Scarlet Street

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SCARLET STREET—“No way out, one way or another you’re going pay” is not a verbatim line of Dudley Nichol’s dialogue from this once derided, now worshiped 1945 noir, but the noose fits with director Fritz Lang’s brutal world-view, as master of what amounts to the Pessimism Pantheon, a dark cellar nestled in the Crime Genre.*

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Banned in New York, Milwaukee and Atlanta, the twiddle-dumb censors didn’t keep it from hitting #31 for the year, a take of $5,600,000 not only marking a tidy profit (it was produced for $1,202,000) but showing that an audience wised up by years of slaughter could handle 102 minutes of larceny. It helped  having the popularity of a sympathetic Edward G. Robinson, the sexiness of a taunting Joan Bennett and the wolfish charm of a smiling Dan Duryea, reunited from the director’s previous entrapment, The Woman In The Window.

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Timid, decent cashier ‘Christopher Cross’ (Robinson) paints ‘modern art’ to relax from beng hounded by his shrew of a wife. On the prowl for suckers, Fate puts the naive Chris into the less artistic hands of a leggy hooker (not designated but pretty obvious),’Kitty’, and her ‘boyfriend’/make that pimp, ‘Johnny’ (Bennett & Duryea).  The hateful wife is played by Rosalind Ivan, the acid-spewing frump who had driven another smitten milquetoast, Charles Laughton, to hands-on problem solving in The Suspect.

Like most of these old-time snares, logical behavior and plot coincidence are blithely ignored so that the bear-trap can snap shut–don’t fault the actors who have to perform immediate emotional reverses mid-scene. This dish of misery is best served unspoiled.

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Oh, you idiot, how can a man be so dumb? I wanted to laugh in your face ever since I first met you. You’re old and ugly. And I’m sick of you. Sick! Sick! Sick! You kill Johnny? Why, I’d like to see you try. He’d break every bone in your body. He’s a man! —bear in mind this endearment is offered to a distraught guy whose hand is a few inches from an icepick.

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Robinson’s hopeful, wounded eyes, Bennett’s lazy lynx, Duryea’s slimy smarm all point to one of the most perfectly bleak finishes of any moral lesson movie.  Lang displays no mercy. It’s said he had special affection for this project, while the gentle Robinson felt otherwise. The adaptation came from a French novel, previously filmed by Jean Renoir, “La Chienne”or “The Bitch” (not with that title, pal, in the land of Al Capone and lynch mobs  Mickey Mouse and Andy Hardy it was published as “The Poor Sap”).

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You’ve got to get a kick out of Bennett, casually spitting grape seeds and tossing cigarette butts in the general direction of her clogged sink: simultaneously scheming and stupid, she’s a real honey.  Thank saints you or I never fell for such a tainted creature, no matter what kind of figure was flaunted.  Some of us are made of stronger stuff than Eddie G., who in a classic scene is reduced to painting her toenails–eagerly.  No wonder Milwaukee brewed and Atlanta burned.  “If he were mean or vicious or if he’d bawl me out or something, I’d like him better.” **

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Also featured in a small role is the great Charles Kemper, who only lived to be 49, dying in 1950. He appeared in 24 features and added something unique to each. With Margaret Lindsay, Jess Barker, Samuel S. Hinds, Vladimir Sokoloff, Russell Hicks and Bryan Folger. Excellent cinematography courtesy of Milton R. Krasner.

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* Anybody else dub this Pessimism sub-genre as such?  Maybe it was three wounds and shell-shock in WW1, or fleeing Germany after divorcing his Nazi-sympathizing wife, but whatever observations or obsessions spurred his muses, motives or mission Lang conveyed psychic trauma and blinded justice to generations of imitators and fans via Metropolis, The Testament Of Dr. Mabuse, M, Fury, You Only Live Once, The Big Heat, Human Desire and While The City Sleeps. In her autobiography, Bennett, who worked with Lang five times described him as “a real Jekyll and Hyde character, calm and pruposeful one moment, and off on a tirade the next.”

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** The fainting Aunt Pittypat censor in Atlanta: “the sordid life it portrayed, the treatment of illicit love, the failure of the characters to receive orthodox punishment from the police, and because the picture would tend to weaken a respect for the law….licentious, profane, obscure and contrary to the good order of the community.” Now, kindly direct me to Belle Watling’s.

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