This essay first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
In the first scene of Fritz Lang’s 1945 film noir classic Scarlet Street we are introduced to Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson), a meek and diligent bank cashier who is being celebrated by his peers and superiors at a dinner in his honor for twenty-five years of faithful service. His boss toasts him for his dedication and presents him with a gold pocket watch, which we gather is the finest gift Chris has ever received. When he stands for a speech of thanks, he can hardly sputter out more than a few awkward words, but they are words of untainted praise for his boss. The scene is masterfully constructed. Robinson perfectly plays the naive and obedient cashier with subtle perfection. We know this gentle man instantly, as we know his more raucous celebrants, easily distracted from congratulating Chris when they see an attractive woman outside the window. We know his employer, the benevolent, fatherly boss of old movies who literally no one in the modern business world has ever worked for. When Chris finally leaves the party he has just lived the high point of his life before and after. He has never been the center of attention; his fealty has been rewarded with cigars and a trinket. He is happy.
The second scenes begins in the dark, foggy New York streets. Chris sees a woman struck by a man, and runs to help her. The assailant runs off and Chris offers to run for the cops. The woman, Kitty (Joan Bennett), tells him there’s no point in bothering, and who wants to deal with the police? He walks her home instead, and they duck into Tiny’s, the cafe in the basement of Kitty’s building. In this scene we see Chris outside his comfort zone even further than in the first, but just as pleasantly–he is flirting with a beautiful young woman. Through a misunderstanding she becomes convinced he is a famous painter and he doesn’t correct her. Kitty is brash, confident, flirtatious, and much more used to smoking in a basement bar at two in the morning than Chris. He stumbles home and stays up all night painting.
In the third scene we understand why Chris soaked in Kitty’s attention the night before, and why his demeanor is so cowed and meek–his wife is cruel and demeaning. In her eyes Chris can never live up to her dead first husband, whose portrait comically still hangs on the living room wall. She keeps Chris on more as a tenant and housekeeper than anything else, and finds his paintings to be silly trifles. He paints in the bathroom, stealing what refuge he can. His wife is present in this scene mostly as a disembodied voice from the other room, and a harsh one.
These first three scenes comprise one of the most efficient and skillful setups in all of cinema, for my money. They incisively tell us everything we need to understand Chris, his life, and the people in it without resorting to having characters explicitly relay this information to us in dialogue or narration. Lang, in my opinion, reached the peak of his considerable skill in these unassuming scenes.
Chris embarks on an affair with Kitty, and it is with heartache we discover Kitty is playing him for a fool. She and her abusive and sociopathic boyfriend, Johnny (Dan Duryea), believing Chris to be a rich artist, begin a game to con the poor bank cashier of his non-existent riches. To keep her happy, he begins stealing money from his bank. Kitty and Johnny get ahold of Chris’ amateur paintings and try to pass them off as Kitty’s. An art collector sees them and believes them to be avant garde masterpieces. The plot, in classic noir style, thickens in complexity and ultimately unravels and resolves. I won’t give away the final movements of the story, but they are heartbreaking. This is an instance in which the strictures of the Hays Code are even more damaging than usual–I think the narrative betrays its characters in the end. Still, it’s a powerful story, one filled with more genuine human sympathy than most noirs of that era.
Greenville Public Library’s Third Floor Film Series will be screening Scarlet Street on Thursday, November 19, at 7:00 p.m. As always there will be free popcorn, candy, soft drinks, and coffee, and I will be leading a discussion of the film after the screening. This is the final event of the 2015 season for the Third Floor Film Series, and I really hope you’ll be able to attend. It’s been a wonderful inaugural year for the program. Stay tuned for information about the 2016 season in December.