The other day I caught a movie called "Scarlet Street" on a local
independent station. The movie stars Edward G. Robinson as an invisible nobody
corrupted by the attentions of a beautiful woman. The director is Fritz Lang,
the legendary German auteur who fled Nazi Germany and made a number of interesting
American films over the years. Lang the individual was quite a character —
actually wore a monocle, as I recall, and allegedly was a mean, petty, self-glorifying
head-case who complained that his producers always cut his art to ribbons and
made mush of his attempts at cinematic art.
Scarlet Street seems like a good match for Lang, because it’s one of the rare
films that has no redeeming characters. The cast is the work of a storyteller
who genuinely despises his characters and inflicts one terrible punishment after
another upon them. It’s like "Fargo" for the 1940s, except that it’s
not supposed to be a black comedy. Lang didn’t write the screenplay; it’s based
on a French play whose title translates as "the Bitch."
Here’s the story: Edward G. Robinson is introduced at a party celebrating his
25 years as a bank cashier. When his coworkers yell "speech, speech"
he has nothing interesting to say. After the big boss bails on the party, his
crew crowds around a window to see him getting into a car with a beautiful young
dame — putting evil ideas into the heads of everybody, including Christopher
Cross, Robinson’s cashier.
On his way home from the party, Chris notices a guy roughing up a woman. He
intervenes, knocks the clod out cold and rescues the gorgeous babe — who is
leggy, sexy and the shameless owner of a heart of stone. She calls herself Kitty
and trust me, she’s got claws.
Of course a fling will happen between the corruptible Chris and the corrupting
Kitty, who has a boyfriend named Johnny who is an A Number 1 scoundrel. He was
the one roughing her up; apparently he’s the only guy man enough to secure Kitty’s
I have to tell the whole story — apologies for the spoilers — to convey
just how much scorn the filmmaker has heaped upon his characters. It goes
Chris tells Kitty he’s an artist; Kitty assumes he’s one of those rich ones
whose paintings sell for big bucks. She and Johnny angle to milk Chris for all
he’s worth, which isn’t much, but they don’t know that. Chris just paints on
the side and he’s not very good.
Chris is married to a shrewish hag who hates the sight of him and threatens
to throw out all his artworks because she hates the smell of paint. Chris is so defeated by this woman that he’s
shown wearing her flowered apron to do the dishes. Humiliation with
a capital H. Well, Chris is emboldened by Kitty’s attentions and decides he
needs a studio, so he embezzles from the bank and steals from the wife (the
widow of a cop who disappeared trying to rescue a woman from a river) to put
Kitty up in a swank Village pad.
Chris brings his paintings over to the new pad, and without his knowledge,
Johnny shops a few around, first to a fence, then to a sidewalk artist. Both
tell him Chris’s art is crap, but the sidewalk guy volunteers to show a couple
of them to see what happens.
A famous art critic comes along, sees Chris’s paintings, buys both and demands
to see more. Turns out Chris is an artistic genius — either that or the critic
is a complete idiot (I’m siding with the latter). The critic finds his way way
to the Chris/Kitty pad, where Kitty and Johnny are hanging out. Johnny gets
the bright idea to tell the critic that Kitty painted them. Kitty’s a natural
born golddigger so she goes along with the scheme, figuring she’ll deal with
Now Chris wants to dump his wife and marry Kitty, but he needs a way to unload
her. A miracle appears in the shape of his wife’s first husband, who didn’t
die; he faked his death to skip out on some debts. By now Chris has larceny
in his soul so he tricks this lug into reuniting with the hellish wife — the
idea being that if hubby No. 1 didn’t die, Chris isn’t legally married to the
shrew. His fiendish reunion plot works like a charm, so he heads over to Kitty’s
At the swinging pad, Chris finds out about the thing between Kitty and Johnny,
who’ve just had a lover’s spat that caused Johnny to march out in a huff. Kitty
ridicules Chris with such venom that he loses control and stabs her with an
ice pick, then flees the scene.
Johnny shows up minutes later, finds his girl dead and himself the prime suspect
in her murder. Now Johnny is a conniving scumbag who likes to rough up his girl,
but he’s no murderer. Nevertheless, he’s tried (Chris testifies against him),
convicted and sentenced to death. He’s goes to the electric chair wailing that
he didn’t do it.
Chris walks free but the voices of Johnny and Kitty haunt his every footstep.
He tries to hang himself but a couple guys rescue him, robbing him of the chance
to end his misery.
The movie ends with Chris becoming a homeless wanderer who haunts police stations,
trying to convince the cops he’s a killer. They just think he’s just another
So: Nothing guy meets beautiful but evil bitch, resorts to murder, lets an
innocent man die in his stead and has the voices of his victims in his head
for the rest of his days. Evil bitch is pummeled to death with an ice pick;
no-account boyfriend fries for the murder. Runaway ex-husband gets stuck back
in the clutches of the shrewish wife from hell. Moronic art critic and his gallery cronies celebrate inept artwork. This is one mean movie.
Check it out if you have a low opinion of the human race.