Once an archetypal cinematic gangster, the diminutive Edward G. Robinson did a bold about-face in Fritz Lang’s excellent noir, Scarlet Street. In Lang’s studio shot, oppressively claustrophobic film, the man who once was Little Caesar is reduced to puddy in the claws of femme-fatale Kitty March (played with great bombast by Joan Bennett). Lang, always the shrewd stylist, builds a gloomy atmosphere of rain-soaked streets, dour facades and abrasive neon. In this psycho-noir there is no such thing as empty space, nor is there much possibility of hope. It is a grim, fatalistic picture that offers a hyperbolic yet still absorbing look at male anxiety and sexual obsession in post-war America.
Edward G. Robinson plays a middle-aged cashier named Christopher Cross. After being celebrated for 25 years of dutiful service at his company, Robinson’s Cross has the unfortunate luck to cross paths with the amoral Kitty March and her abusive, weasely object of desire, Johnny Prince (played by Dan Duyea). Knowing a sap when they see one Kitty and Johnny immediately begin trying to con Christopher, using his kindly naivety and blatant lust for Kitty to their advantage. Their mistake however is in believing that Chris (who is an amateur painter) is actually a wealthy, respected artist. They attempt to take him for all he is worth, which inevitably leads to a violent climax filled with theft, sexual tension and awful duplicity.
Scarlet Street – while certainly more modest in its ambitions than Lang’s M and Metropolis – is still highly effective; it succeeds as a disturbing drama, a portrait of male neurosis and as a potent depiction of abusive relationships. The most dominant theme is emasculation, which is embodied powerfully in Robinson’s meek Christopher Cross. This focus signifies that Scarlet Street adheres strongly to what would become one of the paradigms of film noir. Christopher Cross is a man who could not be further from Kitty and Johnny’s erroneous conclusions. Instead of being a prolific artist flushed with cash Cross actually is financially dependent on his loathsome wife Adele (Rosalind Ivan), who is a bull-busting harpy if there ever was one. Lang’s direction succeeds in conveying the nature of this relationship and its effects on Cross’s psychological state in a variety of ways. Robinson’s Cross is continually bullied about by Ivan’s Adele. The stereotypical domestic roles of the time period are also reversed in their shared home, with Cross being forced into the role of the homemaker and even donning a flowery apron in certain scenes.
The neurotic anxiety that the film projects towards gender relations is explicit in how it characterizes its two predominant female characters. Joan Bennett’s Kitty March is a cackling, opportunistic creature, powerfully amoral and oblivious to how much she is being used by her lover Johnny. Cross’s wife Adele is even more outrageous; she never misses a single moment to not make her husband feel like a pitiful little worm. Both of the actresses play these characters as broadly as possible, without a single shred of nuance or complexity. Both seem committed to totally destroying Chris and each actress’s scenes with Robinson are so over-the-top they are strangely funny. This depiction of course merits critique regarding whether or not Scarlet Street is misogynistic. In my personal opinion, like so many noirs the film’s impressionistic aesthetic is clearly meant to reflect solely a male’s perspective. This is perhaps a cop-out but it is at least explains the film’s demonic characterization of its female characters. It doesn’t address however that the film was produced essentially in a homogeneous vacuum, and thus one begins to wonder about the subjectivity of its treatment of women.
Despite the dubious presentation of its female characters, Scarlet Street still indicates Lang’s deft directorial hand. The film operates largely as a reflection its protagonist’s anxieties, and Lang uses action and shadow to eloquently suggest Christopher’s relationship to his masculinity. This comes into focus through the way that Chris is contrasted with Duyea’s Johnny. Despite his somewhat flamboyant proclivities (such as his suit, which would certainly qualify him as a dandy), Johnny is depicted as strongly fulfilling the masculine idea of confidence and a willingness to do what is necessary to achieve results. In one scene, after Christopher has reached the nadir of his arc, he is descending a staircase and sees the shadow of Johnny approaching from outside the building. Instead of confronting him Christopher hides away from the shadow and metaphorically from the man he can never be.
Stylistic qualities such as this, which are supplemented by other images (like the hulking, darkened buildings of the film’s Manhattan set), turn Scarlet Street into a film about the demons lurking in the mind. That is what Lang is able to successfully communicate, and is a quality that defines the best of noir. It is also what Robinson’s great performance accomplishes, with his eyes and stunted, shuffling body movements conveying not only the potentiality for violence and crime, but also a deep longing born from the isolated, claustrophobia of his hellish urban world.