Though he began directing films in Germany in 1919, Fritz Lang didn’t arrive in America until 1934. Over the next quarter century he made many well-regarded pictures and, apparently, made a number of enemies amongst actors and studio execs due to his arrogance and dictatorial style of filmmaking. Scarlet Street was made in 1945, in the middle of both Lang’s American film years and Hollywood’s golden era of dramas known as “film noir.” That genre of films, identified and studied in retrospect by historians, continues to this day in some form, and it generally involves stark cinematography and dark storylines involving sex, crime, and punishment.
In Scarlet Street we meet Chris Cross (Edward G. Robinson), a man who loves painting but has a wife who belittles him at every turn. He’s been a cashier at a clothing retailer for 25 years and in the first scene we see his boss presenting him with a pocket watch at a dinner celebrating his employment milestone. On the way home from the event, Cross stops a man from hitting a lovely young woman named Kitty (Joan Bennett) and he takes her out for a drink.
What he doesn’t know is that the man beating her wasn’t a stranger, but in fact her boyfriend Johnny (Dan Duryea). While talking over their drink, Cross lies and tells Kitty he’s a professional painter so she’ll be impressed. Though she finds Cross repulsive and old, Kitty thinks he’s a potential mark and lets him think she’s interested so he’ll start giving her money.
As the film progresses, Cross is torn between home where his shrewish wife Adele lives and the apartment he rented for Kitty, where he’s storing his artwork. Kitty’s seeing Johnny behind his back and Johnny thinks he can sell the paintings for even more cash. Though Cross considers himself a rank amateur – he’s never even mastered perspective in his work – a passing art critic spots the paintings on the street at a salesman’s booth and sees genius in them.
The kettle of drama starts to boil once the paintings go public, with Johnny making the critic think Kitty herself is the painter. Sooner or later we know Cross will get wise and all hell will break loose, and indeed it does. In classic noir fashion, the movie gets darker as it goes on until it comes completely off the rails (in a good way).
Edward G. Robinson gives a fine performance here as the meek, put-upon Cross. If you’re familiar with his more famous gangster roles, you may be shocked to see how well he pulls off the part of a man completely lacking in self confidence. The film is not without its faults, however. Duryea seems likes he’s acting in a completely different movie, chewing scenery and generally going over the top with the moustache-twirling villain shtick. Bennett fares better but never seems able to figure out if her character is supposed to be sympathetic or completely sinister.
Despite these flaws in casting, this really is a good psychological film noir and well worth the time of any dedicated or even casual fan of cinema’s classics. Though tame to modern viewers, this was banned in three states at the time of its release and Scarlet Street still has some bite to this day.
Kino’s blu-ray transfer is excellent throughout, crisp and clear with the original film grain intact from the Library of Congress’ print. The mono audio track is as good as one can expect from a film of this age, with no difficulty picking out dialogue or music.
The extras on this release are nothing to write home about. Film historian David Kalat’s interesting commentary from the previous DVD release is included, as is a small gallery of stills and posters from the film’s original release. There are a few trailers for other Kino classic releases, but one wishes there were some featurette about the film careers of its director and stars.