Within the same broad outline as Jean Renoir’s La Chienne, Fritz Lang’s great 1945 film Scarlet Street strikes many notes to emphasize the emasculation of its protagonist: at a dinner in his honor, a lowly bank cashier sees his boss rush through a ceremonial toast to make time with his mistress; in his own home he’s obligated to indulge his unwelcome hobby of picture painting in the bathroom; and there’s a bit of business with a frilly smock he puts on to do the dishes. Against the grain of what we might assume about put-upon little guys in movies and the way they eventually lash out, Lang actually only dwells on the tableaux of Edgar G. Robinson’s eunuchized doldrums to make one almost invisible moment work—when, over a pair of Rum Collinses with Joan Bennett, he doesn’t really correct her when she makes the fateful assumption that he’s some kind of big-shot famous painter.
Although, understandably, Scarlet Street is often twinned with the previous year’s Lang-Robinson-Bennett-Duryea noir melodrama, The Woman in the Window, and ranked a little higher in the greater survey of Lang’s filmography, I have to say I tend to prefer the earlier film, which seems to perch on the precipice of Lang’s descent into the emptier, increasingly nihilistic exercises in genre that would populate his later career. (That same year, Lang also made Ministry of Fear, arguably the masterpiece of his entire American period.) Paradoxically, since The Woman in the Window speaks many of its hypotheses (moral culpability, the privilege of adventure against the advance of age) aloud in dialogue, and Scarlet Street leaves a great deal unsaid, the latter seems, at times, a little too emphatic in pushing Robinson’s disgraced sucker into his purgatory of wandering and self-flagellation; Bennett and Duryea’s two-bit villains, on a similar note, seem a little too cartoonish in their callousness. In the most enjoyable part of the film, Duryea tries to learn the ropes of the art racket, and does all right.
Pre-Code Hollywood would have been essentially meaningless to Lang, who, by the time the boom of the Hays Code was brought down on that decadent California town, had fled Nazi Germany to France, to remake Frank Borzage’s Liliom. Even if he had worked at Paramount or Warner alongside William Wellman and Roy Del Ruth during the early-talkie years, it’s hard to imagine Lang would have been much interested in the sexual and class-warfare frankness we tend to associate with that era. Even as his American period saw him work in several popular genres (western, espionage adventure, film noir, war), his preoccupation with fate held dominion over all. In his images and his storytelling, Lang drew together masses of intersecting lines, steel cables that pulled his characters to their doom or their reward.
Such is the overarching structure of Scarlet Street. Despite their obvious differences, Renoir and Lang shared an interest in watching the human animal in his or her natural habitat, while underlining, whenever possible, the elaborate mechanics that governed their interactions, their movement through society, and the changes they underwent across epochal time. There are essential differences, however. Renoir, during his first celebrated period of the early and middle 1930s, was quite comfortable with the jovial profanity of Michel Simon’s layabouts, as well as the pre-Method fury of Jean Gabin’s crumpled heroes. On the other hand, Lang’s photographic precision indicated that he was more concerned with pivotal dramatic moments, the lightning crashes that, even if they might be forgotten (as Robinson’s first run-in with Duryea’s rangy pimp is quickly put out of the film’s mind), tend to signal a sea change in the lives of all concerned.
The Library of Congress’s archival 35mm print is beautifully transferred by Kino’s high-definition authoring. It’s not a spotless restoration; nearly every frame has at least one or two of those razor-thin vertical tears, if not a smattering of flecks around the reel changes. It’s all very easy to ignore, given the fact that Scarlet Street, which passed into a public-domain limbo that led to a series of mostly terrible home-video releases, probably hasn’t looked this good in the 67 years since its release. In platinum and black velvet 1080p, you can easily detect the softening beauty filter ace cinematographer Milton R. Krasner used for Joan Bennett’s delectable close-ups, or the moist hair dye used to prematurely age Edward G. Robinson’s lovesick cashier, or the before-and-after difference when Dan Duryea upgrades his threads with ill-gotten cash. The sound mix is fair to middling; the treble goes a bit wonky when it redlines with things like Rosalind Ivan’s caterwauling, some effects and ADR stick out a bit, and there’s some damage here and there that’s difficult to disregard.
A picture gallery, and an audio commentary by David Kalat, who’s been working hard to jockey into position as the leading, living Lang scholar; he previously contributed a commentary to the Criterion Collection’s DVD of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, the latter figuring into one of his books. Kalat is largely informed and informative, if a little hectoring at times, in his fastidious, passive-aggressive way. It’s not one of the richest commentary tracks I’ve ever heard (he tends to wander away from what’s happening on the screen for long stretches), but he paints a detailed picture of the film’s production history that helps to place it in relevant context.
The first of Fritz Lang’s jaundiced American noirs to make it to Blu-ray in a beautifully crisp transfer whose material flaws are far easier to forgive than a dame that done you wrong.
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