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Starring Edward G.Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea; dir: Fritz Lang


Edward G.Robinson in a frilly apron is not a pretty sight. Hung around his neck in Scarlet Street during his moments of greatest domestic subjugation, this flowery ‘noose’ is a yoke that makes it abundantly clear a crisis of masculinity is occurring in postwar homefront U.S.A (see thing called noir).

Not that Robinson’s character Chris Cross (a clumsy allusion, even if he is a ‘marked’ man) has far to fall. Cross reveals throughout Scarlet Street that he has lived life at one remove, lamenting that he has never experienced a young woman looking lovingly at him, still less ever seen one naked! His obsessive love of painting becomes a metaphor for a life lived at arm’s length. So pitiful is he that, upon being caught embezzling funds, his boss unhesitatingly surmises the cause: "a woman".

But what a woman! In one of her greatest femme fatale roles, Joan Bennett is louche and sexual languor personified – a breathy temptress who comes on with a knowing wink to her own ludicrously wonderful sybaritic lifestyle. (There’s a great moment when she acknowledges Chris’s artistry by proffering her outstretched leg so he can paint – her toenails!)  Extending the mediated presentation of so much of the world of Scarlet Street, we know Joan’s Kitty (hey!) is bad, as she is always seen doubled up in the reflection of countless mirrors casually placed for us to enjoy her two-faced nature. The sexual politics all come together when Robinson’s Cross tacitly acknowledges his castration by portraying Kitty's larcenous selling off of his artworks (through signing them in her own name) as something akin to a 'marriage', only now it means him taking her name, not the traditional other way around.

Scarlet Street however doesn’t have an agenda, let alone a point to labour. Au contraire, much of it comes off as a drawing room farce, possibly reflecting its French origins (it is a remake of the 1931 Renoir talkie La Chien) with clandestine boyfriends hiding behind bedroom doors and ironic little twists of mutual or wilfull misunderstanding peppered throughout. Amplifying this is the wonderfully unctuous Dan Duryea, the charming slimeball you love to hate (or vica versa) as the stray electron in this noir triangle.

Scarlet Street’s considerable noir cred is primarily derived from its dark last quarter, a grimly Teutonic descent into Chris’s living hell that is ushered in by the soap-operatic shock of the return of Homer, the presumed-dead (back from his odyssey!) first husband to Chris’s shrewish wife which, in a darker irony, frees the artist from his matrimonial chains.

Interestingly, there’s some strong parallels to a contemporaneous noir classic from another Teutonic Hollywood refugee, Double Indemnity (1944) by Billy Wilder. In each, opportunity to cheat the company springs from the proximity to inside info of a lowly position (cashier/insurance investigator) whose dutiful nature makes them overlooked as suspects. Then there’s the incredible speech of a reporter on the way to Duryea’s execution who regales Robinson with the same riff his Barton Keys uses on Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff in Indemnity: "no one gets away with it because in here (pounding his heart) there’s a little court", a direct analogue of Keys’ "little man" in the chest cavity who can smell an insurance scam…

Scarlet Street’s stature is ensured by the unforgettable final sequence, where irony takes on its darkest hue and underlines the pathos of Robinson’s superbly underplayed performance. Despite the foolish braying of Hollywood censors at the time perceiving a crime going unpunished, Lang’s Old World sensibilities reach deeper and leave us with an enduring vision of the unspeakable guilt that can live within.