SCARLET STREET (1945, Dir. Fritz Lang)

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker

A remake of Jean Renoir’s 1931 film La Chienne (“The Bitch”), Scarlet Street joins Lang’s 1944 film The Woman in the Window as a two-film exploration of the ways in which bourgeois comfort and respectability can lead to a prison-like, mind-numbing routinization, yet, paradoxically, are also precarious and can be taken away in a heartbeat, especially if one breaks even the tiniest rule of bourgeois propriety. Both films (along with Double Indemnity)feature Edward G. Robinson, previously known for playing tough-guy roles, as he transitioned to playing older and more vulnerable characters. Both The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street also feature Joan Bennett as the femme fatale who disrupts the routine of Robinson’s characters and Dan Duryea as the thug who makes his own contribution. The films thus serve as companions in a number of ways, though Scarlet Street—which, according to Naremore, “gives the waking life of a bank clerk and Sunday painter the quality of a Brechtian, blackly comic nightmare” (Film Noir 10)—is ultimately the more powerful and tragic of the two films.

In Scarlet Street, Robinson stars as Chris Cross, a henpecked middle-aged husband and lowly cashier who dreams of being an artist and spends every Sunday attempting to paint. The modest sort, he seems to have few real expectation of success as an artist, though it turns out that he apparently does have some significant talent.[1] It doesn’t help that his wife Adele (Rosalind Ivan) is so dismissive of his aspirations—which of course only makes him an easier mark for Bennett’s Kitty March, who is impressed by his art and who quickly becomes the focus of Cross’s fantasies of escape from the boring routine of his job and his marriage. Duryea, meanwhile, plays Johnny Prince, Kitty’s boyfriend and accomplice, who helps her con the infatuated Cross into stealing money to rent an apartment for her, with predictably disastrous results.

The film begins at a formal dinner being hosted by J. J. Hogarth (Russell Hicks) and attended by various employees of Hogarth’s company to celebrate Cross’s twenty-five years of service to the company. Hogarth seems to be a generous and appreciative boss, and he addresses Cross as his friend in an inscription on the expensive gold watch that he gives him to mark the occasion. These years of service are specified to have occurred between 1909 and 1934, thus placing the action in the midst of the Great Depression and suggesting that Cross is perhaps fortunate to be employed at all at this time. That he is seemingly so well regarded despite occupying a relatively modest position in the firm suggests something about Hogarth as a boss, but it also suggests that Cross has served the company well during these years. Most of the other employees, like Cross, seem middle aged or older, and there is a sense that they have all worked together for a long time; they seem to get along well as a group, perhaps having formed a special camaraderie from having been steadily employed together during these last few Depression years.

Hogarth’s firm appears perhaps to be some sort of clothing company (from the looks of the displays in their storefront windows and of the company logo, which specifies that they deal in “QUALITY CLOTHES”), but the film gives few actual details about the work of the company. This fact gives the firm an almost allegorical quality, as if it is meant to stand in for companies in general, with Cross’s position as a “cashier” placing him in the tradition of employees in such mundane clerical jobs—such as Gogol’s Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin in “The Overcoat” (1842) or the title character from Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853).[2] At the same time, this particular job places Cross in especially close proximity to the firm’s money, suggesting that he occupies a position of trust but also suggesting the crucial role of money in the world of the film. As a little man caught up in the mechanisms of capitalist exchange, Cross looks back to such cinematic figures as John Sims, the protagonist of King Vidor’s The Crowd (1927), and he isn’t that far from the situation of Walter Neff in Double Indemnity. Such office workers are reminders of the repetitive humdrum jobs that must be done by armies of employees in order to keep modern capitalism running—and of the way in which the routinized nature of these jobs can do considerable psychic damage to the employees.

Rows of interchangeable workers doing identical work at identical desks in “The Crowd.”

The governing narrative here would be the process of capitalist modernization as described by the German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920), who argued that this historical process had led, by the beginning of the twentieth century, to a rationalized world devoted to logic, efficiency, and the generation of profit. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism—originally composed in 1904 and 1905, just as the modern, consumerist phase of American capitalism was kicking into high gear—Weber describes how capitalism (with Protestantism as its accessory and ideological ally) has produced a world bereft of magic, in which everything makes sense, everything has a price, and nothing has real value.

Weber’s focus is on Europe, but his work applies to the entire Western world (and, increasingly, the entire world). In some ways, it has special relevance to American culture and history because both capitalism and Protestantism have been particularly powerful in the United States, a society founded on a rejection of the Catholic, aristocratic past of medieval Europe, a past that continued to exercise significantly more power in Europe than in America well into the twentieth century. The capitalist/Protestant worldview that Weber describes has thus long existed in a purer form in America than anywhere else. From this point of view, the routinized world depicted in Scarlet Street is a very recognizably American one, while the sense of entrapment felt by Cross can clearly be taken as a commentary on the psychic consequences of life under advanced capitalism in general.

One consequence of such a routinized existence is to drive individuals into fantasy as an attempt to compensate for the lack of anything strange or magical in their real lives. Thus, Fredric Jameson, drawing upon Weber, has noted the ongoing popularity of “romance” genres in the rationalized world of modern capitalism. “Romance,” Jameson concludes, “now again seems to offer the possibility of sensing other historical rhythms, and of demonic or Utopian transformations of a real now unshakably set in place” (Political Unconscious 104).

In the case of Scarlet Street, when Hogarth is called away early from the dinner party, the employees rush to the windows, where they huddle around to watch him get into a limo with a beautiful young blonde, obviously not his wife. However, far from being shocked that their boss is “stepping out,” they are highly impressed. For them, the wealthy Hogarth clearly serves as a sort of fantasy figure, through whom they can vicariously experience adventures completely unavailable to them in their own meager lives. After the party, Cross (clearly in no hurry to get home to his wife in Brooklyn) accompanies another employee, Charlie (Samuel S. Hinds) to the latter’s bus stop in the rain and muses to him, “I wonder what it’s like to be loved by a young girl like that”—something, he admits, that never happened to him even when he himself was young. His companion comments on the dreams of the young, and Cross confesses his youthful dream of being a great painter, something he has apparently now given up on, resigned at this point to being a mere dabbler. “Well that’s one way to kill time,” says Charlie, indicating the way in which, for him, time is simply something to be endured, not utilized for any sort of productive activity.

Actress Kerry Vaughn, dripping with diamonds probably received from J. J. Hogarth, plays the embodiment of the reward for Hogarth’s Depression-era financial success.

Actress Kerry Vaughn, dripping with diamonds probably received from J. J. Hogarth, plays the embodiment of the reward for Hogarth’s Depression-era financial success.

Cross’s routine life is about to change, though. As he heads through Greenwich Village to the subway that will take him home to his loveless marriage (entered into as an attempt to counter his intense loneliness), he witnesses a woman (March) being attacked by an apparent mugger (Prince). He intervenes and (with surprising ease) knocks the assailant unconscious with his tattered umbrella. It’s a strange moment. Lotte Eisner, in her excellent reading of the film, reads it straight, concluding that Johnny is a pimp and March his prostitute and that he was beating her up because she had taken in only fifteen dollars that night—thus giving new significance to his pet name for her (“Lazy Legs”) (Eisner 258).[3] I think, however, that it is also possible that the scene involves an ordinary spat between lovers, or even that the whole scene is a set-up staged by Prince and March designed to entrap an innocent passerby such as Cross, though it is not clear how they could have hope to find such a willing victim. In any case, Prince flees as Cross goes to fetch a policeman, and Cross strikes up a conversation with the woman when he returns. We already know from his reaction to Hogarth’s “stepping out” that he is lonely and sexually frustrated and dreams of sexual adventure with a beautiful young woman, so it is no surprise that they go for drinks, and that Cross is immediately smitten.

