Banned in various markets upon its release due to it being “licentious, profane, obscure, and contrary to the good order of the community,” Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street still manages to pack a punch nearly 80 years after its initial release. One of the best of the film noirs, this portrait of obsession is driven by its veteran cast as well as a progressive script by Dudley Nichols, the result a complex examination of self-destruction.
Edward G. Robinson is Christopher Cross, a devoted cashier at a metropolitan bank, who longs to be an artist. Henpecked by his callous and indifferent wife, he longs for any kind of validation. While returning one evening from a party where his 25 years of service to the bank has been recognized, he stumbles upon a robbery taking place. However, it’s not as it seems. Two-bit hoodlum Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea) is roughing up his girl Kitty March (Joan Bennett) and when Cross intervenes, he accidentally knocks out the lout. Going to find help, the would-be Galahad returns to find only his lady fair present. She allows him to take her out for a drink and when Chris refers to himself as an artist, she quickly recognizes him as an easy mark to be exploited, a notion she shares with Johnny who happens to be his fiancé.
The plot is far too convoluted to get into here, but the twists and turns come at a breakneck pace and before all is said and done, a case of mistaken identity becomes blown out of proportion, amateurish artworks are regarded as masterpieces, and not only is a murder committed but a return from the dead takes place as well.
Based on the French novel La Chienne as well as the previous film adaptation directed by Jean Renoir, Nichols’ script contains, for that time, psychologically complex characters that the three principals eagerly dig into. What connects the trio is the self-destructive bent of their behavior. Johnny is an adrenaline junkie, a con man who never met a situation he couldn’t talk his way out of or turn to his advantage. His low self-esteem manifests itself in the way he abuses Kitty whenever she questions him. As for her, it’s implied that she has gone from one abusive relationship to the next, only understanding physical violence as a way of true communication as well as perverse affection.
Perhaps the most tragic of the bunch is Chris, a man so desperate for adulation that he cow-tows to everyone who crosses his path. Whether it be his wife or boss, he immediately casts a downwards gaze whenever confronted. His desire for acceptance is so great, he willingly emasculates himself throughout, going so far as to symbolically take Kitty’s surname as his own.
By the third act, a sense of whiplash may set in what with all the narrative switchbacks that take place. Yet, there is a logic to the depths with which the story plummets, a downwards spiral so deep, its extreme by even film noir standards.
Kino Lorber’s new pressing of the film is a stunner. The 4K restoration renders the image with a clarity that gives the film a life-like appearance that’s arresting throughout. Audio commentaries by film historian Imogen Sara Smith, as well Fritz Lang expert David Kalat make for a comprehensive package that perfectly augments this ‘40’s classic.