Scarlet Street (1945)
Until recently I’ve not seen a film noir for a long time, even longer since an Edward G. Robinson film, which itself is real treat. Sadly not from the 1930’s, yet to see one of those gems. I’ve had to settle for a Fritz Lang which really isn’t so bad after all. Scarlet Street (1945) a film I’ve been looking out for, along with Woman in the Window (1944), the later film a return of both director, actor and Joan Bennett another chance for her femme fatale to work her charms as she gets her claws into her unsuspecting victim. I can only respond to Scarlet Street which was a real slow burner, working it’s magic on me, drawing me into and under the spell of yet another unsuspecting victim as he goes on a downward spiral.
I can see how Robinson was drawn to this film, a lover and collector of art, this is an easy on-screen expression of that, the lengths that an aspiring artist would possibly go to for success. I’m not drawing comparisons between himself and I, but I can sympathise with him to a point. We see him being celebrated by his colleagues, a lifetime of loyal service as a cashier, a comfortable life however not completely happy however. Leaving him vulnerable to any woman who showed the slightest sign of affection or attention. A man who would naturally jump at that chance also a fallible human being. When Christopher Cross meets Katharine ‘Kitty’ March (Bennett) who is “saved” from a mugging’s encouraged to gain his confidence in order to get money out of him. Believing him to be a successful artist, of course these are boasts that are blown out of proportion, her own ignorance draws her into his own projection.
Both are projecting an image of themselves, one comes from the heart, another from a false place that has no emotional connection. Cold and calculating and manipulated by her boyfriend Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea) who is the real con man of the film. Pulling the strings through manipulation and abuse towards Kitty who may appear to take it without being affected by the control his has over her. The femme fatale is at the mercy of a male counterpart, a term that I can’t even coin for this review Princes role is very rare in the genre, seen more as an abusive lover.
Turning to Christopher again we have a character who is weak and soft, the very reverse of Robinson’s previous work. Maybe he too was tired of the hard roles like James Cagney wanting more emotional and vulnerable roles to get his acting chops around. I can’t help but think of his distinctive role in Double Indemnity (1944) Barton Keyes an insurance man who’s sure of his profession discovering he’s no longer at the top of his game when he works with the insecure and faltering partner Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) who tries to fraud the company he works for, all for what he believes is in the name of love. Keyes world of certainty has crumbled around him, he can’t trust his colleague who he has known for years. The modern world of WWII is a far darker place than of a decade earlier, the lengths that customers may go to make a claim see Keyes start to question the world around him.
Robinson’s character a year later in Cross holds a lesser role of responsibility a cashier, it’s still a position of trusts brought into a world that is far different from his regular life. Trapped in a loveless marriage to a woman who all but despises him. She sees him more as a lodger in the way, his painting a hobby that will get him nowhere. When his talents encouraged by his “lover” Kitty he comes alive, living a double life of husband and lover, he’s on fire in aspects of his life that he had long but given up on. Of course Johnny Prince is always lurking in the shadows, wanting to get as much money as he can out of Cross who reluctantly gives into this love-soaked demands for cash. Kitty an “actress” moves to a more expensive apartment, her lifestyle has to be supported if she is to maintain it. Of course it’s all a façade for what they both really want.
Of course this all sounds rather standard, even with a cowardly Robinson who even allows for his work to be accepted as the work of his lover. He can no longer look forward to fulfilling his dreams of being a successful artist in his own right. Giving up one dream for another to make another possible. Is he mad or just human as he sees his work being celebrated yet looking on from the sidelines, unwittingly creating his masterpiece her “self-portrait”. It’s hard to watch him loose grip of his dream, giving more than just his money, his creative control, his dignity, his job and ultimately his sanity. He loses more than what he hoped to gain.
It’s a depressing decline that we hope would never happen, how can our hero of countless films become just another human being before our eyes. The artist in me wanted to shout to him, to take back what is rightly his time, his fortune and glory, to be celebrated, not another overlooked talent taken advantage of. Lowering himself to commit worse crimes than both Kitty and Johnny who wanted on his money, he takes something far more valuable. It is however a work all of his own, committed in the moment that again only he knows who the true artist is which is even more torturous for him. Ultimately none of his work will ever be credited to him by others except all of us who can look passively on.