Wednesday, February 16, 2011


No one escapes punishment

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren. To donate to the fundraiser for The Film Noir Foundation, click here.

By Edward Copeland
When we last left this writer, disappointed by the ending of the previous noir collaboration of director Fritz Lang and co-stars Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett, The Woman in the Window, I had rushed to re-watch that trio's second teaming, Scarlet Street, which I'd seen years before and remembered quite fondly. (Actually, it's a quartet, since Dan Duryea returns as well in a role even more pivotal than the one he played in The Woman in the Window.) I was pleased to find that Scarlet Street was not only as good as I recalled but, in fact, was even better upon repeat viewing. Certainly Lang had directed one of the greatest examples of the noir genre, stock full of a multitude of twists, great characters and what may be Edward G. Robinson's finest screen performance. I also learned (or was reminded: I may have known this and forgotten) that Scarlet Street was an American remake of Jean Renoir's fine 1931 film La Chienne. Both were based on the same novel by Georges de La Fouchardière, which shared the name of Renoir's film, and had been adapted as a play by André Mouézy-Éon. Since Renoir's film happened to be in my DVD collection, after I finished my return trip to Scarlet Street, I felt it only appropriate to also revisit La Chienne. As with yesterday's post, there will be SPOILERS GALORE.

As any good noir should, Lang opens Scarlet Street with a nighttime shot of Manhattan pavement, glistening and rain-soaked in the darkness. The street bustles with activity: People walking dogs, strolling about, ducking in and out of stores and other establishments and a very nice looking automobile pulling up to the curb where an organ grinder entertains the woman inside with his monkey. We rise above that scene and through the window of the building next to where the car has parked and a celebration is going on. Men, all dressed in tuxedos, stand as their boss J.J. Hogarth (Russell Hicks) salutes one of his bank's employees, Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson). Hogarth praises Cross as a 14-karat, 17 jeweled cashier and in recognition of his 25 years of faithful service gives him a memento to equal the compliment: an engraved gold pocketwatch marking those dates from 1909-1934. Cross, a meek and quiet man, doesn't quite know what to say, but he tells J.J. that he's touched. They open champagne and begin to mingle. As Chris chats with Charlie Pringle (Samuel S. Hinds), J.J. joins them and offers some of his high-priced cigars, which they willingly accept. J.J. lights his own, then Pringle's and asks Chris if he's superstitious, but Cross says no, though behind his back he has his fingers crossed, and J.J. lights Chris' stogie on the same match. Three on a match. Perhaps Chris has good reason to be superstitious given what is about to happen to his life. J.J. excuses himself from the party for another engagement and soon after his departure, some of the other guys call everybody to the window where they see J.J. getting into the car with the young woman who was being entertained by the monkey. The boss is stepping out, they all agree, and with a young one, too.

Chris Cross (besides having a bit too cute of a name for this type of a picture) really has nothing in common with Professor Richard Wanley from The Woman in the Window beyond their similar age and the same actor bringing each to life on the screen. Wanley displayed a keen intellect and an instinct for thinking calmly and rationally under pressure (even if it did turn out to be a dream). He'd earned a doctorate and respect as a teacher of higher education and settled down with wife and two kids, though there were hints of a playboy past in Wanley's youthful years. Cross may belong to the same age group as Wanley, but he acts as if he's decades older. He's the walking definition of a sad sack, convinced he's a loser because he never realized his dream or found true love. Chris has a wife, but it's a marriage borne of convenience and boredom that came late in life and a loveless one at that. He's henpecked by his wife Adele, who constantly reminds him how he doesn't live up to her late first husband. This night of limited revelry, with the gift of the nice watch, means a lot to the lonely man, even though as his co-workers all rush to project their envy of J.J. for having such a dish on the side while he has a wife at home, Chris doesn't even want to look at it and asks Charlie to leave the party with him.

