Two nights ago, feeling the need of a reassuringly familiar movie, I watched something I’ve seen more times than I could possibly guess: Fritz Lang’s provocative 1945 film noir, Scarlet Street. I first came across it when I was a freshman in college, and I found it simultaneously shocking, in a peculiar way, and amusing, also in a peculiar way. I still do.
It’s the lurid story of Christopher Cross, a meek New York bank clerk (Edward G. Robinson), thoroughly emasculated in his loveless marriage to a termagant (Rosalind Ivan). One night, while wandering through Greenwich Village, Cross comes to the aid of a beautiful young woman, Kitty March (Joan Bennett) who is being slapped around by a man. What Cross doesn’t realize is that the attacker is actually the girl’s boyfriend, and possibly pimp, and that being slapped around is one of the things she likes best about him. What ensues is a maze of misunderstandings and misinterpretations among the main characters. When Cross tells her that he’s an artist, Kitty doesn’t understand that he’s only a Sunday painter and jumps to the conclusion that he is a wealthy and famous artist—something Cross doesn’t dissuade her from thinking. He in turn mistakes her for an aspiring actress, although there is no indication that she has ever been on a single audition. Together, Kitty and her boyfriend Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea) devise a malicious plot to fleece the pitiful older man. She induces him to set her up in a snazzy Village apartment where he can come anytime he wants to paint and get a break from his unhappy home life. This takes money that Cross doesn’t have, and soon he’s stealing it, from both his employer and his wife. By now he is in love with Kitty, still not seeing her for the low-life she is—so much so, that when she and Johnny sell a batch of Cross’s paintings to Dellarowe’s, a tony Fifty-seventh Street gallery, claiming that Kitty painted them herself, Cross doesn’t even protest. He welcomes his abrupt, anonymous fame as a way of cementing his bond with Kitty. When she apologizes for having lied about creating the paintings herself, she admits that as far as the gallery owner was concerned, it didn’t seem to make any difference. Cross points out that in fact it makes a “great deal of difference. If I had shown my paintings to a man like Dellarowe, he wouldn’t have taken them,” he says, morosely. “I’m a failure, Kitty.”
The Kitty-Johnny duping of Cross continues, in a string of memorable scenes that are hilariously malicious, and, for a forties film, glisten with a sexual honesty that is a little jarring even today. Despite the fact that Scarlet Street ran into major censorship trouble, those troubles were mostly centered over the violent elements in the picture—particularly the moment at which Cross, who finally discovers he’s been duped, snaps and stabs Kitty to death in her bed. But it’s astonishing that some of the frank sexuality that lights up so much of the film got past the Hays Office. Kitty repeatedly makes it clear what kind of power Johnny has over her in bed. There’s even an intriguing hint that Kitty and her caustic roommate Millie (Margaret Lindsay) were once lovers.
After Kitty’s murder, Scarlet Street careens on for nearly another ponderous and heavy-handed half-hour—and this was to mollify the censors—as Johnny is executed for killing Kitty, and Cross must be seen to be overcome by guilt, becoming a derelict, sleeping in fleabag hotels and on park benches. With Joan Bennett out of the way, the life drains right out of the picture.
What has always intrigued me about this is that Bennett was not normally the kind of actress to dominate a film as gleefully as she does here. She required a lot of help from her director—left to her own devices, she could be a bit chilly and listless—but she found her way to some damned fine directors who helped her create her best work: for Lang, she also came through with a sly, tantalizing performance in The Woman in the Window (1944); for Zoltan Korda, she delivered an unnervingly sharp rendering of Hemingway’s duplicitous and deeply unhappy Margot Macomber in The Macomber Affair (1947). Best of all, she gave a superb account of the tense, distracted Lucia Harper, woefully in over her head in Max Opfhuls’s The Reckless Moment, as she attempts to find her way out of a blackmail plot so that she can hang on to a family life that appears to offer her very little in the way of happiness or emotional stability. Later still, under the guidance of John Frankenheimer, she gave a kind of performance entirely new to her, as a modestly talented film star terrified of failing on the Broadway stage, in a live episode of Playhouse 90, written by Robert Allen Aurthur, called “The Thundering Wave.”
Bennett always credited Lang with being the first to sense her potential and take her seriously. Truthfully, George Cukor got there first, drawing a funny and spontaneous performance out of her in his 1933 version of Little Women. In that film, however, she is backstopping a vivid cast of actors headed by the luminescent Katharine Hepburn.
In Scarlet Street, it’s a pleasure to watch Bennett take over the movie. I agree with critic David Thomson’s description of her characterization as “casually corrupt and endearingly vulgar.” I also tend to see the film as the coming out party of the youngest daughter of Richard Bennett, who was by all accounts one of the blazing acting talents of the New York stage in the early twentieth century. Richard Bennett’s credits included Leonid Andreyev’s He Who Gets Slapped and Sidney Howard’s They Knew What They Wanted. He delighted in thrusting thorny social issues before his audiences, and railing from center stage at regressive censors and obtuse critics.
Watching Scarlet Street, I have a sense of Joan Bennett suddenly turning into her father’s daughter a bit, testing the waters as an actress—and having a hell of a lot of fun doing so. What a shame that her father, who considered acting the most noble and rewarding of professions, never lived to see Scarlet Street, or much of her other best work. Some of the things she does in the film still make me laugh out loud—the way in which she lounges around her filthy apartment spitting grape seeds across the room, or the lewd delight on her face when her friend Millie spots Johnny’s straw hat lying under the sofa, or her look of bafflement when she thinks she’s done something to please Johnny, and he hauls off and slaps her. Scarlet Street has a lot to say about the elusive and complicated nature of sexuality—one we might pay attention to at this particular moment of squeaky-clean finger-pointing we are living through.
I wrote a biography of the Bennett family which can be purchased on amazon.
You can watch the entire Scarlet Street on youtube.