My streaming gem: why you should watch Scarlet Street

·4-min read

The latest in our series of writers highlighting lesser-known gems available to stream is a recommendation of a tragic, heartbreaking noir

When Joseph Goebbels offered him the chance to become head of film-making in Nazi Germany, director Fritz Lang wondered if it might be time to leave. How quickly Lang left Germany after the Goebbels meeting – indeed whether he really met Goebbels at all – has recently been disputed. But by 1935 the eye-patched visionary behind Metropolis and M had fled Europe and reached Hollywood, MGM contract secured.

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By the war’s end, Lang had produced three anti-Nazi films attacking his former would-be employers. He was now experimenting with American genre material. In 1944, his sly noir The Woman in the Window played elliptically with dream states and temporality. The following year came his second attempt at the genre: Scarlet Street.

The set-up is simple. Long-serving bank cashier Chris Cross (Edward G Robinson) has a weekend interest in painting and falls in love with an actress (Joan Bennett) who volunteers to become his model. With the New York art establishment hungry for something new, this could be Cross’s big break. Except Cross is still married, and his new model has a nefarious boyfriend, very much with a plan of his own. The story was adapted from a novel by Georges de la Fouchardière, which had previously been filmed by Jean Renoir. But Lang made it distinctively his own.

At the core of the tale is the inexorable fall of our wannabe artist. Seemingly disgusted by Cross’s naivety and impotence, Lang plunges him ever further into despair. Edward G Robinson sells it perfectly. He was always capable of a naturalness and maturity that contradicted prevailing norms in contemporary acting. But by being both the most natural and the most sympathetic presence on-screen, Robinson makes his character’s ruination all the more tragic.

As Cross’s model, Joan Bennett experiments with the template of the femme fatale. She’s sexy in a casual, rather than sultry, way. At times reluctant and unsure, Bennett freights a playful performance with revealing moments of vulnerability. OK, so this subtlety is somewhat undermined by a burst into maniacal laughter late in the movie. But having put so much work into nuance already, Bennett’s earned a bit of melodrama.

Scarlet Street is melodramatic in all the right ways. When the acting is – to modern eyes – exaggerated, it is to emphasise characters experiencing subjective realities. A late scene has a character hear voices in his mind and contemplate suicide in an apartment with a flashing neon sign outside the window. His theatrical flailing, illuminated intermittently by the cold throb of the incoming light, could have come from early German expressionism. So could some of the film’s other images: bedrooms bordered by mirrors; street corners contoured by shadows and glazed with urban rain.

Now comfortable in the US, Lang was returning to the stylistic ambitions of his pre-Nazi German period. Like Cross, he seemed eager for artistic development, and the re-integration of sexuality into his work, after his earnest wartime features.

But Lang also had a striking new fatalism. Just as the first wave of German expressionism had emerged from the rupture of the first world war, so would its revival in Los Angeles develop from the tragedy of the second. Lang had seen up-close how the Weimar Germany of his greatest achievements had fallen into fascism and evil. He had narrowly avoided becoming trapped in its national disgrace himself.

So now he looked for stories about catastrophe occurring in circumstances which rendered it inevitable. From the moment Cross breaks his personal rule on smoking, in the first scene of the film, we know he is doomed. Like Germany, he engineers his own destruction, and ends up committing horrendous crimes. Be careful who you sympathise with, Lang appears to say.

Not everything in Scarlet Street works perfectly. Cross’s wife is a one-dimensional “shrew”, shrieking and screeching and appearing parachuted in from a Jacobethan farce. There’s more than a whiff of misogyny about her character, and it stands out all the more among the film’s general sensitivity.

Still, Scarlet Street is a superb film. It’s a pulpy noir and an experiment in expressionism. It can also be read as a postwar parable of moral collapse. Yet what lingers is its tragedy. There’s a moment near the film’s end – well before Cross’s humiliation is complete – when a relatively minor misdemeanour is discovered by his boss. The boss summons Cross to his office to fire him. Cross looks up at the camera, exhausted and broken. And the most pathetic figure in the movies will break your heart.

  • Scarlet Street is available on Amazon Prime in the US and UK

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