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.
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.
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.