Whereas Professor Wanley of The Woman in the Window would have enjoyed staying with friends, drinking and reminiscing about youthful indiscretions, Cross has no stories to share, so he's relieved when he and Charlie get outside, even though they find a downpour has started. The rain doesn't dampen Cross' optimism as he clumsily opens his umbrella, admitting he's a little drunk but smiling and telling Pringle that there's "nothing like the smell of spring." He realizes that Charlie didn't bring an umbrella, so Chris offers to walk with him to his bus stop. Besides, Cross feels a bit lonely tonight and isn't eager for the journey back to Brooklyn and the shrewish Adele. The two co-workers barely miss a bus, so they have some time to talk, standing beneath Cross' umbrella in front of a closed jewelry store. Chris asks Charlie if he really thinks J.J. is running around with that girl and Pringle responds that it would appear that way. "I wonder what it's like," Chris asks his friend, "to be loved by a young girl like that." He admits that they were never interested in him even when he was their age. He confesses to Pringle that when he was young, he always planned to be a painter, a great artist, but look at him now. What is he? A cashier. "When we are young, we have dreams that never pan out, but we go on dreaming," Charlie tells him. He asks Chris if he still paints and Cross replies that he does, every Sunday. It's the only joy he has in his life. He invites Pringle to drop by the next day to look at his work and Charlie says he will. Then his bus arrives and he bids Chris goodnight as the melancholy cashier continues his lonely walk in the driving rain.

As Chris gets himself turned around in the streets of Greenwich Village, he notices the rain has stopped, so he folds his umbrella and asks a police officer which way it is to the subway line he's seeking to get back to Brooklyn. The cop gives him directions and Chris thanks him and moves along. In the distance, he witnesses a troubling sight — a man in a straw hat (what the hell is it with Lang and those straw hats?) knocking a woman around, even kicking her once she's on the pavement. Something overtakes Chris and he rushes in and strikes the man with his umbrella, knocking the attacker to the ground. Cross isn't completely courageous though, because he raises his umbrella immediately to shield his own face, anticipating another blow. The woman (Joan Bennett) sits up and moves her chin from side to side and checks her neck. Her first words aren't one of gratitude to Chris for coming to her rescue, but ones of concern for the assailant, asking Chris if he thinks he's hurt. Chris says he doesn't know, but he'll get the police and books it back for the officer he just had contact with a few moments before. The woman nudges the man (Dan Duryea) awake. When Chris returns with the officer, the woman stands alone, saying the man got mad when he mugged her and she only had a few bucks on her and that when he came to, he took off running and she couldn't detain him. She points the officer in the direction he ran and the policeman heads that way in hopes of apprehending the fugitive mugger.

Once Chris finds himself alone with the woman, he offers to walk her home, which she accepts. Her apartment building turns out not to be too far from where they were and when they arrive, Chris asks her if she'd join him for a cup of coffee at the joint downstairs from her place and she obliges. When they get inside, she asks the bartender if he's seen Johnny, but the barkeep says not since earlier. The woman changes her mind on the coffee and orders something harder, a scotch and soda. Chris follows suit and the pair take a table where she introduces herself as Katharine March, though her friends call her Kitty. She laughs when he tells her his name is Chris Cross and he admits to taking a lot of ribbing for it as a child. Cross starts to feel strange being out with someone so young and beautiful. "I'm old enough to be your father," he tells her. Kitty, already seeing a possible mark tries to reassure him, telling him he's "just mature." He asks why she was out so late and she blames it on her job. Chris guesses that Kitty is an actress and she says it's true but when he asks if she's in anything he might have seen, she tells him the show closed that night. She takes her turn at guessing Chris' occupation (Remember: He's wearing a tux) and at first guesses banker but before Cross can correct her, even though she was close, Kitty decides that can't be it. He was wandering in the village so he's probably a successful artist and Chris lies and lets the charade go on, pretending that his dream of being a painter actually exists. "Painting is the most fun I know," he confesses." Before they leave, Kitty takes the flower from the vase on the table and gives it to Chris, telling him to paint it for her. After their drinks, he walks her back to her step. She says she'd invite him up, but she wouldn't want to disturb her roommate Millie. He asks if he can call her sometime, but Kitty hesitates and suggests that she write him instead. As she turns around to go inside, Chris asks before leaving, "Who is Johnny?" Kitty turns suddenly and sharply at the question. "What?" He reminds her he asked the bartender about someone named Johnny. Kitty claims Johnny is Millie's boyfriend and she was just checking because she didn't want to burst in on them.