In the next scene, we get our first look at Cross’s domestic situation, which goes a long way toward explaining why he is so vulnerable to March’s charms. We see him painting in the bathroom of his apartment, to which he has been relegated by his harpy of a wife, who has no appreciation for his art and who seems to spend most of her time comparing him (unfavorably) to her supposedly deceased first husband. The contrast between Cross’s artistic dreams and the mundane bathroom setting in which he paints is a striking one, making clear just how much at odds his dreams are with his reality—just as his unattractive, nagging wife contrasts so sharply with his romantic view of the alluring March, who definitely has her charms, despite being so morally suspect. As Biesen puts it, “Joan Bennett’s unabashedly irreverent, doublecrossing Kitty in Scarlet Street is the ultimate duplicitous temptress” (165).

Little wonder, then, that March is easily able to convince Cross to steal (first from his wife, then from his employer) in order to put her up in a nice apartment, where (as a bonus) he can have a studio in which to paint. But she is far from the embodiment of the “kept” woman, stashed away by a rich man for use as his sexual plaything—perhaps in the mode of the blonde with whom Cross had seen his boss stepping out earlier. Indeed, while it is clear that Cross is largely attempting to act out a fantasy in which he has sexual adventures similar to those he imagines Hogarth having, it is also clear that he merely has a debased version of those adventures. March evades his physical advances completely and seems almost appalled by the idea of him touching her—partly because she is inexplicably enthralled by the loathsome Prince. And, rather than being used as a plaything to boost Cross’s sense of his own masculine power, March in fact dominates their relationship, abusing Cross in much the same way that Prince abuses her. This treatment ensures that Cross will actually be emasculated by this new sexual adventure—as in the highly symbolic scene in which Cross puts his artistic talents to use by painting her toenails, while she reclines languorously on the bed that she shares only with Prince.

Chris Cross kneels to paint Kitty March’s toenails, symbolizing her dominant position in the relationship.

Cross is feminized in the film in other ways as well, especially in his marriage, in which he appears to do most of the cooking and housework, while his wife devotes herself to downgrading him and waxing poetic on the virtues of her first husband, Higgins, a burly policeman believed to have been killed in a heroic effort to save a drowning woman. In one telling scene, Cross works in the kitchen wearing a frilly apron that symbolizes his emasculation in the marriage. When Adele comes in to berate him after her usual fashion, he for a moment suggestively holds the kitchen knife he has been using—no doubt harboring murderous thoughts toward his wife, but also employing the knife as a sort of substitute for his own phallic shortcomings. (Among other things, it is possible that their marriage has never been consummated, given that given that Cross admits to Adele in one scene that he has never seen a naked woman and therefore can’t paint nudes).

When Higgins (Charles Kemper), who has merely been on the lam, reappears, he towers over Cross and is confident of being able to dominate him, though Cross for once executes a successful maneuver in arranging for Adele to discover that Higgins is alive, thus invalidating his own marriage to her and spurring his dreams of marrying Kitty. In the meantime, Prince—always on the lookout for a quick score—has taken some of Cross’ paintings to sell. A sidewalk artist agrees to take them on consignment and to display them beside his own paintings, which leads to their discovery by a prominent art critic who, surprisingly, declares them to be the work of an untutored genius. The paintings show great talent, says the critic, even though they lack perspective. Perspective, of course, is something that Cross lacks in lots of ways.

Cross, in fact, has a number of flaws, and it is clear in the film that these are as much responsible for his downfall as anything done to him by Adele or Kitty or the routine of his job—though, of course, his experiences have also shaped his character. From this perspective, it should be noted that Kitty is not, in fact, a typical heartless femme fatale, bringing one man after another to their doom. Partly because of Bennett’s performance and partly because of the structure of the narrative itself, Kitty is actually a figure of some sympathy. She is as much victim as villain, manipulated and abused by Johnny (whom she believes she genuinely loves) in much the same way that she mistreats Cross. At the same time, Cross (who has no business getting involved with Kitty in the first place) uses (and deceives) her as much as she does him. Indeed, all of the major characters in this film are selfish and morally corrupt, from Hogarth, to Adele, to Higgins, to Kitty and Johnny. Some of them are just more overtly criminal than others, their corruption less well hidden behind a mask of apparent bourgeois propriety. It’s a dark picture of life in the modern city.

Eventually, March passes herself off as the artist who painted the paintings, but Cross is so infatuated with her (and so happy to have his work be appreciated) that he forgives her and willingly cooperates in the ruse. He has no idea, however, that March and Prince are carrying on behind his back—which negates the seemingly fortuitous discovery that Higgins is actually still alive. When Cross discovers what is going on between March and Prince, then confronts her with it, March’s mocking response spurs him to kill her in a jealous rage, repeatedly and viciously stabbing her with an icepick that clearly serves as another phallic substitute; he then lets Prince be executed for the murder (helping the process along with a bit of perjury)—in what is possibly the first execution of an innocent man in American film.

By the end of the film, Cross has certainly been jolted out of his routine. All this adventure, though, has hardly made his life richer. He loses his job when his thefts are discovered (though Hogarth declines to prosecute), so that he now, instead of a boring job and an awful wife, has no job, no wife, and no girlfriend. In despair, he attempts suicide, which might have been a suitable ending for the film, but the depiction of suicides was forbidden by the Code, so Cross is rescued. Instead of dying, then, he lives on as a broken man, driven to distraction by the voices in his head. Homeless, he becomes a nuisance to the cops, who are continually rousting him out of the parks. In one final heartbreaking scene, he stumbles along the sidewalk (at Christmastime, no less) and sees the portrait he painted of March being loaded into a rich man’s car. It has just been sold for $10,000, passed off as March’s self-portrait, “her” masterpiece.

This final scene, however, might be more interesting than it first appears. While the scene obviously adds to the sense of tragedy in his whole recent experience, it does much more than ironically suggest Cross’s own exclusion from the benefits of his work as an artist. After all, this scene presents the culmination of the recognition of Cross’s artistic success as a purely commercial transaction, suggesting that his art has not transcended the world of commerce in which he was embedded as a cashier. Instead, his work has been commodified, safely transcribed within the world of capitalist commercial exchange—and also perhaps suggesting that no one can escape this world in any way other than the one Cross has—to drop through the cracks into a hellish underworld where the outcasts and refuse dwell. That the painting is of Kitty is also significant, suggesting the commodification of what Cross had once envisioned as a great, romantic passion.[4]

Film noir protagonists often seek to escape a world of mind-numbing routine, only to discover that breaking free from their routine brings disaster rather than liberation. This motif, however, is clearly not meant to be taken as an endorsement of bourgeois banality and as a suggestion that we should all just be happy with whatever capitalism doles out to us. On the contrary, it is a statement about just how damaging life under capitalism can be: forced to live by conformist rules of conduct until they are pushed to the breaking point, these noir protagonists illustrate just how strong the grip of capitalism on individual lives can be, illustrating that there is no way out but self-destruction. As Munby puts it, Cross is trapped in a “prison of bourgeois rectitude where any transgression of bourgeois morality leads one into a realm of psychotic self-punishment” (198).

Scarlet Street is a complex film, though, and the exact nature of Cross’s self-punishment is another aspect of the film that is open to multiple interpretations. The most obvious explanation for Cross’s condition at the end of the film is that he feels guilt and remorse over his role in the deaths of March and Prince. And there is some support for this reading in the film itself. In one late scene (shortly before his attempted suicide), Cross encounters some reporters on a train that they are taking out to Sing Sing prison to cover Prince’s upcoming execution. When one of them suggests that the evidence convicting Prince was merely circumstantial, Cross anxiously asks if the reporter is trying to say that the real killer is getting away with murder. No one gets away with murder, he is assured. Even if the killer goes unpunished by the legal system, he will be haunted by guilt from within. One might, then, see Cross’s subsequent psychological descent as an example of precisely the phenomenon this reporter is describing.

