not in our stars, but in ourselves
48/52: A movie set in a place you’ve been*
You’ll find all kinds of opinions about what, precisely, constitutes a film noir, but the most useful definition for me is this: the Everyman plunged into Hell. It’s a sort of variation on Orpheus in the Underworld – especially because, once Orpheus goes searching for Eurydice, he can never quite live in the world aboveground again. In film noir, true love isn’t usually the motivating force; more typically, it’s a chance occurrence, a sexy girl, a crime whose blast radius just happens to hit the movie’s leading man. Scarlet Street takes the usual noir elements, and infuses them with the sort of pain and poignancy you seldom encounter in classical cinema.
Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) has been the cashier at J.J. Hogarth & Company for twenty-five years. J.J. (Russell Hicks) throws a party for Chris and gives him a gold pocket watch in honor of his years of loyal service. Before the party has quite finished, J.J. leaves in the company of a glamorous blonde. Chris leaves the party, a little drunk, and walks around in the rainy spring night. The sight of his staid, upright boss with a pretty young woman has stirred Chris’s loneliness and yearning. What would it be like, he wonders aloud to his friend, to be loved by someone beautiful? He gets himself slightly lost in Greenwich Village, and happens upon a man beating a woman. Chris races to the rescue, and hits the man with his umbrella. The assailant runs away, and Chris offers to walk the woman home. Kitty (Joan Bennett) agrees, and lets him take her for a drink as well. She asks him about himself. When he hems and haws a bit, she jumps right to conclusions: since she met him in Greenwich Village, which is full of artists, he must be an artist. Chris does indeed paint, despite his shrewish wife’s protestations, and he’s able to talk about art convincingly enough to make Kitty think he must be a terribly successful painter. Chris is utterly intoxicated by Kitty’s seeming interest in him, and writes her an impassioned letter the next day. Kitty’s boyfriend and street assailant, Johnny (Dan Duryea), reads it when he’s visiting. Johnny convinces Kitty to try to play her new mark: Johnny needs money, this painter guy is goofy about Kitty, and Kitty says he’s a rich and famous artist. Kitty agrees, and manages to convince Chris to put her up in an apartment, where he’ll also store his paintings. To pay for the apartment, Chris steals some of the savings bonds that were left to his wife after her first husband’s death. He also steals from his work. He pleads with her to consider marrying him. She bats him away, and carries on laughing at him behind his back with Johnny. The pair of them have taken to selling Chris’s paintings, raking in all kinds of dough (enough to buy a flashy new car), and presenting Kitty as the artist. Chris doesn’t care about that, but he cares very much when he arrives at the apartment to see Kitty and Johnny in an unmistakably intimate embrace. He leaves, gets drunk, and returns, begging Kitty to marry him. She mocks him to his face, and he stabs her with an ice pick. Johnny is caught stealing her jewelry after he returns to her dead body, and he’s convicted of murder – and sentenced to death. The guilt drives Chris insane, however, and he can only hear Kitty calling to Johnny, as the two of them laugh at Chris for uniting them in death forever.
Scarlet Street is based on a novel called La Chienne by Georges de La Fouchardière. If you don’t know French, that means The Bitch. This is where the film gets its structure and DNA. How could such a film get past the Breen Office – released as it was during the Code’s greatest power? We’ve got a man who wants to commit adultery, an unmarried couple that clearly drinks and fornicates regularly, embezzlement, murder, abuse, and even perjury – terribly un-American stuff. How did Scarlet Street get its stamp of approval from the Production Code Administration? While I don’t doubt that Joseph Breen interfered with Fritz Lang’s ideas throughout the film’s production, I think it’s clear enough that everyone gets what they deserve – according to the movie’s morals – by the end of Scarlet Street. Faithless Kitty is murdered. Boorish Johnny gets the chair. They’re the film’s two criminals, and they aren’t really entitled to much else than what they get. Chris is, in many ways, an innocent man degraded by love (or infatuation, at least). Nevertheless, he kills Kitty in a crime of passion; he lies in court; he steals from his boss and from his wife. After the trial, he’s riding a train with two other men, discussing the case. One of them says that no one ever gets away with murder: anyone who does that and escapes punishment by the law will be punished ruthlessly by the judge and jury in his own conscience. Chris takes the lesson to heart, and the guilt infects his soul. By the end of the film, his paintings are still being sold for thousands of dollars, but he’s a homeless bum shuffling up and down city streets, begging police to arrest and try him for the murder of two people. In other words: no one gets away with murder here, and that’s about all the Production Code can insist upon, ultimately. Such a Catholic document is well served by a man who’s sinned being consigned to his own private Hell.
Back to the bitch for a moment. It’s hardly surprising that a film noir takes, shall we say, a dim view of women. The femme fatale trope is one that usually ties into the old male fear that all women are nothing more than pits of despair for them to fall into. A woman may be redeemed by throwing away her sense of self and pledging the rest of her life, thoughts, hopes and wishes to the man who loves her – but if she doesn’t, she’s eternally damned. In Scarlet Street, Kitty does the unpardonable: she mocks and debases a man who’s willing to throw “everything” away for her. It all reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s famous passage from The Robber Bride:
Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it’s all a male fantasy: that you’re strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.
It’s even more striking considering the mix-up in the movie, whereby art critics and dealers note the strong “masculine” character of the art Kitty has supposedly painted – while bowled over by her obviously feminine charms. There’s another Atwood quote, however, that gets at the heart of the problem behind the femme fatale (and behind the patriarchy’s relationship with women more generally):
“Why do men feel threatened by women?” I asked a male friend of mine. […] So this male friend of mine, who does by the way exist, conveniently entered into the following dialogue. “I mean,” I said, “men are bigger, most of the time, they can run faster, strangle better, and they have on the average a lot more money and power.” “They’re afraid women will laugh at them,” he said. “Undercut their world view.” Then I asked some women students in a quickie poetry seminar I was giving, “Why do women feel threatened by men?” “They’re afraid of being killed,” they said.
Scarlet Street is a clear illustration of this. Yes, Kitty lies to Chris. She laughs at him. She steals from him. She degrades him. None of this is good or admirable, of course, but Chris takes her life. She screams and begs for mercy – but he kills her anyway. Most of the film’s sympathy is reserved for Chris, but I think it’s possible to scrape up a little bit for Kitty. Lang was never a sentimentalist, but he had a good sense of what was fair and unfair. Kitty’s lot in life is awfully unfair. She tries to get ahead as best as she can, she fails, and she dies for it. The femme fatale isn’t fatal only to the man in her life.
*Is it a cheat to use a studio-era Hollywood film “set” in New York City – a place that probably anyone who’s ever traveled anywhere has visited – for this entry? Maybe. Do I care? Not a bit. My options, based on my travel history, would be anywhere along the Eastern Seaboard (meh), Portland, OR (nah), Orange County, CA (nooooo), Quebec (tempting, but not this time), Nova Scotia (for whatever reason, very few films set there; y’all are missing out, because it’s GORGEOUS up there), Perth (no), or Melbourne. I’ve already written about On the Beach, and I’m not all that interested in other Melbourne-set films, so here I am. Sue me.