Once Chris arrives home, he does his best not to disturb Adele (Rosalind Ivan), but he wakes her anyway. He apologizes, but it doesn't stop the complaining. Usually, it prompts her to bring up how wonderful her first husband, the late Detective Sgt. Higgins, the decorated policeman whose portrait hovers above them over the couch in the living room. Higgins died trying to save a woman from drowning, though neither body was ever found. Chris gets a respite the next morning when there's a knock on the door. It's Charlie Pringle. Chris speaks loudly, so Pringle won't blow his story from the night before, talking about what a party that was last night and saying what time it lasted until, extending it until he had left Kitty. Pringle plays along. Charlie asks if he's done any painting yet that day and Chris takes him into the bathroom to show him what he's done so far with the flower Kitty gave him. The painting surprises Charlie since the flower in the painting doesn't resemble the real one he's looking at sitting on the sink. Chris explains that in art, it's not so much what you see as what you feel. At the moment, the bathroom door open and Adele shrieks because she's in her slip. She gripes that there's no privacy, even in her own apartment. Chris apologizes and says they were just getting out of the way. Chris removes the easel and his paints and exits with Pringle. When Adele enters, she looks at the flower with disdain and tosses it in the trash. Outside, Charlie asks how long Chris has been married. Chris tells him just three years. It turns out that when Adele's husband died, she wanted to hang on to his life insurance, so she took Chris in as a boarder. They got to be friendly and eventually married.

Kitty fills Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea), the man who supposedly mugged her but who's actually her boyfriend, in on the details of her talk with Chris, telling him that he's a successful artist and that he mentioned that some of the greatest artists can sell their works for as much as $50,000. Johnny's eyes fill with dollar signs and he tells Lazy Legs (his pet name for Kitty) that she should string him along so they can milk him for some cash. Johnny wants to get enough cash together so he can buy a stake in a garage and then eventually force out his partners so he and Kitty can be on "easy street." Kitty isn't sure how easy it will be to pull off, but Johnny suggests giving it a try as he heads for the door just as her roommate Millie (Margaret Lindsay) comes home. Millie doesn't hide her disdain for Johnny and tells Kitty she should really go back to work. Dumping Johnny wouldn't be a bad idea either. Kitty asks Millie if she's trying to be her guardian angel, but Millie says, "Not me, honey. I lost those wings a long time ago." Kitty swears that her feelings for Johnny are genuine, adding that, "You wouldn't know love if it hit you in the face." If that's where it hits ya, you oughta know," Millie replies. Kitty goes to her bedroom to write to Chris about getting her money for a new apartment.

Though she hasn't shown her true colors yet, even in private, Kitty March belongs in the film noir femme fatale hall of fame. She's part of a team, with Johnny Prince being the real schemer, but Kitty for all her professions of love for Johnny can't really have the capacity for true affection because she lacks either a heart or a soul. She's beastly. As I mentioned, the source material for Scarlet Street is the same novel and play that Jean Renoir adapted for his 1931 film of the same name La Chienne, which translates to "The Bitch." Calling Kitty a bitch gives bitches a bad name. Kitty's equivalent in Renoir's film, Lulu, doesn't quite equal Kitty in terms of reprehensible characters. I haven't read the novel or the play La Chienne, so I don't know how Lulu originated, but I can't imagine the authors envisioned a character like the Kitty March that Joan Bennett, aided by Lang's direction and Dudley Nichols' script, brought to the screen. When Josh R wrote about "Lazy Legs" in his Centennial Tribute to Joan Bennett, Josh described Kitty as "a particularly slovenly specimen of femme fatale, of a strain that would make Double Indemnity's Phyllis Dietrichson seem downright genteel by comparison. Indeed, Bennett’s Kitty March...had the dubious distinction of being the most graceless, classless and altogether vulgar piece of cheap fluff ever to make an appearance in high-grade film noir." What makes Scarlet Street all the more fascinating is that while Johnny and Kitty are working a scam on poor Chris Cross, neither of them are bright enough to figure out he's been lying to them the entire time about being a successful artist when he's really just the downtrodden husband of a shrewish wife who works as a cashier at a bank — and that's just the basics of Scarlet Street. More twists will be added to the story and somehow Nichols' screenplay and Lang's direction keeps all these plates spinning in the air.

