During the late 1930s, German director Fritz Lang fled Germany to escape the impending Nazi rule, and arrived in Hollywood. He brought with him the unique German expressionist style, best illustrated in Lang’s early works such as Metropolis and M.
Scarlett Street was one of Fritz Lang’s early film noirs, and has all the originality and rough edges you expect from a filmmaker trying to settle down in his new surroundings. Edward G. Robinson plays Chris Cross (don’t worry, even he knows his name is funny), a board banker and amateur artist celebrating 25 years of service. On his way home from a dinner celebration in his honour, he sees the beautiful Kitty Marsh (Joan Bennett) being attacked on the street. Chris intervenes and saves Kitty, and the two become very close friends, only Chris is unaware that the man attacking Kitty was Johnny (Dan Duryea), her thuggish boyfriend, and the pair is attempting to con him out of his money.
I should warn that this is a special film in the history of American cinema, and for that reason spoilers are unavoidable. So if you don’t want to know too much about the film’s plot, now is the time to look away…
Still there? Great. Scarlett Street was the first of its kind – it was the very first film Hollywood film where the criminal is not punished for their crime at the conclusion. As you would expect this was considered rather controversial, to such an extent that the New York State Censor Board and the Motion Picture Commission in Milwaukee banned the film on the grounds that it was immoral and “sacrilegious”.
Indeed the incredibly dark nature of the film’s final act can still pack quite a punch to this day. The sense of underlining bleakness though has always been a characteristic of Fritz Lang’s work, and you combine that with his expressionistic visual style and we are presented with a brooding and dystopian world, where the aforementioned Joan Bennett is the only thing that can light up the screen.
This has to be one of the best performances by Joan Bennett in her career. As the feisty Kitty Marsh she became one of the most iconic of femme fatale characters. We’re given plenty of reasons to dislike her, namely faking the most sincere emotion of love to trick and old and lonely man out of his money. We also can’t help but fall in love with her though, and think of her as an innocent catalyst caught up in a bad relationship that leaves her with no choice but to agree to her boyfriend Johnny’s demands. Her husky growling voice and general body language is also very appealing, but that could be male bias on my part.
Edward G. Robinson’s Chris Cross is a man you can’t help but pity from the start. A lonely man trapped inside an unsatisfied marriage, thinking he’s found love once again in the young Kitty Marsh while all the time he’s being used. When Chris finds out what Kitty has been doing during the final act, Fritz Lang dares to go where Hollywood cinema at the time wouldn’t dare go. It was upon its release a real game changer, and a film that signalled the glory years for film noir.
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About the Author: Eric Wood is 21 years old, from Bury in Greater Manchester, and a graduate of Salford University where he studied Journalism and English Literature. His first novel comes out later in the year, and he begins work directing his first feature length movie in the summer. Eric absolutely adores all forms of writing and loves movies so he’s the ideal film critic. His greatest inspiration for many years has been Michael Crichton, as Crichton has written novels, non-fiction, screenplays, and directed movies. Eric would love to be able to achieve all of those things in my lifetime.