Saturday, May 17, 2014

SCARLET STREET (1945)

Universal Pictures, 101m 54s



Absolutely one of the finest of all film noirs, Fritz Lang's SCARLET STREET is a remake of Jean Renoir's La Chienne (1931, literal translation, "The Bitch"). The two films share essentially the same structure as well as a deceitful bitch, but differ radically in tone.

Perhaps the most horrific of film noir icons

Based on a novel by Georges de La Fouchardière and a play co-written by André Girard and André Mouézy-Éon, the Renoir film unfolds as a tragicomedy. 42-year-old cashier Maurice Legrand (Michel Simon) is not taken seriously by his co-workers, and has it no better at home, where his wife Adèle (Magdeleine Bérubet) constantly belittles him. One evening on the street, Andre “Dédé” Govain (Georges Flamant) is slapping around Lucienne “Lulu” Pelletier (Janie Marèse), and Legrand puts a stop to the assault. Oblivious to the workings of a pimp-and-ho system, Legrand sets up Lulu with a new place, one that doubles as a retreat for the unhappily married cashier, whose hobby is painting. Legrand fails to realize he is merely Lulu's part-time lover and full-time benefactor, in effect also providing for Dédé, who continues his relationship with Lulu. Another complication is added with the emergence of Adèle's husband Alexis Godard (Roger Gaillard), a supposedly departed war hero. When Legrand’s funds start to run low, his paintings provide an unexpected source of income.

Those familiar with SCARLET STREET are sure to recognize the above storyline, but overt differences in presentation clearly distinguish one work from the other. Banned in the US until 1975(!), La Chienne is up front about sexual situations and character types, whereas SCARLET STREET was bound by the shackles of the Motion Picture Production Code that was enforced from 1930 to 1968. Despite the more restrictive environment in which it was produced, SCARLET STREET is the more bleak of the two films, and many of the details that differentiate remake from original define the Lang film as one of the preeminent examples of film noir. The limits of the Production Code notwithstanding, SCARLET STREET serves up one of the most unsettling noir stories on record of deception, betrayal, and eternal damnation. Adapted by screenwriter Dudley Nichols (MAN HUNT [1941]), it reunites the immensely talented stars of Lang's THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1944). Katharine “Kitty” March (Joan Bennett) and her no-good, small-timer boyfriend Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea) easily rank among the most reprehensible of noir underworld couples, and Lang really emphasizes the squalor of Kitty's seedy tenement apartment to build that case. The couple’s pimp/whore relationship may be obscured by the Production Code, but it’s there.

Kitty (Joan Bennett) puts up with a lot from the abusive Johnny (Dan Duryea), who brings out her worst qualities

In regard to the poisonous female consistently patrolling the noir web, SCARLET STREET first establishes the submissive weakness of the man who digs his own grave in devotion to her. The film begins with a celebration of the 25-year service of Chris Cross (a sympathetic portrayal by Edward G. Robinson), who receives a commemorative gold watch for his ongoing loyalty to J.J. Hogarth & Co as a cashier. His reward back home in Brooklyn is his wife Adele (Rosalind Ivan), an insufferable nag who constantly bullies her milquetoast husband. A repressed personality, Cross has grown to accept the dynamic of his marriage, and even willingly wears an emasculating apron when banished to the kitchen. His only escape is through painting on Sundays, and Adele hates the smell of paint so much Cross must pursue his beloved hobby in the bathroom. Given his drab job and incomplete personal life, his sudden interest in the physically attractive Kitty is understandable, especially considering her provocative introduction in transparent rainwear.

A temptress in plastic

Unfortunately for Mr. Cross, as his wife calls him, his pursuit of Kitty only emphasizes his powerlessness in the presence of another dominant female. This theme gains momentum the more involved Cross becomes with Kitty, which eventually leads to him telling her things are "...just like we were married, only I take your name." Unlike La Chienne's Legrand, Cross is not allowed any meaningful physical connection with the woman he supports financially. Kitty expresses repulsion to his touch ("...there's a limit.") at her nice Greenwich Village apartment that he provides. All Cross gets from Kitty is a lot of petulant body language and snippy talk—sex is never on the table. Cross reaches a low point in his extramarital activity when Kitty allows him to paint her toe nails as a special treat. The only viable means of intimacy with Kitty's icy heart proves to be an ice pick. Art critic David Janeway (Jess Barker) is more accurate than he is aware when he comments, "Sometimes it seems as if she were two people.”

“Paint me, Chris.”

