Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Tonight's Movie: Scarlet Street (1945)

NOTE: This post on SCARLET STREET (1945), one of several films in which Joan Bennett starred for director Fritz Lang, is my contribution to the Classic Symbiotic Collaborations Star-Director Blogathon hosted by Theresa at CineMaven's Essays From the Couch. The blogathon takes place this weekend, January 23rd and 24th. Be sure to visit Theresa's site for links to many interesting posts; at last count over 50 bloggers had signed up to participate!

Viennese-born director Fritz Lang and American actress Joan Bennett worked together regularly throughout the 1940s. Bennett, who had famously changed from a blonde to brunette thanks to the film TRADE WINDS (1938), moved from ingenue and leading lady roles in the '30s to more compelling parts in the '40s, and her work with Lang was a key aspect of her transition.

Lang and Bennett first worked together on the thriller MAN HUNT (1941) for 20th Century-Fox. Lang is said to have done uncredited work on another Fox film starring Bennett, the enjoyable CONFIRM OR DENY (1941), about reporters in London during the Blitz.

Lang and Bennett's final film together was the Gothic melodrama SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR (1947), with Bennett as the endangered wife of troubled Michael Redgrave.

In the middle of these Lang-Bennett films came a pair of titles which almost need to be viewed as a set: RKO's THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1944), which I reviewed in 2011, and SCARLET STREET (1945), which was distributed by Universal.

Actors Edward G. Robinson and Dan Duryea joined Lang and Bennett for both movies, which were each filmed in black and white by Milton Krasner.

SCARLET STREET is a remake of Jean Renoir's LA CHIENNE (1931), adapted by Dudley Nichols. Robinson plays Christopher Cross, who's worked for the same company for 25 years without much to show for it other than a nice watch.

Chris has a shrew of a wife (Rosalind Ivan) who idealizes her late first husband and treats Chris like dirt. He's a thwarted artist, reduced to painting in his bathroom on the weekend...and even so, his wife threatens to throw away his paintings!

One night Chris meets Kitty (Bennett), coming to her defense when she's being accosted by Johnny (Duryea), who unbeknownst to Chris is also Kitty's boyfriend.

Kitty and Johnny think Chris has money and see him as an easy mark for some cash, and indeed, before long Chris embezzles funds from his employer to help move Kitty into a nicer apartment -- which he can also use as a painting studio.

Chris sees a way out of his dreary life, with Kitty and his painting, but it's not that simple, not by a long shot. Indeed, it's the beginning of a nightmare which sees Chris descending deeper and deeper into the darkness, as eventually Chris, Kitty, and Johnny all pay the price for their choices.

SCARLET STREET is a very dark 103 minutes. I appreciated the film from a stylistic standpoint, with its rainy sidewalks, Kitty's clear raincoat, and the dark shadows. (As I typed that phrase I was struck by the irony that Bennett later starred on the TV series DARK SHADOWS!) Visually, it's a beautiful noir, but storywise, I really struggled to stick with its ultra-depressing storyline.

Since watching the film I've been contemplating why I had so much more trouble with SCARLET STREET than THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW. I think there are a few reasons. In THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, Robinson actually has a fairly comfortable life, with a nice wife, children, a respected career, and good friends. That character might have been feeling his age and a bit lonely, with his family away on a summer holiday, but he wasn't pathetic...whereas I found it hard to watch Chris being made fun of and manipulated by Johnny and Kitty. It was also hard to take watching his wife, who was almost a cartoon character, she was so awful.

THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW is a cautionary tale, with Robinson's character receiving a not-to-be-discussed-here reprieve of sorts, while in SCARLET STREET his character is miserable from the start, and only becomes more so as the film goes along. He briefly glimpses a chance at a different life, but the audience knows it's just a chimera, and the reality of how things turn out is almost too sad to bear.

I also mentally compared the film to THEY WON'T BELIEVE ME (1947), a film about an unfaithful husband which I found highly enjoyable a few months ago. It's curious to contemplate why one film feels "fun" and another is just...dark; I think one of the keys is that despite the deaths and shocking twists and turns in THEY WON'T BELIEVE ME, you never really felt sorry for anyone. There's a difference in tone in SCARLET STREET which goes a little too far over the edge for me; it's less noir and more tragedy.

The cast is excellent; the movie wouldn't be as sad as it is if Robinson weren't such a compelling actor, and of course Duryea excels as the heel.

Bennett is gorgeous as Kitty, and more importantly, she's a fascinating actress who isn't afraid to plumb the depths. For instance, Kitty might have been gorgeous, but she was content to live like an utter pig; the state of Kitty's housekeeping was a fascinating detail.

I admire that Bennett was unafraid to take chances on parts which weren't traditional leading lady roles, whether playing a femme fatale for Lang, or, for that matter, her willingness to play the mother of a young woman on screen while still in her 30s, in Max Ophuls' THE RECKLESS MOMENT (1949).

(A brief biographical note: Off the screen, Bennett had in fact had her first child just after turning 18 and became a grandmother not long after she gave birth to her youngest daughter at the age of 38.)

SCARLET STREET is in the public domain and available in many DVD editions. I purchased mine from VCI Entertainment, where it was released as part of their Nostalgia Film Factory line of films in the public domain. The print was a bit soft at times but overall it was fine.

I wouldn't call SCARLET STREET a "fun" watch, but it was definitely a fearless, unforgettable collaboration from the team of Fritz Lang and Joan Bennett.

13 Comments:

Blogger Blake Lucas said...

It's true as you say that SCARLET STREET fell into public domain and that tapes and DVDs were always pallid copies, but I'm glad to say this has changed. Original elements were found for it and the Kino DVD now has it available is a restored version that looks beautiful. I was glad to buy this and I'm sure most strong admirers of the film will want to do so. It's presently on Amazon at a very reasonable price.

I made this comment primarily to share that information, but as long I'm here anyway will add just a little.

I found your review fair in acknowledging the movie's artistic strengths even though you do not enjoy it very much. For my part, I never find a movie depressing just for the story or subject--it depends on the attitude and sensibility behind it. And that said, this is for me one of Lang's great films (of which there are many).

I spent the last three years watching Lang's complete work in chronological order (missing only a few early movies that did not survive--a wonderful experience, and plan to have some pieces out of it (one on RANCHO NOTORIOUS for my planned Westerns book is already written, at least in a draft). There's so much to say about Lang, an awesome director and great artist, but in addressing the present subject, I'll just say this, Lang's vision of the world is pessimistic but it is neither cynical nor misanthropic (and in other films has a darkly romantic side at times). He really had a lot of heart. Edward G. Robinson can effectively fall into tragedy on screen, but you don't cast an actor like this to ridicule him and he isn't here. SCARLET STREET resonates with humanity, however downbeat it may be, and even the wonderfully stylized, morally challenged characters played by Bennett and Duryea are believable in context of the movie, and so I'm OK with everything that happens.

As it is a harsh story, I actually feel Lang's version works better and more honestly than Renoir's much celebrated LA CHIENNE, the original version. The two directors, though very different, are perhaps equal for me, but in this case the contrapuntal mellowness of the tone Renoir sought for his film doesn't work as well as I wish it did, though I hasten to add that in other films he is master of contrasting moods and emotions.

Of course, you are right that THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW and SCARLET STREET are a complementary pair, especially so as they are in the end, opposites, and partly for the reasons you said. Though I strongly prefer SCARLET STREET after these last viewings, I've had some ups and downs with both. The first time I saw THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW I remember that it knocked me out, but now I find I hold that ending against it a little. Even though it's perfectly legitimate and makes sense within the whole movie (and it was Lang's own idea, which he imposed on the screenwriter), it makes me wonder a little about asking us to be so absorbed and invest so much in the story. Of course, both movies are fiction so this is an arguable point (and tried not to give anything away here for those who hasn't seen one per the other).

2:30 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Blake!

Wonderful to hear from you. Thank you so much for making my readers aware of the Kino print. That is great info.

Always appreciate your takes on movies and what you think of them in the context of your viewing. What a fantastic project, watching all Lang's available films in chronological order! I'm certainly anxious for you to finish writing that book. :)

I find that sometimes when a movie is sad or tragic like this one, I have an easier time the second time around, when I know what to expect (TRY AND GET ME is a good example). So it would be interesting to see if I developed a further appreciation for the film with repeated exposure, given that I like the authors and the style, just not the story.

