With Scarlet Street (1945), Fritz Lang delivered one of the darkest films in the film noir genre. Banned in 1946 in New York, Milwaukee, and Atlanta as a tale with no redemption for its characters, this noir tragedy is not only an essential in his film canon but justifies the British Film Institute dubbing Lang the “Master of Darkness.”
For Scarlet Street, Lang reassembled a strong cast of performers he worked with previously in 1944’s The Woman in the Window to achieve film noir casting perfection. Edward G. Robinson, known for tough-guy gangster performances, plays against type, giving one of his most tragic film performances in the role of Christopher “Chris” Cross, a mild-mannered cashier whose only joy is found in painting. Chris is the patsy to a con orchestrated by villain Johnny played by Dan Duryea and femme fatale Kitty played by Joan Bennet. Duryea, a tall lanky blonde differentiated himself from the pack of 1940s film noir lead actors as the mean guy who is rough on women. His turn as bad boyfriend and con man Johnny in Scarlet Street is a Duryea tour de force. Leading lady Joan Bennet made four films with Lang, perfecting her craft as dangerous film noir femme fatale. Bennet delivers in the role of Kitty as swindling seductress with no moral compass.
The Scarlet Street plot centers on the power of a con. At a work celebration, strait-laced Chris witnesses his wealthy, married boss stepping out with a young ingenue. That evening on his way home he rescues beautiful Kitty from an altercation with a man on the street. Ever the gentleman, he walks her home soon representing himself to Kitty as a wealthy painter rather than a lowly cashier. The deception begins with Chris in the role of con pretending to be someone he is not.
Kitty, egged on by boyfriend Johnny, begins seeing Chris feigning affection for him, and asking him to set her up in an apartment. Kitty is now the con with Johnny orchestrating the fraud behind-the-scenes.
On his salary Chris can ill afford the apartment nor keep up with Kitty’s growing demands for cash. To do so he steals from his wife and embezzles from his employer. Chris, the victim of a con, becomes con man himself swindling everyone he can to keep up appearances with Kitty.
Charlatan Johnny gets up to his own con when tries to sell some of Chris’ amateur paintings for a fast buck via a street vendor. The artwork attracts the interest of an art dealer, and a new con begins.
Kitty pretends to be the artist and signs a deal with a gallery passing Chris’ paintings off as her own. Chris discovers the fraud but, blindly in love with Kitty, agrees to participate in the scheme. He continues to paint, allowing Kitty to sign the works and sell them. Soon the paintings gain renown, and the con consumes everyone involved. Kitty and Johnny’s greed grows while Chris becomes more driven by his desire to make Kitty his own.
Enter the next con. Chris, desperate to leave his wife, encounters her first husband who had been assumed dead. A con man himself, first husband Higgins faked his death to escape retribution as a crooked cop. Seeing Higgins as a way out of his marriage, Chris promises him access to the insurance money paid out after his assumed death. Wife Adele discovers Higgins and Chris considers himself free to now ask Kitty to marry him.
Chris immediately heads to Kitty’s apartment where he discovers the truth about her and Johnny. Undeterred, he persists in asking her to marry him only to be met with laughter and disdain. Realizing he has been conned all along, in a fit of rage he murders Kitty.
A known con artist and criminal, Johnny is arrested for Kitty’s murder as prime suspect. He proclaims his innocence implicating Chris in Kitty’s murder with a motive as the true artist of the prized gallery paintings. But the con they all participated in is too strong. Chris pretends to be a copycat artist of the talented Kitty and cons the jury into believing him.
Johnny is convicted of Kitty’s murder and executed. Actual murderer Chris, haunted by events, becomes destitute while Kitty is posthumously revered as a great artist. The con lives on in artistic legacy.
Scarlet Street is a sordid tale of con after con after con. The least likely character but the one who commits the ultimate crime of murder, does not receive justice. The lack of punishment for the murderer caused the censorship of the film, which under the Motion Picture Production Code called for criminals to be punished. Lacking true criminal punishment for Chris, Scarlet Street was labeled “licentious, profane, obscure and contrary to the good order of the community” by 1940s censors.
As a masterful filmmaker of the darkest tales, Fritz Lang counted Scarlet Street among the favorite films he directed. As its characters get pulled deeper into lies and deception to find no redemption, it is easy to see why. For Lang’s aficionados and film noir fans alike, Scarlet Street is a must-see classic.