Scarlet Street (1945): Lang’s Film Noir, Starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea

Fritz Lang directed Scarlet Street, a film noir about two criminals who exploit a middle-aged painter in order to steal his artwork.

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Edward G. Robinson (left) and Dan Duryea in 1945’s Scarlet Street COURTESY EVERETT COLLECTION

Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea had all earlier appeared in The Woman in the Window, also directed by Lang.

Robinson plays Christopher “Chris” Cross, an amateur painter and cashier for a clothing retailer, is honored for his long years of service.  The company head J.J. Hogarth gives Chris a gold watch, then leaves the party with a beautiful young blonde, leaving Chris to muse about his desire to be loved.

Walking home through Greenwich Village, Chris saves Katherine “Kitty” March (Joan Bennett), when she is being attacked. Unaware that the attacker is Johnny (Dan Duryea), Kitty’s boyfriend, Chris calls a policeman, but Johnny flees.  Chris walks Kitty to her apartment, and she accepts his offer to join him for coffee at a nearby bar. Chris’s comments lead Kitty mistakes to believe he’s a wealthy painter.

Chris is stuck in loveless marriage with shrewish wife Adele (Rosalind Ivan) who idolizes her previous husband, a cop believed drowned in the East River while trying to rescue a suicidal woman. Chris confesses that he is married, and Johnny convinces Kitty to feign romantic interest in Chris to swindle his money.

Chris rents Kitty her an apartment which doubles as his art studio. To finance the apartment, Chris steals $500 in insurance bonds from his wife and $1000 cash from his employer.

Unknown to Chris, Johnny tries selling his paintings, leaving them with a Greenwich village street vendor who thinks them worth no more than $25. They unexpectedly attract the interest of art critic David Janeway (Jess Barker), who believes them to be exceptional art. After Johnny persuades Kitty to pretend that she painted them, she charms Janeway with Chris’s own descriptions of his art. Captivated by the paintings and Kitty, Janeway promises to represent her. However, Adele sees her husband’s paintings—signed “Katherine March”—for sale in the window of a commercial art gallery and accuses Chris of copying March’s work. Chris confronts Kitty, who claims she sold them because she needed the money. He is so delighted that his paintings are appreciated, albeit under a ruse, that he happily lets her become the public face of his art. She becomes a huge commercial success, although Chris never receives any of the money.

Adele’s supposedly dead husband, Higgins (Charles Kemper), suddenly appears at Chris’s office to extort money from him. He explains he did not drown, but disappeared after stealing $2,700 from the purse of the suicidal woman he tried to save. Already suspected of taking bribes from speakeasies, he faked his death to escape his crimes and his wife. Chris lets Higgins into Adele’s room—ostensibly to pilfer the insurance money Adele received after his supposed death—aware she is asleep in the room; Chris assumes that his marriage will be invalidated when his wife wakes and sees her first husband is still alive.
Chris goes to see Kitty, believing he is now free to marry her. Instead he finds Johnny and Kitty in an embrace, confirming his suspicions that they are romantically involved. Believing her infatuation with Johnny is fleeting, Chris asks Kitty to marry him; she spurns him for being old and ugly and laughs in his face. Enraged, he stabs her to death with an ice pick. The police visit Chris for embezzling money from his employer. Although his boss refuses to press charges, Chris is fired. Johnny is arrested for Kitty’s murder.

At the trial, Johnny’s hustling and deception work against him. Despite his attempt to implicate Chris in Kitty’s murder, Chris denies painting the pictures, claiming to be an untalented artist. Several witnesses confirm Chris’s testimony and attest to Johnny’s misdeeds and bad character. Johnny is convicted and put to death for Kitty’s murder, Chris goes unpunished, and Kitty is erroneously recognized as a great artist.

Haunted by the murder, Chris attempts to hang himself. Although rescued, he becomes homeless and destitute, tormented by thoughts of Kitty and Johnny loving each other, Chris wanders New York constantly hearing their voices in his mind.

The film was based on the French novel La Chienne by Georges de La Fouchardière that had been filmed as La Chienne (1931) by director Jean Renoir. Lang’s 1954 film Human Desire was a remake of another Renoir film La Bête humaine (1938), which was based on Émile Zola’s novel

Scarlet Street is similar to The Woman in the Window in themes, cast, crew and characters. In both films, Robinson plays a lonely middle-aged man, and Bennett and Duryea play the criminals. Both films were shot by Milton R. Krasner.

Walter Wanger had earlier produced Lang’s 1937 film “You Only Live Once.”

The film was a moderate success, earning $2.5 million in rentals in the U.S.

Local authorities in some cities banned “Scarlet Street” because of its dark plot and themes.

Edward G. Robinson as Christopher Cross
Joan Bennett as Katherine ‘Kitty’ March
Dan Duryea as Johnny Prince
Margaret Lindsay as Millie Ray
Rosalind Ivan as Adele Cross
Jess Barker as David Janeway
Charles Kemper as Patch-eye Higgins
Anita Sharp-Bolster as Mrs. Michaels
Samuel S. Hinds as Charles Pringle
Vladimir Sokoloff as Pop LeJon
Arthur Loft as Dellarowe
Russell Hicks as J.J. Hogarth