“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, 1945’s Scarlet Street, which Muller draws out in the following essay, excerpted from the chapter “Vixenville,” with the author’s permission. Part one of this essay offers a rich description of plot; part two, below, adds industry intrigue to the story.
Scarlet Street, the darkest tale of sexual desire to emerge from Vixenville, was based on La Chienne—The Bitch—the 1931 Jean Renoir film adapted from Georges de la Fouchardière’s novel. Its immediate antecedent was The Blue Angel, in which the slavishly infatuated Emil Jannings humiliates himself for the woman of his desires, Marlene Dietrich. La Chienne was originally purchased by Paramount, with the expectation that Ernst Lubitsch would create an Americanized version. By that time, Hollywood had implemented its rigid Production Code, and Lubitsch felt the material would never translate in a watered-down rendition. It remained untouched until Fritz Lang resurrected as the first project to be made under the independent banner of Diana Productions. The company was formed by Lang, producer Walter Wanger, and actress Joan Bennett (Wanger’s wife; the company was named for her daughter). Screenwriter Dudley Nichols was also a boardmember.
Fritz Lang, accepting a tribute in 1974: ‘I don’t believe in fate anymore. Everyone makes fate for himself. You can accept it, you can reject it and go on. There is no mysterious something, no God who puts fate in you. It is you who must make fate yourself.’
Upon its release, Scarlet Street reaped more controversy than praise. It was one of the first Hollywood films since the imposition of the Production Code in which a guilty killer went free, while an innocent man was executed. It could have been that by 1945, Hollywood was no longer as eager to insult the intelligence of its customers, figuring they could handle an adult story that concluded, not with the loose ends tidily tied, but with a rope cinched around the audience’s neck. Or just chalk it up to Dan Duryea’s detestable sleaziness: Everybody wanted him dead. Some markets objected to the number of times Chris stabbed Kitty with the icepick; some prints have seven, some four, others just one. Most critics considered Scarlet Street almost identical to Lang’s The Woman in the Window (RKO, 1944), released the previous year. Both feature the same three main players, and concern meek individuals smitten by beautiful connivers. In the earlier film, Robinson plays a professor who meets a fabulous femme (Bennett), accepts her offer of a nightcap, and ends up putting the shears to her brutish boyfriend when he barges in on them. They dispose of the body, but it’s discovered by the police. The noose tightens further when the dead man’s bodyguard (Duryea), who knows the truth, blackmails them. Robinson sees no way out, and mixes himself a poison cocktail. But Duryea dies in a gun battle with the cops, and they conveniently pin his boss’s murder on him. Bennett calls to tell Robinson they’re in the clear. The camera pulls back to reveal him slumped in his chair, apparently dead. But then he bolts up—it’s all been a dream. Audiences loved the film; many critics slammed the unreal ending.
Everybody wanted him dead. Some markets objected to the number of times Chris stabbed Kitty with the icepick; some prints have seven, some four, others just one.
Lang felt the two films were thematically distinct. The Woman in the Window was a cautionary tale of how a person “must always be on guard.” He believed that a “logical” ending to the film, in which a man’s life is destroyed by a brief flirtation, would have been too “defeatist.” Victimized merely by coincidence, Robinson’s punishment would have outweighed his crime. But Chris Cross was different: he willfully pursued his misery, begging to be hurt.
Starting with Scarlet Street, Lang claimed that all his films “wanted to show that the average citizen is not very much better than a criminal.” We must always be on guard from ourselves, and our deepest desires. Lang’s early films displayed a dark fascination with the vagaries of fate. After Scarlet Street, that changed. In 1974, accepting a tribute, he declared, “I don’t believe in fate anymore. Everyone makes fate for himself. You can accept it, you can reject it and go on. There is no mysterious something, no God who puts fate in you. It is you who must make fate yourself.”
Read Scarlet Letters: Part One.