The motif of the idealized, framed image that contrasts with reality is a noir staple. Given the lead character’s painting hobby, this theme takes on special significance in SCARLET STREET. Through the recurrence of framed imagery, the profound difference between perceived reality and actuality permeates the SCARLET STREET narrative. Homer Higgins (Charles Kemper) is introduced as a heroic dead man who lives on in a large portrait his wife Adele reverently refers to, but in truth, he is a lowlife, and very much alive. A pattern of misunderstood identities and inaccurate assumptions confuses perspective, especially the perspective of Cross, who admits he always has struggled in that area of painting. His escapist paintings represent a distortion of what is real, just as the film’s characters misinterpret information in front of them. Ignoring her initial (correct) impression, Kitty mistakes Cross for an accomplished, wealthy artist who could never steal, he assumes her for a talented but struggling actress. Later Kitty is mistaken for an important painter, but in truth she lays around like a lazy feline ("Kitty") and achieves nothing of merit. Nonetheless she emerges as a noteworthy new artist, and even uses the actual artist's own words about how her art was created. Adele wrongly believes Cross has been imitating the great Katharine March all along. Kitty's self-portrait—a falsity in terms of both image and artist credited—cruelly becomes Cross’s most valuable painting, but one that brings him no compensation. The self-portrait ultimately grants the fallen seductress a horrifyingly unfair immortality, forever mocking the implosion of Cross, and as far removed from reality as the flower Cross paints to commemorate his first encounter with Kitty.

The framed man observes a hopeless marriage

The respective conclusions of La Chienne and SCARLET STREET are dramatically different and reflect the remake’s migration to the film noir movement of the mid 1940s. In the Renoir film, Legrand gets away with the murder of Lulu, and Dédé takes the fall. Many years later, Legrand has been reduced to bum status, having lost his job after stealing to provide for Lulu. He runs into Godard, and the two exchange pleasantries. Legrand even recognizes the dark humor in his painting being driven away as a prized possession. Where Renoir sees the humor in the absurdity of Legrand's downfall and reconnection with Godard, no such suggestion plays out at the end of the Lang version of the story, which dives headfirst into a deeply noir city of flashing lights, creeping shadows, and taunting voices. Lang’s main protagonist is left to aimlessly wander the streets, agonizingly defeated. And unlike THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, which concludes by explaining everything as a dream, SCARLET STREET seems grounded in its eternal nightmare, with Cross condemned to anonymity, haunted by past events understood only by him. Perhaps he would be better off in Prince's shoes than his own. In either case, involvement with Kitty condemns the foolish male who could not steer clear of the dangers associated with her. The only consolation comes from Cross's boss Hogarth (Russell Hicks), a man noted for stepping out on his wife. Hogarth realizes it had to have been a woman to blame for turning Cross into a thief. Cross loses his job, but Hogarth shows some compassion when he calls off the authorities.

Kitty (Joan Bennett) shows her true self

A roster of film noir all-stars collaborated on SCARLET STREET, managed by director Fritz Lang (M [1931], HOUSE BY THE RIVER [1950], THE BLUE GARDENIA [1953], THE BIG HEAT [1953]). Lang also helmed HUMAN DESIRE (1954), another reboot of a Jean Renoir film (La bête humaine [1938]). Cinematographer Milton R. Krasner shot THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1944), THE DARK MIRROR (1946), HOUSE OF STRANGERS (1949) and NO WAY OUT (1950). The major players appeared in an impressive lineup of noir movies. Edward G. Robinson starred in DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), my favorite of all film noirs, as well as THE STRANGER (1946), KEY LARGO (1948), HOUSE OF STRANGERS (1949) and the little-known but compelling ILLEGAL (1955). Joan Bennett starred in THE WOMAN ON THE BEACH (1947) and played against type in THE RECKLESS MOMENT (1949). Dan Duryea proved one of the most durable of all noir icons, having appeared in CRISS CROSS (1949), TOO LATE FOR TEARS (1949), THE UNDERWORLD STORY (1950), and CHICAGO CALLING (1951). Duryea really plays his slimy part in SCARLET STREET for all it’s worth—his character’s earnest attempts to feign respectability whenever he encounters Cross always make me cringe. The Diana Production Company (co-owned by Lang, Bennett, and Nichols) would produce only one other feature, the disappointing SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR... (1947), again starring Bennett. The memorable paintings featured in SCARLET STREET were by John Decker.

"It's only blackmail, baby, when you're dumb enough to get caught."

Mastered in HD from a 35mm Library of Congress negative, the Kino Classics Blu-ray released in 2012 offers the best presentation of SCARLET STREET I have witnessed (and there have been plenty of inferior public domain versions). Supplements were ported from the 2005 Kino DVD, most importantly the well-prepared audio commentary track by David Kalat, author of THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. MABUSE: A STUDY OF THE TWELVE FILMS AND FIVE NOVELS. Kalat cites SCARLET STREET as Lang’s favorite of his American productions, and the author makes a good case for a “composite identity” reading of SCARLET STREET. A photo gallery includes stills from several deleted scenes.

Sadly, the fictitious love triangle of La Chienne would come to pass in the real world. Michel Simon was interested in Janie Marèse, who preferred Georges Flamant. After filming was finished, Marèse was killed as a passenger in a car crashed by Flamant. She was 23.

1 comment:

  1. There is also some subtle self reference on Lang's part when Robinson says "You're never understood in your own country."

    ReplyDelete