Wherever there’s a slick street corner in the dark of night, there’s another man getting suckered by a dame. Maybe it’s her luscious hair or her soft smile. Maybe it’s the cut of her dress or the sway of her walk. Maybe it’s her youth and beauty. Or maybe it’s just the idea. Whatever it is, one a woman takes hold, there’s nothing a man can do.
For the aging bank cashier Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson), a rendezvous with romance seems dim. But after coming to the aid of Kitty March (Joan Bennett), he gets his chance. Passing himself off as an artist, he believes he’s impressed her. When Kitty’s brutish beau, Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea), catches wind of the development, he devises a little con that soon has Christopher scrambling for money.
What makes Scarlet Street so compelling is the way the characters play off each other. The deceit, deception and lies exist on several levels and there’s little honesty between any of the characters. The obvious con would be Kitty ensnaring Christopher, but the deception goes both ways as Christopher passes himself off as the intellectual artist when it’s his hobby at best.
What’s also interesting is seeing how these relationships are built in response to the preexisting relationships that surround these characters. Kitty is a bit of a rotten apple because of her infatuation with bad boy Johnny. He’s always looking for the quick buck and big payoff and uses Kitty as little more than someone to milk for cash, their romance consists mostly of Johnny beating Kitty around. This, in turn, becomes a way Kitty approaches Christopher.
Christopher’s quiet and docile nature is a result of his five year marriage to Adele (Rosalind Ivan), a woman still in love with her previous, late husband. She’s constantly berating and nagging him about how he fails to live up to the real man who once provided for her. It sets up a situation where Christopher’s foolishness is an act of desperation, a way to break away from his miserable domestic life.
This makes for a portrait of characters who are, on one level, despicable and revolting, but ones that have reasons, motivations and logic behind their behaviors. They’re complex and human, informed by their relationships and desires. In some ways, it makes their inevitable descent tragic; a result of their own weakness, the ones they are all blind to, for their love is blind.
All this rests amidst visually expressionistic moments. On one level, it exists in some of Christopher’s strange paintings, but as the film progresses, the emergence of that aggressive visual noir style pervades the frame, becoming more and more prevalent as the film begins to descent and fragment into the concluding fever-pitched moments of the film.
Scarlet Street is rooted in strong characters, but slowly grows, taking shape and drawing the line of noir style around itself as the film progresses. It’s got that sleek style and seedy story, but it’s the foundation of characters which makes Scarlet Street one of the finest noir films ever made.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing