Approved. I wonder what the difference between "Approved" and "Passed" is. While my bet is that it is simply shifting terms from year-to-year, I know that Scarlet Street was banned for on-screen violence and lewd behavior. I'm actually really weirded out that IMDb lists Scarlet Street as approved because I don't think it was allowed to have a wide release. While film noir tends to get violent, most of that is pretty Hollywood-y, slightly cartoonish, or off-screen. The murder in this one is actually kind of brutal. There's also a really graphic suicide attempt and the premise of the movie is about infidelity. It also makes infidelity look a bit sympathetic, despite the fact that everyone gets his or her due in these morality tales.
DIRECTOR: Fritz Lang
Guess what, gang? I did my presentation on Fritz Lang just before watching this movie. Mind you, the presentation was on M, so I don't know how much it will help while writing this. Regardless, I feel slightly more authoritative when it comes to writing about Scarlet Street. Again, I'm just as likely to be wrong, but I'll be wrong even more confidently. Fritz Lang is another one of those directors that I get really excited to see pop up as director. I don't think I realized it before, but Lang does a lot of things that he really likes. Leitmotifs, if you will. Doing a presentation on M and then immediately watching Scarlet Street made me a little more hyper-vigilant things like this, but I couldn't help but notice Lang and his use of crowds. Also, his anxiety inducing use of pipe organ might be a little intense.
Mathematically, this movie shouldn't work. I know that I enjoyed it overall, but there are some absolutely bizarre choices happening in Scarlet Street. Maybe it's film noir, or cinema in general, that believes in the absolutely insane world of coincidences. I guess this hearkens to theater in general. Storytelling becomes so much more interesting knowing that the long shot is going to pull through. It's just in these consecutive viewings of film noir, I really start to question whether or not fate actually exists. Like Detour, Scarlet Street really rides the whole coincidence train to the station. New York must be the smallest little village that ever existed because anyone who could run into each other actually does. I don't know why this bothers me so much. I think I have a threshold that seems to really teeter on broad skepticism. It's just that there are so many moments where the wrong person shows up at the right time and the story wouldn't really work otherwise.
To really stress this point, look at Chris (even his name is admitting to the fact that he will be running into the wrong people at the right time. Chris Cross. Wow.) at the beginning of the film. Chris's life is insanely small. The party that is thrown for him (weirdly set in the past) makes him feel like he is an attendee at his own party. He runs into a cop who happens to be feet away from an assault. Running into this woman, who conveniently mistakes his profession and his level of income sets him down a road to a con job that couldn't be predicted. His paintings, seen by everyone as mediocre, are then the pivotal Macguffin for a series of sales without his knowledge. It's then that a famous art critic recognizes Chris's gift, despite the fact that everyone says otherwise. It's then that this art dealer becomes this amazing detective and hunts down the painter. But not only does he get hoodwinked by Kitty, but that Chris's wife sees the paintings in the art critics window despite the fact that Chris's wife abhors art. Then, the most insane thing, the painting on Chris's wall of his wife's deceased husband foreshadows the return of the husband, who is NOT AT ALL DEAD, which is the get-out-of-jail-free card he's been hoping for throughout the majority of the film? It's all a bit much. That trial in the end is really a reminder that the movie shouldn't really make a lick of sense, but we still have to buy it if the movie is going to progress.
Then why do I like it? A couple of days ago, I kind of railed against D.O.A.. I considered it incomprehensible, which made it nearly impossible to appreciate the character development. Scarlet Street doesn't have the exact same problem. I completely understood every element of Scarlet Street. But like D.O.A., it has that one thing that is a glaring problem with the film as a whole. While D.O.A. made no sense, Scarlet Street really borderlines into the almost silly. The odd thing is, again, I feel like it is to tell a fairly simple morality tale in a feature length sitting. I'm not complaining about the runtime of this movie because 1 hr 42 isn't that long of a film. But it also kind of feels like a comic book. Listen, the people who know me know my obsession with comic books. I adore them. I teach with them. I consider them a viable medium. But the glory of the comic book is the episodic nature of the storytelling.
Scarlet Street is a character development story that really can shape up over the course of 40 minutes. The movie works perfectly fine at an hour 42. I have no beef with that. It's just that all the silliness that's added to the tale to make it a long movie is what is detracting from the believability of the film. At its core, the story is about a lonely gentleman who married poorly. At this midlife crisis, he meets a girl who makes him feel young again. She takes advantage of him until he ultimately snaps and kills her. It reads very much like the old EC horror stories. It's a tightly contained morality play about appreciating what he has. It reminds society to stay in their lanes and to choose age appropriate relationships. Chris's sin is actually pretty sympathetic in the movie. We get that he has a harpy for a wife who doesn't appreciate his passions. But as Lang and his team really establish, that's his (Chris) cross to bear.
The thing that the runtime does allow for is great stuff with the villains of the piece. Dan Duryea as Johnny Prince is so over-the-top it actually is pretty enjoyable. I don't know why I give some people a pass and some people I really harangue about nuancing their characters. I just do. Also, Johnny's absolute insanity throughout the piece really sets up for a great downfall. I couldn't help but notice some parallels with literature that would come up later with the themes, but I love the idea of a guy being used up by someone else and the parasite taking the fall for something he ultimately didn't do. Fritz Lang has his cake and eats it too. Johnny is, despite all he's done, innocent of the crime he's convicted for. But Johnny is such a sleaze and such a criminal throughout, that it's oddly cathartic to know that he has the punishment of death. It's a terrible thing to want, but it is such a great moment.
I don't know if this surprised anyone, but we had a debate in class about the more torturous ending. Lang wants us to say that Chris had the worst fate. I don't know, man. Emotionally and logically, I kind of agree with Lang. But the cynical part of me thought that Chris is simply self-flagellating. It's not like Johnny was a good dude. That guy was a spousal abuser and is cool with all kinds of evil. I know. In real life, I'm a pacifist and a Catholic who is all about forgiveness. But from an entertainment perspective, the death of Johnny is truly gratifying. This kind of leads me to the whole EC horror comic element that I was talking about earlier. The end of the movie appeals to that horror element that I like. It's such a tonal and genre shift at the end that it's almost surprising.
Yet, the entire movie, with its bizarre coincidences and twists, telegraphs that this movie is a horror movie. It's about an adorable painter (which is some odd casting that really works) and his sheepish romance. But then we have that hard turn and the entire movie makes sense. While I like the romance and the con, the movie really sells itself in the last ten minutes. Honestly, when I think about this movie, I'm only thinking of the climax on. That denouement is painful and perfect at the same time. There's a shot where the door shuts on Johnny and I thought, for sure, that the movie was going to end there. It's so great and it's so definitive. But I wouldn't trade this ending for the real ending. Yeah, it's heavy-handed. I don't care. The rest of the movie is tempered enough to allow a moralistic, apocalyptic ending.
At gunpoint, I'd have to admit that the movie is kind of dumb. But there's skill here. The movie is pretty impressive when it comes to making us care for these characters. The way the movie is made speaks to something primal and emotional. Despite the absolute melodrama that is being conveyed here, there's something that makes Scarlet Street something truly valuable. I dig it. I don't care that I laugh at it a bit, the movie is something to be admired.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.