OWhen Joseph Goebbels offered him the chance to become a film director in Nazi Germany, director Fritz Lang wondered if it was time to leave. How quickly Lang left Germany after meeting Goebbels – in fact, whether he really met Goebbels – has recently been disputed. But by 1935, the blindfolded visionary behind Metropolis and M had fled Europe and reached Hollywood, securing an MGM contract.
By the end of the war, Lang had produced three anti-Nazi films attacking his former prospective employers. He was now experimenting with American genre material. In 1944, his sly noir The Woman at the Window plays elliptically with dream states and temporality. The following year, it was his second attempt in the genre: Scarlet Street.
Setup is simple. Lifelong bank teller Chris Cross (Edward G Robinson) takes a weekend interest in painting and falls in love with an actress (Joan Bennett) who volunteers to be his model. With New York’s art establishment hungry for something new, this could be Cross’ big breakthrough. Except Cross is still married and her new role model has an infamous boyfriend, with a plan of her own. The story is adapted from a novel by Georges de la Fouchardière, previously filmed by Jean Renoir. But Lang made it his own.
At the heart of the story is the inexorable downfall of our budding artist. Seemingly disgusted by Cross’ naivety and helplessness, Lang drives him deeper and deeper into despair. Edward G Robinson sells it perfectly. He was always capable of a naturalness and a maturity that contradicted the standards in force in the contemporary game. But by being both the most natural and sympathetic presence on screen, Robinson makes his character’s downfall all the more tragic.
As Cross’ model, Joan Bennett experimented with the femme fatale model. She is sexy in a casual rather than sultry way. Sometimes reluctant and uncertain, Bennett delivers a playful performance with revealing moments of vulnerability. OK, so this subtlety is somewhat undermined by a manic laugh at the end of the film. But having already put so much work into the nuances, Bennett has earned some melodrama.
Scarlet Street is melodramatic in all the right ways. When the acting is – in modern eyes – exaggerated, it is to highlight characters living in subjective realities. In a late scene, a character hears voices in his mind and contemplates suicide in an apartment with a flashing neon sign outside the window. Its theatrical bustle, intermittently illuminated by the cool beat of incoming light, may have come from early German Expressionism. The same would be true for some of the other images in the film: rooms lined with mirrors; street corners circumvented by shadows and glazed by urban rain.
Now at home in the United States, Lang returned to the stylistic ambitions of his pre-Nazi German period. Like Cross, he seemed eager for artistic development and the reintegration of sexuality into his work, after his serious wartime traits.
But Lang also had a startling new fatalism. Just as the first wave of German Expressionism had emerged from the breakdown of World War I, its revival in Los Angeles would grow out of the tragedy of World War II. Lang had seen firsthand how the Weimar Germany of its greatest achievements had descended into fascism and evil. He had narrowly avoided finding himself trapped in his national disgrace.
So now he was looking for stories of disasters occurring under circumstances that made them inevitable. From the moment Cross breaks his personal rule about smoking, in the film’s first scene, we know he’s doomed. Like Germany, it organizes its own destruction and ends up committing horrible crimes. Be careful who you sympathize with, Lang seems to be saying.
Not everything works perfectly in Scarlet Street. Cross’ wife is a one-dimensional “shrew”, shrieking and shrieking and appearing parachuted into a Jacobethan prank. There’s more than a whiff of misogyny to her character, and that’s all the more apparent from the film’s overall sensibility.
Still, Scarlet Street is a great movie. It’s a luscious noir and an experiment in expressionism. It can also be read as a postwar parable of moral breakdown. Yet what persists is its tragedy. There’s a moment near the end of the film – long before Cross’ humiliation is complete – when a relatively minor misdemeanor 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 character in cinema will break your heart.