Today’s distraction: 1945’s Scarlet Street is a noirish melodrama directed by the much-revered Fritz Lang, and yes – in case you wondered – his association to it was largely the reason I was interested in see this one. Wikipedia.org reports that the source material – Georges de La Fouchardière’s “The Bitch” (ouch!) – was adapted for the stage by André Mouëzy-Éon and for the screen by Dudley Nichols. The film starred Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea, Margaret Lindsay, and Rosalind Ivan in key roles.
As per my usual format, the film’s synopsis appears below. My two cents on its themes and construction follow.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“A man in mid-life crisis befriends a young woman, though her fiancé persuades her to con him out of the fortune they mistakenly assume he possesses.”
From what I’ve read, Lang’s Scarlet Street created a bit of controversy upon its original U.S. theatrical release when it was ceremoniously banned in three states. By today’s standards, it might be a bit difficult to imagine this morality play showcasing the highs and lows of a homewrecker, a swindler, and man willing to break laws in pursuit of a forbidden love getting Americans all hot under the collar; but the film still went on to some respectable box office returns from those who saw it. I’ll admit that there are some surprising moments here and there in the melodrama department, but it all still pales in comparison to the subject matter that rarely musters so much as a blush from today’s audiences.
Christopher Cross (played by Edward G. Robinson) is a man who late in his life finds himself in an uninteresting career (as a bank teller) and an equally unfulfilling marriage to Adele (Rosalind Ivan). On his way home from a dinner commemorating his years of service, he rescues Kitty March (Joan Bennett) from a beatdown she’s enduring on the streets. As fate would have it, Kitty’s aggressor – Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea) – is actually ‘the love of her life;’ and when the two of them believe that Cross – in a case of mistaken identity – is some world-renowned painter, they decide she can string the elder fellow along as her ‘sugar daddy.’
Honestly, Scarlet Street is one of the grimmest experiences I’ve seen of films from the bygone era. This isn’t to say that it isn’t watchable because nothing could be further from the truth; still, the simple fact that this is a world that seems to offer no single character willing to stand up and do the right thing is a bit depressing. While its performances are good (Bennett is the only one who truly hits one outta the park as one of the more contemptible screen shrews of record), there just isn’t much else in here worth celebrating. Robinson’s kinda/sorta done this kind of thing before, and Duryea is pretty much relegated to the role of bilking everyone around him out of any cash he or she might have. It’s a dirty job, somebody’s gotta do it, but did you have to be so good at it?
Visually, Lang’s style helps elevate some of the highs as well as depresses some of the obvious lows. As this one was most likely shot on a studio backlot and soundstages, the director manages to make great use of interiors and exteriors, giving all of it the proper big city texture even though it was probably anything but. Still, the story plods along – even drags in a few places – with some predictably hammy moments played out at almost maudlin levels. Much like the lives it explores, it’s a perfectly imperfect snapshot of people pushed to their limits even when a modicum of sanity would’ve had them behaving otherwise.
Scarlet Street (1945) was produced by Fritz Lang Productions and Walter Wanger Productions. DVD distribution (for this particular release) has been coordinated by the good people at Kino Lorber. As for the technical specifications? While I’m no trained video expert, I found the sights-and-sounds to what’s reported as a brand new HDR/Dolby Vision Master from a 16-bit 4K scan of the 35mm nitrate composite fine grain to be good in some places and great in others. Lastly, if you’re looking for special features? The disc boasts two audio commentaries (one archival and one new, from what I’ve read), a nice addition for those who like those sorts of things.
As noirs go, Scarlet Street (1945) only occasionally works for me. Frankly, I was more surprised with how little I liked this one when it came to its downbeat last reel, and the only consistency I can point my finger at is that, tonally, the story is all over the map. At times, it’s a rather conventional drama, though its swindling couple definitely pushes this one into Film Noir’s black-and-white themes from time to time. Then, it actually tinkers with ideas more akin to the screwball comedies of the 1940’s in a few places. Because it never quite settles into a single track, the script never quite felt right to me; and I wound up not really caring about any single character in all of its labyrinthian shenanigans. That’s rare for me – especially with older flicks which I tend to enjoy because they offer more story – but without a player to support (or cheer for) I struggled with truly appreciating this one except for Lang’s obvious technical merits.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Kino Lorber provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray copy of Scarlet Street (1945) by request for the expressed purpose of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.