A sad, emasculated cashier, Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson), falls for Kitty March (Joan Bennett) a younger woman he believes he’s rescued from an attack, which was really just her sleazy, drunk boyfriend (Dan Duryea) slapping her around, as he often does. Thinking he is a rich painter, the two attempt to con him out of his fortune.
Chris is an easy man to understand. He dreamed of being a painter, but he’s an aging salaryman. His wife is a shrew who emasculates him daily. And no one has ever cared about him. His boss is having an affair with a sexy blond thirty years his junior and while Chris doesn’t approve, he does wonder what it would be like to be loved like that. So when a young, beautiful girl shows him attention, she becomes his world.
Kitty’s no slinky, skilled femme fatale; she’s a low-cost street walker who only made $15 when her pimp expected $50 (although the censors would never allow it to be stated that she was a prostitute, so it is only implied). She’s beautiful, but lacks the seduction skills common in Film Noir. Her routine wouldn’t work on anyone who wasn’t desperate. And she has only disdain for Chris. “If he was mean or vicious or would bawl me out, I’d like him better,” she says, cringing at his weakness. She’s lazy, dim, and cruel, but her biggest failing is loving Johnny, who beats her and takes her money. But Johnny isn’t a great force for evil either. He’s a weak, petty little man. He’s an insignificant conman. And that’s the point of Scarlet Street. These aren’t big important people in a larger than life story as you find in The Maltese Falcon. Here, everyone is no one special. They were doomed to sad little lives before they met and the tragedy that followed isn’t all that much worse than what might have happened to them on any other path—perhaps less ordinary, but that’s all. We’re all doomed on Scarlet Street.
The film gains a bit of power from it’s meta-casting. Edward G. Robinson’s was firmly entrenched in cinema history as an over-the-top tough guy. In film after film he was strong and violent, sometimes psychotic. To see him weakly obeying his wife and wearing a floral apron makes Chris more pathetic for the comparison. A particularly nice moment is when he meekly takes a cigar, saying he never smokes such things. Here, just as in his gangster films where he was always chewing on one, a cigar is a symbol of masculinity.
Scarlet Street is a good Noir, but not a great one. It is hard to elevate a nihilistic story about unimportant common people to greatness, and impossible with a production code that demanded a certain kind of ending, and that ending is a weight on the film. Still, solid performances and skilled direction from Fritz Lang make it worth seeing.
The year before, the same director and main cast had made a similar Noir, The Woman in the Window.