in the end? Scarlet Street leaves no doubt that Lang had a thorough understanding of the term scorched earth policy.

The police have enough circumstantial evidence to charge Johnny with Kitty’s murder. Chris doesn’t disabuse them of their notion and Easy Street turns into rough road for Johnny. He's sent to the electric chair and Chris goes free. Many viewers were wondering how the PCA could let an ending like this pass. It’s really quite easy.
Every sin carries in itself its own burden of punishment. Lang, raised Catholic, knew this. And so did Joe Breen, also Catholic. It may not be conventional justice, but Lang gives his protagonist plenty of rope to hang himself with.

A reporter covering Johnny’s execution is the one who awakens Chris’s conscience, with a slightly bromidic homily no doubt put in to appease he-who-shall-not-be-named.
"Nobody ever gets away with murder…no-one escapes punishment…The problem just moves right in here (pointing to his heart) where it can never get out…so you go right on punishing yourself. You can’t get away with it. Never…I’d rather have the judge give me the works than do it to myself.”
Chris has to find out that hell is not a location. Hell is a state of mind. Slowly the ghosts of his victims begin to haunt him. He starts hearing the gloating voices of Kitty and Johnny, their clandestine whispers and their laughter.
”Johnny darling….I’m here baby… Come here, Lazy Legs!…Jeepers, I love you Johnny!… He brought us together, Johnny, forever…See Chris, she loves me…She’s mine, Chris, forever.”
They are still alive to Chris, there in his head, their taunts forever echoing in his mind.

Chris is condemned to wonder the streets of New York for years, like the undead, driven by unrelenting Furies, lost in lunacy. The formerly respected citizen becomes a wretched broken man, sleeping in flop houses and on park benches. He not only loses his mind, but his identity. Chris is forever damned to solitary confinement in the most confining prison cell of all, the darkness of his own mind, in a purgatory of madness and self-flagellation. It’s lonely at the bottom. 
Several times Chris tries to confess his crimes to the cops just to make the voices stop, only to be laughed at. Getting away with murder is the worst punishment of them all.

It’s a question though what is tormenting him exactly. Is it his guilt over killing his victims or is it that he can’t eradicate their voices and thus can’t eradicate their memory? Is it forgiveness for his crimes he wants or just forgetfulness? We never get an answer.

As a director Lang has occasionally been accused of being sadistic and complicit in the tragedies that he bestowed on his protagonists. Chris’s fate could certainly bear out that notion. His punishment is overkill. While it’s true that Lang didn’t flinch from showing the almost unwatchable and this film is very downbeat and depressing, it is not cynical or misanthropic.
Lang does not turn Chris into an object of ridicule, we only pity him. His degradation is never played for laughs and Lang treats him with a compassion that none of the characters allow him.

The final humiliation for Chris is seeing his portrait of Kitty being sold for $10,000 as an important artwork. “Her masterpiece” the gallery owner calls it, not knowing that the dead woman was a cheap little tramp whose interest in painting didn’t extend further than her toenails.