Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Bitch's Brew

The opening shot of Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street (1945) has a streetwalker cross the screen while walking a dog. It's one of those visual puns that Lang specialized in, because this movie is based on a French pulp novel titled La chienne, or, The Bitch. The shot, as it continues, is a kind of summary of the movie itself, as it turns its gaze from the lower-class "bitch" to a trained monkey and then to a high society kept woman. As opening shots go, it's a doozie. And then the story begins...

We are introduced to Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson), a bank cashier on the occasion of his 25th year anniversary with his firm. That 25 years have gained him a fancy watch, a shrewish wife and a loveless marriage, and a sad existence as a Sunday painter. Meanwhile, his boss--his married boss--steps out on his wife with a fast woman. Cross longs for that kind of life. People should be careful what they wish for. Later that evening, Cross interrupts an altercation between a gorgeous woman and thug who is beating on her. He knocks out the thug and takes the girl out for a drink. This is Katherine "Kitty" March, who mistakes Cross for a famous, well-to-do painter. The man who was assaulting her, it turns out, was her "friend," Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea), and together, the decide to put the hooks into Chris. Soon, Chris finds himself siphoning money from his shrewish wife to Kitty, and then from the bank where he works. Meanwhile, Johnny tries to sell some of Chris's paintings, assuming they're valuable. They're "discovered" by a famous art critic. Johnny contrives to tell the critic that Kitty painted them, and soon, they've roped Chris into continuing to paint behind Kitty as a front. Chris is hopelessly in love with Kitty, of course, but she despises him. When circumstances contrive to free Chris from his marriage, he vows to marry Kitty, but after she rejects him, and after he catches her with Johnny, he consummates their relationship with an ice pick. After the fact, he contrives to let Johnny take the fall.

The relationships between men and women in film noir are often portraits in sadomasochism, but few films from the classic period take it to the extreme that Scarlet Street does. Chris Cross is a total submissive. He's like a kicked puppy. He lets Kitty dominate him so thoroughly that he's willing to annihilate everything he is to be with her. This, after he let his shrewish wife completely emasculate him at home. Adelle Cross (Rosalind Ivan) might just as well be keeping Chris's jellies in a jar in her dresser rather than the payout from her "dead" husband's insurance. The movie has some fun with this when it puts Edward G. Robinson, the epitome of the tough guy gangster, in a frilly apron as he does the dishes at his wife's behest. So thorough is Chris's domination that when he's out from under anyone's thumb, he cracks. Kitty March, for her part, is also a total submissive. Oh, she bosses Chris around--some of the best dominatrices start as submissives, after all--but she really likes being abused by Johnny. Johnny, for his part, has utter contempt for Kitty except for her capacity to make him money. His pet name for her, "Lazylegs," drips with condescension. This is a pretty twisted tangle of relationships, and it's perverse enough to keep the ultimate destination of the movie's plot in doubt. Needless to say, it all ends badly for everyone.

I was having a conversation the other day about my assertion that for this kind of film noir to work, you have to believe that the patsy will kill for his femme fatale, and Scarlet Street understands this implicitly. Just look at the way it dresses Joan Bennett through most of the movie. She's nothing but raw sex. When we first see her, she's wrapped in plastic like she should be on sale. Later, she's seen most often in lingerie:

Hubba hubba, right? Christopher Cross is such a desperately lonely man and so in love with his fantasy of a beautiful girl, that there's no doubt that he'd kill for her. The movie teases the audience with this idea in a series of droll shots of knives:

These shots go a bit beyond foreshadowing and shade into dark comedy. Lang hasn't followed Jean Renoir's lead--Renoir made a version of La chienne in 1931and put a punch and judy show at the beginning of the movie--but he's clearly having fun playing on the audience's expectations.

While Scarlet Street isn't the same kind of epistemological murk one finds in, say, The Phantom Lady or Somewhere in the Night where determining who's who and what's real forms the engine of the plot, it still delves into noir's usual obsessions with identity. Nobody knows who anybody is in this movie. Kitty thinks Chris is a famous painter, Chris thinks she's an actress, Adelle thinks her hero cop first husband is dead, the husband has been faking his death for years, and the authorship of the paintings in the film is a complete fraud. Unlike other films, where the investigation is the narrative, Scarlet Street is up front with all of this. The audience is hip to everything, while the characters are in the dark. This lets the movie lampoon ideas of the authorship of art and the value of art based on who is perceived to have created it. This all mostly comes at the expense of art itself. There's a hint that the art critics and the art dealers in the film are basically marks. It puts this into the mouth of a pawn shop owner who tells Johnny Prince to take the paintings back to the "village longhairs." Art provides the movie with it's coda, though, as a completely defeated Chris Cross stares at the "self portrait" of Kitty that he himself painted as it's sold for $10,000. As a matter of my own personal taste, I think the painting in Scarlet Street is a more memorable painting than the one that obsessed Dana Andrews in Laura. I'm tempted to recreate it myself and hang it on the wall in my living room.

It's not all cinematic fun and games. This is film noir, after all, and the film series that's showing it is titled "No Happy Endings." This turns very dark indeed toward the end, as Chris embraces his doom and gets sucked into the downdraft. One almost wishes that Lang had had the guts of Val Lewton and Mark Robson, who ended The Seventh Victim with a similar hanging scene, but Lang's ending is perhaps only a shade less bitter. If Scarlet Street starts out in an antic mood, it certainly doesn't finish there.

In the "credit where credit is due" department, I need to give a shout out to Rachel over at The Girl with the White Parasol. She got me thinking about this film's wardrobe. The observation concerning Kitty's raincoat is hers. Check her out. She's an awesome blogger.


Jose Cruz said...

I love your film noir articles. They make me crave for a trip down those shadowy alleys.

Thanks for these.

dfordoom said...

A great movie. One of three terrific movies Joan Bennett did for Fritz Lang.

Aubyn said...

I was so hoping you'd do a write-up on Scarlet Street and this fulfilled all my hopes, starting with that perfect title. Your article reminded me of what a black comedy this film is. Chris painting Kitty's toenails, Kitty all goggle-eyed over the prices people pay for those little French paintings, the revelation about Chris''s positively goody at times. But Lang has such perfect control of tone here.

Excellent job, Vulnavia. And thank you so much for the mention. You flatter me. :)

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Rachel. Thanks. This was fun to write about. It's such a juicy film. The scene with Chris painting Kitty's toenails is so droll. I love the way Joan Bennett says "They'll be masterpieces," once he starts painting them. As for the mention, well, you deserve it. Your blog is a constant pleasure.

Aubyn said...

Yeah, that pedicure moment gives me a whole new appreciation for Edward G. Robinson, that a movie star with his long, respected career would agree to play such a submissive role.

Ah, I can see by my previous comment that I somehow typed "goody", not "goofy." Curses.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hah! Well, Robinson did once play a character named Dr. Clitterhouse. That's the mark of a self-effacing actor.