Thanks so much for adding your thoughts here!

Best wishes,
Laura

6:25 PM  
Blogger Caftan Woman said...

"Scarlet Street" can be emotionally difficult, but I find the ending oddly rewarding in the sense that there is a line of truth, however heartbreaking, running through the entire piece. If this sounds like I'm one of those who has a problem with the ending to "The Woman in the Window", nothing could be further from the truth. I find that film equally as perfect, but for different reasons. The ending of that film poses a question of what lurks beneath the surface of the seemingly ordinary, well-adjusted man. Scary stuff to contemplate.

9:05 AM  
Blogger CineMaven said...

Thanks for joining the blogathon. I hope to catch up to your post as soon as I can.

9:19 AM  
Blogger Silver Screenings said...

I find "Scarlett Street" a difficult watch, too, because Edward G. Robinson's character is so sad. As for Ms Bennett, you're right that she was unafraid to take on different roles. She was so versatile!

The Lang-Bennett pairing is a great choice for the blogathon. It never would have occurred to me.

2:17 PM  
Blogger Citizen Screen said...

It's great to run into you in a blogathon, Laura. :) Fantastic entry on this unforgettable movie. The Lang-Bennett combination would never have occurred to me, but it's a fantastic addition to this event.

Aurora
Once Upon a Screen

9:20 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you again for all your hard work hosting the blogathon, Theresa!

Ruth, interesting to hear from someone else who finds SCARLET STREET a tough watch. I love Joan Bennett so the blogathon was a great encouragement for me to finally check out the movie!

Thanks so much, Aurora! I really enjoyed your own post on Wilder & Lemmon and just left a comment. :)

Best wishes,
Laura

9:27 AM  
Blogger Chris Sturhann said...

Hi Laura, Scarlet Street is a tough watch. I first saw it in a film class in college. I don't think I watched again, until last year in the Summer of Darkness, despite plenty of opportunities. Just about every character in the film is an awful person. It's hard to find enough good in any of them to want to pull for them.

10:00 AM  
OpenID girlsdofilm said...

Love your posts Laura, they always introduce me to something new or, as in this case, remind me of how much I still have to see. For a long time Scarlett Street wasn't that easy to find in the UK (although I think that's been rectified now). It was interesting to read about other bloggers' impressions of it too. Thank you!

11:15 AM  
Blogger Stephen Reginald said...

I love Scarlet Street. I know it's tough and depressing, but it's brilliant in so many other ways: film technique, direction, and the acting of the three stars, Robinson, Bennett, and Duryea are superb. The Kino video is excellent. I have a public domain DVD and then bought the Kino version a few years ago. It's like night and day. Excellent post, Laura!

4:03 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks so much for your feedback, Chris, girlsdofilm, and Stephen! I'm fascinated by how some people find it difficult but others are able to put that aside because of their appreciation of the film's execution.

Stephen, thanks for adding your insights on the quality of the Kino release -- if I ever watch this again I'll be sure it's the Kino version!

Thanks to you all!

Best wishes,
Laura

10:49 PM  
Blogger misospecial said...

I fall into the Scarlet Street is hard to watch group; watching Robinson's abuse and degradation from every corner is excruciating. Maybe one day I'll be in that sweet spot where I can watch the movie and not get emotionally too involved. I love Woman in the Window but think the ending is a bit of a copout ("it was all a dream!"), just as it was on the Dallas cliffhanger and in so many other movies. Both these films are great noirs, though, and whatever reservations I feel are subject to what a friend told me many years ago: You are not a test of the classics. The classics are a test of you. Not saying the films are perfect, but the fault more likely lies in my understanding... Good post, thanks!

Lesley
Second Sight Cinema

9:00 PM  
Blogger LĂȘ said...

There is nothing better in noir than Ed G painting Joan Bennett's toenails!
This film is no much darker than Woman in the Window, and I think the darkness fits better. Man Hunt is also a very thrilling movie, a pleasant surprise, and maybe my favorite of the three. I'm so glad Joan and Fritz met to give us these masterpieces!
Kisses!
Le

12:40 PM  

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