Back in the movie, Chris receives a letter from Kitty, asking for help. She says she needs money for her own apartment because Millie wants a place of her own. Chris isn't sure what to do, since he's not really a rich artist. When he's at the bank, he starts to pocket some cash, but then he thinks better of it. He goes to one of his co-workers and asks if he'd able to get a loan for $500 and even suggests a payment plan, but the loan officer says he'd need a co-signer and some property as collateral, so he abandons that idea. He makes contacts with Kitty and asks her to meet him for a lunch. Lang films a wonderful crane shot that starts above the trees of a little park as it slowly moves down to an outdoor cafe where Chris and Kitty have met for lunch. Physically, you can see the change in Chris (or Robinson). Cross began looking as a beaten, older man, but the attention Kitty shows him seems to have lightened him and make him younger. Kitty stays focused on his art and what prices he gets. Chris dances carefully around the subject, never specifically saying what he gets for his paintings, but talking about what people pay for the masters. He also expounds on his thoughts about art in general. "Every painting if it's any good," Chris tells her, "is like a love affair." He also tells her to look for a place and he'll get her the deposit.

No sooner has Chris returned home than Adele resumes nagging. This time the subject concerns the smell of his paints and how the smell interrupts her sleep. On top of that, he spends so much of what little he makes on art supplies, she can't even afford a radio so she's forced to go downstairs and listen with the neighbors. Chris suggests that Adele could always use part of her late husband's life insurance bonds to buy herself one, but she refuses. Those bonds are for her old age. Chris, more than tired of this routine, especially after spending quality time with Kitty, has sat down at the kitchen table for dinner. Adele tells him, "I'd been better off as a widow. Now I'm stuck." "So am I," he concurs. Adele, surprised at signs of a spine, asks if Chris has been drinking, even asking to check his breath for any indication of alcohol. She then finally heads downstairs to listen to her show. Once she's left, Chris unlocks a drawer in a bedroom bureau and takes out a box. In it, he finds the stack of Adele's life insurance bonds and he pockets one. He suddenly hears a noise and quickly puts everything back. He returns to the living room and finds that Adele has come back. She asks what he was doing, but he doesn't really give an answer and she doesn't seem to care. The neighbors' radio went out. She sure wishes she had one and if she did, it would be better than the type they have. Chris tells her that she doesn't have to worry about his paints. A friend has just taken a new apartment in Greenwich Village and agreed to let him keep his supplies and paintings there. Adele says that if they want to deal with the smell, they're welcome to them.

Johnny and Kitty are checking out her new Greenwich Village apartment (with rent of $150 a month — drool New Yorkers — drool) when they hear someone coming. Johnny worries that it's Chris, but Kitty assures him that he has a key and it's just Millie, checking out the new place. However, soon it is Chris who arrives. Thinking fast (and recalling her story from the first night she met him), Kitty introduces Johnny as Millie's boyfriend (which takes Millie by surprise — and horror at such a thought). Chris asks Johnny if they might have met somewhere, because he looks familiar, but Johnny says he doesn't think so. Millie tells everyone that she needs to get going and Johnny tells his "girlfriend" that he'll come with her. Chris tells Kitty that something rubs him wrong about Johnny, but fortunately for her he doesn't recall him as the man who was beating up Kitty the night he met. I guess Chris was too drunk and the lighting too dark for him to pay close enough attention to Johnny's face (He did immediately cover his face with his umbrella and sprint for the cop after all). He brings in many of paintings and his supplies. Once he's alone with Kitty, Chris' demeanor brightens again. He tells Kitty that he feels happy for the first time in his life, but he doesn't seem to notice how Kitty winces when Chris kisses her. When he leaves, we see that Johnny has been hiding at the restaurant downstairs from the apartment. In a very nice touch, the film fades from the image of the hiding Johnny to a painting of Chris' that shows a snake wrapped around one of the steel girders propping up an elevated train.