At the same time, it seems significant that the voices that drive Cross to distraction come mostly from the romantic encounter he had witnessed between March and Prince. In particular, he seems haunted by the memory of overhearing March’s heartfelt declaration, “Jeepers, I love you, Johnny.” Moreover, Cross seems particularly tormented by the realization that, as his actions have led to the deaths of both March and Prince, he has inadvertently arranged it so that the two of them can be together in a world he cannot enter—except, of course, by killing himself as well. When that fails, he sinks even further into despair, the final blow being delivered when he sees the portrait of Kitty that has just been sold, a portrait with special meaning to him because of his sexual obsession with her.

Scarlet Street is, after all, a story of sexual obsession, as well as a story of attempted escape from capitalist routinization. And, of course, these seemingly very different aspects of the film are closely interlinked. It is through his sexual obsession with Kitty that Cross hopes to escape capitalist routinization. Nevertheless, that the film has two distinct focal points is indicative of a certain doubleness that runs throughout the texture of the film. Some of this doubleness has to do with its historical background. In many ways, Scarlet Street is very much a postwar American film, its exploration of anxieties about masculinity seemingly rooted in the changes in traditional gender roles in American society brought about by the necessity to employ women much more extensively in the labor force during the war. Most of the action, though, takes place in 1934, and even the end of the film, set several years later, still occurs before the entry of the United States into World War II. As I noted above, this setting places the action of the film within the context of the Great Depression, though the film does not really seem to be especially interested in exploring the specific implications of this context.

It should also be noted, in this sense, that Scarlet Street is a fairly close (though sanitized) remake of La Chienne and that setting the film in the 1930s might also have been something of a nod to this source material. At the same time, though, placing the action back in 1934 puts it at a time when Lang had just left Germany for France (prior to coming to America) and when the Nazis were in the process of consolidating their power, bringing an end to the Weimar Germany in which Lang had begun his filmmaking career. The Weimar period in Germany was also a period of crisis and transition, one that was also initiated by a war (World War I), so that it has much in common with the context of postwar America. For Jonathan Munby, Scarlet Street is very much “rooted in Weimar cinema,” featuring a “paranoid psychosexual mediation of historical change” typical of that cinema combined with “less candid and more humorous pre-Code American traditions” (197). Drawing upon Munby’s analysis, Mark Bould describes Scarlet Street as a sort of “palimpsest,” in which “American narrative and cinematic traditions” are written over “Weimar sociopsychology and aesthetics” (33).

While Scarlet Street is strikingly similar to The Woman in the Window (and made more so by the re-use of the same main actors), its central motif of an older man whose lack of sophistication in the ways of the world makes him vulnerable to manipulation by a more worldly younger woman was a prominent one in Weimar cinema (and, on the evidence of La Chienne, French cinema of that period as well). The key comparison here would be with Josef von Sternberg’s Der Blaue Engel (“The Blue Angel” 1930), the first major sound film made in Germany. It was also the film that made Marlene Dietrich a star, leading to her departure for Hollywood. Based on a novel by Heinrich Mann (elder brother of Thomas), the film features Emil Jannings as stodgy Professor Immanuel Rath, who becomes concerned that the students to whom he is trying to teach Shakespeare are being distracted by the allures of sultry cabaret singer Lola-Lola (Dietrich), performing at a nearby dive known as Der Blaue Engel. Of course, when Rath goes to the club to try to put a stop to this foolishness, he himself becomes erotically obsessed with Lola, to whom he eventually proposes marriage. Initially in stitches at the proposal, she eventually agrees, apparently on a lark, while Rath gives up his career as a professor so he can devote himself entirely to her. Not surprisingly, that move does not work out well for the professor, who soon finds himself joining the act of which she is a part, playing the role of a clown in the traveling show, while she dallies with whomever else comes along. Rath is particularly humiliated when the show returns to Der Blaue Engel, so that he has to play the clown role in his own old neighborhood. The strain is too much. He has a breakdown and goes insane, after which he has to be restrained; he eventually staggers, broken, back to his old classroom, where he collapses and dies. Filmed in both German and English (as was common at the time), Der Blaue Engel features one of the most famous songs in film history, Dietrich’s performance of “”Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt,” aka “Falling in Love Again (Can’t Help It).” The film was remade, less effectively, by leading noir director Edward Dmytryk in 1959, though it has also exerted a wider influence on the popular perception of professors and on their depiction in film.

