So you won’t forget me.
There’s a great horror concept within Fritz Lang‘s Scarlet Street. Unfortunately it’s pushed aside for a film noir that never quite gains traction. The problem as I see it stems from the fact that screenwriter Dudley Nichols tries to frame aging pushover Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) as a sympathetic character throughout—an unsuspecting victim in the making rather than the haunted figure he becomes at its end. The latter is his most interesting form, a desperate man with nowhere to turn as a voice from the past fills his ears with words that sear his skin like a hot poker. To meet this version of Chris first would be to wonder at the mystery of what happened. Seeing it unfold linearly instead is like watching paint dry.
The film is based on Georges de La Fouchardière‘s French novel La Chienne—a title literally translated as The Bitch. Jean Renoir adapted it fourteen years previously, retaining its original moniker along with characterizations wherein the woman Chris falls for is a prostitute in love with her pimp. That in and of itself makes the tale more intriguing because it allows greater malice above a failed actress (Joan Bennett‘s Kitty March) and her abusive boyfriend Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea). This shift in their occupation and dynamic from French to English only makes it easier to pity poor Chris. Lang’s version dupes his amateur painter by preying upon his innocence while Renoir’s calls out his naiveté. The latter saddles him with partial responsibility; the former renders him a patsy.
As such, Christopher Cross is a tough man to care about as more than a pawn despite being the lead. He’s unassuming to the point of blandness and infantilized into a puppet devoid of the agency to do anything but what outsiders want. Chris is the consummate “nice guy” sponge lacking the confidence for self-preservation opposite stereotypical predators whether a domineering wife (Rosalind Ivan‘s Adele) or sexy femme fatale (Kitty). He’s led by a string so perfectly that overly aggressive missteps by his controllers never risk them being exposed. Chris is so precious that incidents meant to awaken him put him into a heavier sleep. The story becomes less about his survival than Kitty and Johnny’s game. Eventually we start rooting for them to ruin his life completely.
But we can’t even do that for long since Nichols and Lang constantly paint Johnny as a brut Kitty can’t escape. Everyone tells her he’s a bad egg and oftentimes it appears she believes it. So rather than enjoy her deception, we walk on eggshells wondering when she’ll turn on her boyfriend. The more Johnny pushes her into situations she’s not comfortable fulfilling, the less we enjoy her as a bona fide villain. Suddenly she’s another victim. The whole becomes this never-ending cycle of misunderstandings and close calls until we wonder if they’re all just idiotic bumpkins duping themselves. For two-thirds of the runtime I found my patience growing thin as more and more occurs despite the characters finding themselves in the exact same place as the start.
My frustration only grew when a not-so surprising visitor arrives to throw a serendipitous wrench into the proceedings that only makes every minute detail come into focus. All drama dissipates as Scarlet Street reveals itself as little more than an apparent work in reverse. It’s as though the storytellers found their ending and went step-by-step backwards to make it airtight. It’s just too bad they were so successful in doing so that it became suffocating. Nothing feels natural. Nothing’s spontaneous. When the climax arrives, it does so without an iota of passion. These characters become robots going through the plot’s logic rather than expressing emotion. That’s why a flashback structure might have worked. Show a broken man and how he slowly broke, not a child snapping much too late.
Perhaps it’s a product of its time or a case of American sanitation—I’ll have to watch Renoir’s to see if its execution is better—but this supposed masterpiece of cinema never wowed me. It plays by such stringent rules that any attempt at duplicity is erased. Could Kitty love Chris? Her face never makes it believable. Is Kitty as ruthless as Johnny? Her perpetual reservations about his plan would have us assume no. She’s the key to everything and yet the filmmakers seem to change her motives whenever they need us to question what we know. There’s no honesty in that maneuver, but neither is there in Chris’ wholesale devolution simply because the idea of an affair popped into his mind the exact night one becomes “possible.”
Is it possible, though? We never believe an affair is more than a sad, lonely man’s delusions. But that would be okay if the woman stringing him along was doing so with ill intent. Too often Lang’s film reveals she isn’t despite never doing so enough to make her sympathetic. So the three merely stand there and go through the motions without earning our investment. Where things ultimately go isn’t therefore as smart as everyone apparently believes and where things go after that is cheapened by its lack of authenticity. As is, Chris is only “haunted” because the film thinks he should be haunted. The reaction arrives as dishonestly as its violent cause. I wanted to find the suspense, but the plot was simply too insufferable.
Watched in conjunction with Season Two of Buffalo, NY-based film-noir series Noir Essentials, hosted by Alex Weinstein at Dipson Theatres Eastern Hills.