SCARLET STREET (1945) B/W 103m dir: Fritz Lang
w/Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea, Margaret Lindsay, Rosalind Ivan, Jess Barker, Charles Kemper, Anita Bolster, Samuel S. Hinds, Vladimir Sokolof, Arthur Loft
From the Turner Classic Movies website, www.tcm.com, this article about the film by Jay Carr: "Film noir was born in the somber, stylized shadowplay of German Expressionist cinema. As Fritz Lang was one of its creators, it followed that Hollywood noir proved the cornerstone of his self-reinvention in America after fleeing the Nazis in 1933. Arguably, Lang's American career peaked between 1941 and 1953 with Man Hunt (1941), The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945) and The Big Heat (1953). That urban night scenes, rain-slicked streets, chiaroscuro, claustrophobic spaces and femmes fatales form the visual vocabulary of each comes as no surprise. What is surprising is that Joan Bennett (1910-1990), who began performing at a tender age alongside her actor father, Richard, not only enjoyed a more durable career than we remember her enjoying, but that in three of those Lang classics she was, for a brief time, the queen of noir.
"Throughout most of the '30s, she was a blonde. But by the time Lang filmed
her, she had gone brunette. It was more than a superficial image makeover. In
Man Hunt, she plays a Cockney prostitute who helps Walter Pidgeon elude
Nazi pursuers. In the next two films, holding her own against Edward G. Robinson
and Dan Duryea both times, she really hit her stride. In them, she's not only
trouble, she's perhaps the only Hollywood leading lady who has a portrait painted
of her in two consecutive films. In The Woman in the Window, Robinson's
mild-mannered professor has the bad luck to meet the woman whose portrait catches
his eye, only to find himself dragged into a quagmire of death and blackmail.
In Scarlet Street (based on a French novel and play, La Chienne,
by Georges de la Fouchardiere and Andre Mouezy-Eon, filmed in 1931 by Jean Renoir),
Robinson's patsy is subjected to even more debasement, some self-inflicted.
Bennett's thinly-veiled prostitute character, Kitty, memorably nicknamed Lazy
Legs by Johnny (Duryea's vaguely pimpish boyfriend -- Hollywood's Production
Code prevented specifying their occupations), has a masochistic side, too.
Ever since his first screen credit in The Little Foxes (1941), nobody slapped women around more nastily than Duryea. Not since Erich Von Stroheim was there a man movie audiences loved to hate more than Duryea's lanky sleaze, with his blond hair slicked back into a cobra hairstyle. But Bennett's Kitty finds his rough handling sexy. 'If he were mean or vicious, or if he'd bawl me out or something, I'd like him better,' she says, speaking to Duryea of Robinson's milquetoastish sap they mean to fleece. Robinson's squashed Chris Cross, a cashier who has just received a gold watch for 25 years of grateful on-the-job servility, isn't about to rough anybody up. At home, this gentle, sensitive man lives under the domineering thumb of his grating wife (Rosalind Ivan), who not only disparages his one escape from a world too harsh for him - Sunday painting - but complains about the modest amount of money he spends on art supplies and threatens to scrap his paintings.
"Immediately after Chris 'rescues' Kitty from a wee-hours altercation with Johnny under an el, a spectacular string of mistaken assumptions ensues. Because a tipsy Chris, on his way home from his 25-year-service party, is dressed in a tux, she thinks he's a rich swell. When he shyly tells her he's a painter, she and her boyfriend put two and two together and get $50,000 - the amount for which they think he sells his paintings. In no time, she sweet-talks him into setting her up in a Greenwich Village studio apartment (the Village's Carmine Street provided the film's title!). Passing Duryea off as the fiancée of her girlfriend (a simpatico Margaret Lindsay), she's unable to keep a straight face when the troubled Chris tells her he's a married man, and humiliates him by having him paint her toenails. The hopelessly smitten Chris lies, cheats, steals and connives to keep Kitty in his life until he can marry her. Greed and duplicity escalate to a death and a death sentence, with Chris devastated by guilt.
"So noir, so good. There's more, though, partly derived from Lang's own
youthful shortfall as an aspiring artist, although able to draw well enough
to survive by selling cartoons and illustrations to pay bills during lean times.
But Scarlet Street (and its screenplay by Dudley Nichols) has fun with
the fatuities of the art world. It was an inspired choice to make real-life
connoisseur and collector Robinson a truly mediocre amateur painter here, disparaging
his own canvases. (Lang has him echo the same criticism applied to Lang himself
years earlier, namely that he has no grasp of perspective.) Cruelly, we learn
that the previous occupant of the studio Chris rents for Kitty was the great
Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, no less. Rivera-like sketches and studies left
behind on the walls loom over Chris's pathetic efforts in silent mockery. Not
that lack of quality is an impediment to success. When Duryea has Kitty sign
the paintings Chris is too modest to sign, and passes them off as hers, she's
acclaimed by a besotted critic. In no time Chris's paintings with her name (and
hefty price tags) on them are flying off the walls of a 57th Street gallery.
This alone could have derailed Scarlet Street into comedy - perhaps not a bad one. Certainly the soundtrack's recurring refrain, 'Come to Me My Melancholy Baby,' indicates a certain tongue-in-cheek irony. Not a single bone in Kitty's curvy body could be thought of as melancholy! But Lang's mastery of craft and legendarily despotic disposition keep things tense, somber and fateful. Robinson recalled telling Lang to soften his finger-snapping manner with the technicians, who did not warm to the director's autocratic ways. There could be no denying Lang's painstaking attention to detail. Once, when he didn't like the way a floor photographed, and couldn't get the effect he wanted, he tried different layers of dust and different light settings, even sweeping the floor himself to achieve the desired look, Robinson recalled. The pains he took with Bennett were far greater. She was married to powerful producer Walter Wanger, whose influence attracted the financing and who formed the jointly owned Diana Company (named for Bennett's first child), under whose banner the film was produced, with Lang and Bennett the two biggest stockholders, and Wanger and Lang prominently billed.
"If Robinson's subtlety avoided caricature in his mild, hapless Chris,
whose way of murmuring in understated ways and skipping a beat before responding
lent extra weight to his reaction shots, Lang's collaboration with Bennett bespeaks
a careful balancing act. On the one hand, his camera had to eroticize her, or
the film would miss the sexual charge it needed. But he had to temper Lazy Legs'
casual vulgarity with a naivete that made her seem not so off-puttingly predatory,
and almost likable in her forthrightness. Robinson, who off-handedly described
the story and his character as monotonous, recalled Lang once spending an hour
rearranging the folds in Bennett's negligee so she would cast a certain shadow
he wanted. Never had any director's camera so doted on Bennett. Far from resenting
Lang's puppetmaster ways with her, Bennett credited him for the career upgrade
she enjoyed after appearing in his films. Her career lasted decades. She outlasted
her acting sisters, Constance (1904-1965) and Barbara (1906-1958), enjoying
'60s and '70s TV stardom in Dark Shadows. Her first leading role was
in Bulldog Drummond (1929). Her last was in Dario Argento's Suspiria
(1977). She enjoyed the Hollywood spotlight in Father
of the Bride (1950) and Father's
Little Dividend (1951). But her star shone brightest in Lang's noir."
" Sources: IMDB
"Fritz Lang: Nature of the Beast, by Patrick McGilligan, St, Martin's, 1997
"The Bennetts: An Acting Family, by Brian Kellow, University Press of Kentucky Press, 2004
"Walter Wanger: Hollywood Independent, by Matthew Bernstein, University of California Press, 1994
"All My Yesterdays, by Edward G. Robinson with Leonard Spigelgass, Signet, 1973"