Among other things, Der Blaue Engel contributed to the popularization of the stereotype of intellectuals as so caught up in their abstract thoughts that they are unable to deal with practical day-to-day reality. It also contributed to the notion that intellectual men are inept at dealing with women. Chris Cross in Scarlet Street participates in this same stereotype; even though he is not quite literally an intellectual (and does not seem particularly well educated), he is an intellectual type whose descriptions of his art to Kitty clearly have an intellectual flavor. From this point of view, it might be noted that Robinson’s character in The Woman in the Window is quite literally an intellectual, in this case a professor of psychology, so that this film participates even more in the motif of the intellectual who is incapable of coping with ordinary reality. On the other hand, Scarlet Street also has some fun with the complete ignorance of Kitty and Johnny with regard to the world of art, so the film is hardly one-sided in its treatment of intellectualism.

Reading Lang’s two films against Der Blaue Engel, then, helps us to see just how much it has in common with some of the works of Weimar cinema, as well as bringing into focus certain somewhat anti-intellectual elements in the film. In addition, the largely negative depiction of all of the female characters (Adele is portrayed as a mean-spirited harpy and Kitty as a manipulative temptress, while it is implied that Hogarth’s girlfriend might be a golddigger) has a potentially misogynistic tone. But the film’s delineation of the psychic impact of capitalist routinization is probably its most compelling feature, especially in the way it captures the mind-numbing effect of bourgeois routine in combination with a radical sense of precarity of the kind that prevails in certain times of crisis—whether those times be Weimar Germany, Depression-era France, Depression-era America, or post–World War II America. The film is very effective at suggesting the impact of capitalist routinization on Chris Cross; what it fails to do, however, is to explore the ways in which this same phenomenon might have contributed to the negative development of the film’s women characters.

WORKS CITED

Biesen, Sheri Chinen. “Manufacturing Heroines: Gothic Victims and Working Women in Classic Noir Films.” Film Noir Reader 4: The Crucial Films and Themes. Eds. Alain Silver and James Ursini. Limelight Editions, 2004. 161–74.

Bould, Mark. Film Noir: From Berlin to Sin City. Wallflower, 2005.

Eisner, Lotte H. Fritz Lang. Da Capo Press, 1986.

Munby, Jonathan. Public Enemies, Public Heroes: Screening the Gangster from Little Caesar to Touch of Evil. University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Naremore, James. Film Noir: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2019.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 1904–1905. Trans. Talcott Parsons. 1930. London: Routledge, 1995.

NOTES


[1] The paintings shown as Cross’s in the film were actually painted by John Decker, a German-born painter and set designer who worked in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s.

[2] Because of his status as a cashier, multiple critics have assumed that Cross works in a bank. However, he specifically states at one point that he does not work in a bank, and Hogarth’s business does seem to involve clothing. This mistake is indicative of the oddly unspecified nature of the work the company actually does.

[3] This interpretation is reinforced by the same scene in La Chienne, which is clearly figured in this way.

[4] In La Chienne, on the other hand, the painting sold at the end is an actual self-portrait of the artist (called Maurice Legrand in this film), which gives a slightly different intonation to this final moment, suggesting the inscription of Legrand’s former dreams for himself within the system. Yet Legrand himself, now a vagrant, seems to be glad to be rid of those dreams. He himself has escaped that system and, seemingly hacing become a cheerful nihilist, he goes happily on his way after seeing the painting being loaded into a car, having just surprised himself by locating enough cash to buy a meal for himself and Adèle’s first husband (now her widower), who has also become a vagrant. “Life is beautiful,” he proclaims, now freed of all bourgeois responsibilities.