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Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Scarlet Street (1945) Fritz Lang

From what I've read, this is the greatest of Fritz Lang's sound films that I haven't previously seen and after seeing it, that doesn't surprise me in the slightest. Edward G Robinson, so often the tough guy on film was really a mild mannered private man offscreen. Here he's much closer to his own personality, I believe, which is scary given where he ends up! He's a New York banker with 25 years of service to his company as a cashier. He's a jolly good fellow, it seems, but he's superstitious and he can't give a speech. Given that his name is Chris Cross and this is a film noir, we know that something bad is going to happen to him.

At the dinner to celebrate his 25th anniversary, his reasonably elderly boss leaves with a pretty young lady who obviously isn't his daughter, and that gets Chris thinking. He's stuck in a loveless marriage with a complete bitch of a wife and he doesn't even remember young ladies looking at him like this one did to his boss when he was young himself. On his way home he rescues another pretty young lady from what appears to be a mugger or a thief. He wouldn't think himself a hero as he cringes away from his own attack but he knocks the guy down and he runs away before Chris can fetch the police, so a hero he must be.

The conjunction of those two key events means that he's more than happy to spend a little more time with this particular pretty young damsel in distress, whose name is Kitty March, and it doesn't hurt that she looks like Joan Bennett. He guesses wrongly that she's an actress and she guesses that he's an artist because he rescued her in Greenwich Village. Technically he is a painter and not a bad one either, but only on an enthusiastic amateur footing. However the conversation leads her to believe that he's wealthy and when he starts writing to her to rekindle his own youth, her fiancee starts hatching plans to relieve him of his money. As smitten as he is and as skilfully as they play him, he soon gets caught up in their schemes.

Edward G Robinson is fine here, not that he ever wasn't. This was my 31st Eddie G movie and he hasn't been less than at least very good indeed in any of them. Here he brings subtle nuances to his performances that you wouldn't expect if the last film of his you saw was Little Caesar. Dan Duryea is suitably phony as Kitty's boyfriend Johnny, quick with his fists and frittering away all the money she manages to wheedle out of Chris Cross. He's almost the perfect screen definition of slime, very easy to love to hate. It's Joan Bennett who shines brightest though, certainly for the first two thirds of the film until Robinson stops hogging the background. She's keeping a double life: as Kitty March, she's sweet and sensitive when Chris is around but lazy, angry and duplicitous when he isn't. She depicts both sides of the coin superbly.

The plot goes places you don't quite expect, but always believably. There are plot twists and plot twists on the plot twists that Hitchcock would have been proud of. He'd also have been proud of the way that minor league shenanigans escalate through circumstance into madness and murder. This isn't just film noir, it's superb thriller material and it's in the hands of masters: Fritz Lang and Edward G Robinson especially. After shining so brightly in the thirties by dominating every scene he was in, regardless of the competition, Robinson found much better parts in the forties but less often, and he also found a way to not blind us to the other folks on the screen. Scarlet Street came a year after his stunning turn in Double Indemnity, and a year later he'd be stunning again opposite no less a talent than Orson Welles in The Stranger. For a lesser decade, that's pretty astounding stuff.

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