Scarlet Letters: Part One


“Don’t bother looking for a church in this part of town. The air’s too hot and heavy for hymns,” writes Noir City Film Festival founder/impresario, novelist, nonfiction writer and, yes, filmmaker Eddie Muller in an introductory graph of an essay for Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir (St. Martin’s Press: 1998).  Muller’s feature film, The Grand Inquisitor, can be found streaming here, as can another noir classic, Fritz Lang’s 1945’s Scarlet Street, which Muller draws out in the following essay, excerpted from the chapter “Vixenville,” with the author’s permission. (Part two of this series offers industry backstory.)

See that old fella over there, shuffling through the park? He’s the saddest character who ever got lost on this side of town. Name’s Christopher Cross, and you’d never know it to look at him, but he once was a solid, respectable citizen. Worked as a cashier for as long as anyone could remember, punched in and out at the same time every day. His wife, Adele, was pure misery. Chris always came up short when she compared him to her late, heroic husband, a cop who drowned in a rescue attempt. But Chris could tolerate her indignities; his Sunday hobby, oil painting, was all the distraction he seemed to need.

But then one night, feeling blue after a testimonial dinner at which his 25 years of servitude earned him only a lousy watch, Chris (Edward G. Robinson) strays onto Scarlet Street (Universal, 1945). He comes across a man and a woman fighting. With a lucky swat of his umbrella, Chris is able to fend off the attacker. It earns him a drink with the woman, Katherine “Kitty” March (Joan Bennett). From Jump Street she takes him for a gullible boob. He thinks she’s an actress, still dressed up from a show, walking home late. She laughs, and deals him a fresh hand: “I’ll bet you’re an artist!” He decides to play those cards, becoming, for this gorgeous woman only, the man he’s always wanted to be. Tumescence makes him oblivious to the dismissive twinkle in Kitty’s eyes.


What the poor sap doesn’t know is that Kitty’s sparring partner was her pimp, Johnny (Dan Duryea). When Johnny learns the daffy geezer has fallen for his punch, he encourages Kitty to nuzzle up to the old guy, then fleece him for all he’s worth. Chris rents Kitty a spacious playpen, where he comes each Sunday to paint, her presence rekindling his ardor for life, love, and art. When he leaves, Johnny shows up at the all-expenses-paid roost, where he debauches “Lazy Legs,” the goddess Chris worships.

Prowling for more pocket money, Johnny unloads one of Chris’s paintings. It starts a buzz on the street. Ever the operator, Johnny convinces Kitty to sign her name to the canvases, which he sells to a pretentious uptown gallery. Katherine march is lauded as the art world’s latest discovery. Even this doesn’t faze Chris. He’s a happy acolyte, content to serve his priestess. She particularly appreciates his delicate brushwork on her manicured toenails. (“They’ll be masterpieces,” she purrs, looking down on him.) But soon she’s demanding greater offerings, and Chris must embezzle to keep her—and, by extension, Johnny—satisfied.

Chris rides the train up to Sing Sing with a pack of journalists to witness the execution. ‘Nobody gets away with murder,” says one of them. No one escapes punishment.’

Chris’s fortunes take another tumble when his wife’s first husband turns up alive. He tries to blackmail Chris, thinking he’ll pay anything to preserve the marriage. Instead, Chris sets him up to reunite with Adele, happily breaking his uxorial bonds. He runs to Kitty with the good news. That’s when he discovers her in another man’s arms: “Oh, Johnny! Oh, Johnny!” Chris slinks back later, fortified by several fingers of Old Crow, and forgives Kitty her betrayal. Johnny must have forced himself on her, he reasons. Now that he’s free, Chris exclaims, they can be married. Kitty buries her head in her pillow, shaking, “I know how you feel, but that’s all over now.” Chris consoles. “Please don’t cry.”

Kitty looks up, laughing uproariously. “How can a man be so dumb….I’ve been wanting to laugh in your face ever since I met you. You’re old and ugly and I’m sick of you!” Chris picks up a discarded icepick and punctures Kitty  over and over, through the satin bedcovers.

It’s Johnny who’s arrested for the murder, tried, and convicted. He insists Chris Cross murdered the renowned painter Katherine March, but who takes the word of a pimp against a respectable citizen? Chris rides the train up to Sing Sing with a pack of journalists to witness the execution. “Nobody gets away with murder,” says one of them. No one escapes punishment.”

Chris ends up in a Bowery flop, tortured by voices in his head. Not the judge, pronouncing a death sentence on an innocent man. No, he only hears Kitty, endlessly exulting “Johnny, I love you, Johnny!” He tries to hang himself, to no avail. So he wanders the streets alone. He begs every cop to arrest him and strap him in the electric chair—just make the voice stop. The cops smile, prop him up, and send him on his way.

The few authenticated Katherine March canvases hang in the homes of only the most wealthy and powerful people in Dark City, having skyrocketed in value after her murder.

Read Scarlet Letters: Part Two on Fritz Lang, the Production Code, Hollywood and the idea of “fate.”

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