When Johnny returns to the apartment, the snake painting catches his eye. "Poor sap must be a hophead seeing snakes on the El," he tells Kitty. She has other issues on her mind. "He tried to kiss me today — and don't think I enjoyed it." Johnny tells her to relax. They need to milk this cash cow some more before she cuts him loose. Prince starts looking seriously at the paintings and wondering if they really are worth anything. He also thinks it's strange that he doesn't sign any of them. Johnny decides to look further, so he takes the snake painting to a street artist (Vladimir Sokoloff) to ask what he thinks it might be worth. The vendor says that his best guess would be $20 to $30 at most. He says it "has no perspective." He asks if Johnny is looking to sell it on consignment, because he would, but he wouldn't get too hopeful because few people seem interested in buying art anymore. Johnny leaves the painting and goes back to Kitty with a smug look on his face, telling her that Chris is a fraud. While he's there, Chris happens to arrive and Johnny says he was looking over his art and mentions that Chris has a problem with perspective, doesn't he? Chris admits that it's always been his weakness. Johnny heads off and Kitty tells him she's having money trouble again since she bought everything for the apartment on credit. Later after Chris leaves, Kitty gets back with Johnny and tells him he better get that painting back before Chris notices it's missing. When Johnny heads back toward the street artist, the man gets very excited, saying he didn't know how to contact him. The art critic from the newspaper loved the painting and bought it and wanted to get in touch with the artist and he didn't know how to get a hold of him. Something about this makes Johnny jumpy and he runs off.

For the first time, Chris actually steals from his bank — and he's almost caught. He waits until after everyone has left, only J.J. stops by his station to have him cash a check. Luckily, he doesn't see Chris' theft. The developments start happening in Scarlet Street at such a dizzying pace at this point, it's easy to get lost as to what happens when. You have no trouble keeping up while you're watching, but trying to recall it, puts you in a bit of a haze, but Lang directs the film as if he's driving a car that doesn't have any brakes. Around this same time, the street artist finally tracks down Johnny at Kitty's and brings with him the art critic David Janeway (Jess Barker) and the owner of the Dellarowe Gallery (Arthur Loft). They heap praise upon the artwork and want to know who painted them. As no one speaks up, Johnny finally speaks up and names Kitty as the artist, saying she's shy about her work, that's why she doesn't even sign them. Kitty storms out onto the balcony. Johnny encourages Janeway to go try to talk to her. Janeway tells her that he's usually pretty good at guessing the gender of an artist and he would have never thought that a woman painted that. "It has a masculine force," the critic says. Kitty stops pouting and flirts with the critic a bit. Dellarowe says he'd be interested in taking everything she's done, but she needs to sign them first. After the visitors leave, Kitty tells Johnny, "If I had any sense, I'd walk out on you." "You haven't got any sense," Johnny replies as he hands her a pen so she can start signing the paintings.

Even though I gave a spoiler warning at the outset, Scarlet Street puts you in such an infectious mood that you just want to talk about all its details, I'm going to try to wrap this up with quick highlights of what happens from this point on. Adele happens to wander by Dellarowe Gallery and sees the paintings complete with Kitty's signatures. She returns home where Chris tells her he got the liver she wanted and he's preparing in the kitchen. Adele isn't interested in the liver. She's too busy accusing Chris of copying some famous artist's work. She says she always knew he couldn't have any real artistic talent, but then she's frightened by the large knife he's holding that he was using to slice the liver. You'd expect Chris to get mad at what Kitty has done, but he buys Kitty's tearful excuse that she needed money and she didn't want to ask him for more, so she sold his paintings under his name. Chris says that's fine. If he'd tried to sell them under his own name, they would have been rejected because he's "a failure." He agrees to keep painting and letting her put her name on his works, starting with a self-portrait. At the same time, Johnny and Kitty begin to set Janeway up as another potential mark. The art critic describes Kitty's self-portrait as "Mona Lisa without the smile" and in an article he writes about her says that at times, it seems to him that she's like two people.

