Wednesday, May 17, 2017
Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang, 1945)
La Chienne. Both films came at oddly significant points in their directors' careers: Renoir's was only his second talkie, but one in which he demonstrated his mastery of the relatively new medium by a creative use of ambient sound. Lang's was made just as World War II was ending -- a moment when it became possible for him to return to Europe, which he had fled to avoid Nazi persecution. Lang chose, however, to stay on in Hollywood for 12 more years, though he grew increasingly annoyed at the creative restrictions imposed on him by the big studios and Production Code censorship. In this context, Scarlet Street stands out as edgy and somewhat defiant. The Code prescribed a kind of lex talionis: any criminal act demands a punishment equivalent in kind and degree. But in Scarlet Street, Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) gets away with not only fraud and theft but also murder -- a double murder, if you consider that the man wrongly accused of the murder goes to the electric chair for it. Cross is punished by homelessness and by auditory delusions of the voices of those who drove him to crime, but that's much less severe than the Code usually prescribed. There were those, of course, including censors in New York State, Milwaukee, and Atlanta, who noticed the Code's laxness and proceeded to ban the film on their own. Today, Scarlet Street is regarded as a classic, one of the premier examples of film noir at its darkest. It doesn't quite measure up to Renoir's version, perhaps because Renoir was freer in expressing his vision of the material than Lang was. Renoir's film had touches of humor and a gentler, more ironic ending, but the ending of Scarlet Street is entirely in keeping with the tone of the rest of the film, with its traces of unfettered Lang: for example, the shocking viciousness of Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea), who if you know how to decode the Code is clearly the pimp to the prostitute Kitty March (Joan Bennett). And Cross's behavior at the end of the film, derelict and delusional, echoes some of the frantic paranoia of Peter Lorre's child murderer in Lang's M (1931). The screenplay is by Dudley Nichols.