A general rule applies to pretty much every type of fictional story, no matter the genre. Be it horror or mystery, soap opera or noir. When you hear the words, "no body was found," you can safely bet that said missing corpse will turn up with a pulse and so it is the case with Adele's not-so-late first husband Detective Sgt. Higgins (Charles Kemper), who turns up looking disheveled with a patch on his eye and not particularly interested in reuniting with his wife. Instead, he pops in to see Chris demanding money to stay missing. Chris tells him he doesn't have the amount of money Higgins says he needs, but Adele has a whole bunch of bonds she collected on his life insurance when they declared him dead. It would be wrong for Chris to try to take them and just give them to him, but tonight is the night Adele goes to the theater. Chris suggests that Higgins just come in to the apartment — Chris will give him the key and signal when it's safe — and he can take the bonds himself. Higgins goes for the plan. That night, Chris waits in the dark with a packed suitcase. He gives the signal and Higgins comes in, only Adele is in the bedroom and you hear her scream. Chris can't contain his giggles as he takes his suitcase and leaves the apartment for good.

Unfortunately for Chris, he doesn't find what he expects to when he gets to Kitty's apartment. Kitty and Johnny have grown careless and he catches them in an embrace and he leaves heartbroken. Johnny blows up at Kitty for talking him into staying the night. Now she's probably blown the whole scam. She better learn to paint, he tells her before storming out. Kitty calls Millie to share her sob story. Millie warns her to be wary of Johnny, but Kitty says that Johnny couldn't kill a fly. When Millie suggests that she shouldn't be so fast to write off Chris since he obviously loves her. "If he were mean or vicious or if he'd bawl me out or something, I'd like him better," Kitty tells her friend. It's a sign of how warped Kitty March truly is. It doesn't excuse her actions, but it does show that something happened in her past that makes her equate abuse with affection. Meanwhile, both of the men in her life are out doing some heavy drinking.

Despite the kick in the teeth that Chris took, he returns to Kitty the next morning professing his love and asking her to marry him. Kitty unbears her claws this time. She buries her face in her pillow and Chris thinks she's crying. "I'm not crying, you fool. I'm laughing," Kitty tells him. "You're an idiot. How can one man be so dumb?" She doesn't stop there. She tells Chris that he's old and ugly and that he disgusts her. Chris can't believe what he's hearing. Kitty points to the door and tells him to get out, but Chris grabs the ice pick from the tray next to him and proceeds to stab her to death. He's shocked by what he's done and flees the apartment, but he doesn't want to rush out until he knows it's safe, so he hides behind the stairs. At the same time, a drunk Johnny returns. When Kitty doesn't answer the buzzer, he breaks the glass on the door to open it and goes upstairs. Eventually, Johnny gets put on the hook for the crime since no one believes his story that Chris really painted the pictures and Chris denies doing it, but Chris won't get off easily either.

Following the trial and conviction of Johnny Prince for Kitty Burke's murder, Chris gets called into J.J.'s office at work where two policemen happen to be waiting. It seems that an audit uncovered missing funds — $1,200 to be exact — and traced it back to Chris. The officers prepare to arrest Chris, but J.J. says that won't be necessary, he's not pressing charges. He thanks them and they leave. Chris apologizes and tells J.J. he'll pay him back. J.J. tells him that won't be necessary, but he will have to fire him. J.J. then asks Chris if he did it for a woman and Chris nods yes. J.J. says he thought that was the case. On the train ride back to his new residence, Chris happens to be recognized by some reporters going to cover Johnny's execution. They are discussing whether anyone can get away with a crime and one of the reporters argues that no one goes unpunished. He points to his heart and, referring to guilt, says it moves in there. "In solitary forever. They keep punishing themselves."

The reporter's words prove prophetic. Once Chris returns to the hovel he now calls home, the flashing lights and strange shadows mix with voices in his head to start slowly driving him mad. He even tries to hang himself, but neighbors save him. Unemployed, he's eventually on the streets, being kicked off park benches by cops. They get to know him, saying he'll tell anyone who will listen that he's responsible for two murders and he deserves to be tried and executed, but everyone just thinks he's a nut. The movie ends with the shell of what once was Christopher Cross just aimlessly wandering the streets, waiting to die. Scarlet Street turns out brilliant on every level, perfectly juggling its complicated mix of characters and plot turns. For what it's worth, that reporter, only in the movie for a single scene, turns out to be right: Every character who deserves punishment gets punished, just not necessarily for the misdeeds they committed.

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It does sound like a perfect vehicle for Robinson. I've never seen it, but I don't mind the spoilage (if that's the right word); I'm still going to seek it out. Thanks!
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