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Take a dark walk on “Scarlet Street”

Updated: Feb 22


4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR SCREENSHOTS

Right, Edward G. Robinson was paid $100,000 to play hapless New York bank cashier Chris Cross, and co-star Joan Bennett plays the femme fatale Kitty March. Chris breaks up a violent fight between Kitty and her boyfriend Johnny on a dark Greenwich Village street. She asks him to escort her home, but first to buy her a drink.


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“SCARLET STREET”

 

4K Ultra HD & Blu-ray; 1945; Not Rated

 

Best extra: Commentary by film historian Imogen Sara Smith

 

















FRITZ LANG, the iconic Austrian director who gave us such classic German films as “Metropolis” and “M,” made “Scarlet Street” in Hollywood after having emigrated to the U.S. in the 1930s.

 

A quintessential film noir, “Scarlet Street” is the saga of a hapless New York bank cashier named Chris Cross (Edward G. Robinson). The film opens with Chris being celebrated by his boss and co-workers for his 25 years at the bank, with a dinner and a pocket watch. After the party, Chris happens upon a scene of violence, in which Kitty (Joan Bennett), a beautiful young woman, is being brutally beaten by Johnny (Dan Duryea). Aware that he’s no physical match for Johnny, Chris calls the police, and buys Kitty a drink. After he tells her he paints, Kitty assumes he’s a successful wealthy artist and, to his delight, says she’ll go out with him.

 

The reality is that Chris is stuck in a miserable marriage to a woman with so little regard for him she keeps a huge portrait of her late husband displayed prominently in their apartment – and the only place she allows Chris to paint is in the bathroom. Kitty, meanwhile, is madly in love with the abusive Johnny, and together they devise ways to take advantage of Chris so they can get hold of the fortune they’re convinced he has. Infatuated with Kitty, Chris resorts to theft to give her money and, later, to pay the rent on a fancy apartment for her, with enough space for him to paint. Things get really complicated when Kitty and Johnny take some of Chris’ paintings to sell, and a famous art critic sees, and praises them. Johnny tells him they were painted by Kitty, so deception piles upon deception, and Chris eventually discovers he’s been played for a fool. He does not take that well, to say the least.



(1&2) Chris accepts a pocket watch from his banking co-workers after 25 years of service. (3) After a night of food and drinks the tipsy Cross and a friend leave the party. (4-8) In the distance Chris sees the violence between Kitty and Johnny. She’s knocked to the ground and he rushes to aid her and uses his umbrella to push Johnny to the sidewalk. Chris rushes off and gets a police officer.





 

“Scarlet Street” is more than worth a look for Milton Krasner’s almost expressionistic cinematography, Bennett’s textbook femme fatale, and Robinson’s impressive transformation from meek doormat into scary predator. Viewers, however, must get past some of the laughable dialogue which, to 21st-century ears, sounds downright silly – such as tough guy Johnny’s frequent outburst, “For cat’s sake!”; or Kitty’s tendency to tell him, “Jeepers, I love you!”

 

VIDEO

The best surviving 35mm element (1.37:1 aspect ratio) was a second-generation fine-grain Nitrate Composite housed at the UCLA film archive vaults. All of the frames were scanned in 16-bit 4K and the overall clarity is very good for over 90 percent of the film. Its sharpness does drop during composite fades and for brief moments when the original print is damaged beyond repair. Some vertical scratches are evident during several scenes, so a complete digital restoration wasn’t possible most likely because of cost. The 4K disc extracts a slight increase in onscreen clarity over the Blu-ray – especially in wide shots. But the difference is lessened since the source was not the original camera negative. The film grain is more resolved and defined with the 4K disc.

 

The HDR10 and Dolby Vision grading is also very good with the dramatic deep dark film noir shadows, while the mid-tones are more balanced, especially the highlights. The 4K video was encoded onto a 100 GB disc and consistently runs in the mid-70 Megabits per second range.

 

AUDIO

The original 2.0 mono is provided on the DTS-HD MA soundtrack, which keeps everything from the dialogue to Hans J. Salter’s orchestral score front and centered.




(1-3) Chris and Kitty end up at a nearby bar and she assumes he’s a successful wealthy artist. (4-6) At his apartment he’s forced to paint in the bathroom by his domineering wife Adele (Rosalind Ivan). She keeps a huge portrait of her former husband in the living room.



 

EXTRAS

Two commentaries are available with this Kino Lorber disc, an archival one by David Kalat and the recent, excellent one by Smith. She notes that “Scarlet Street” is Lang’s follow-up to his “Woman in the Window,” from the previous year, which had the same stars and cinematographer. “Scarlet Street” has an “even darker take on human nature,” and is set in New York’s Greenwich Village, but was actually shot on sets in Los Angeles, giving it a “stylized realism” and a “slightly heightened vision of life.” Both “Scarlet Street,” and Jean Renoir’s “La Chienne” were based on a popular French novel by Georges de la Fouchardière. Lang’s film, says Smith, “skewers just about every institution in society,” including the police, marriage, sex, and the justice system.

 

Smith offers plenty of interesting trivia and background on the actors, including those playing minor parts. She says Robinson welcomed the chance to play a “subtle character” after all his earlier gangster roles. He was actually politically liberal, an intellectual, and an art collector. At age 52, Robinson was “at the peak of his career,” and had just appeared in one of the greatest of all noirs, “Double Indemnity.” Smith lauds Robinson’s ability to bring pathos to even the most evil characters, such as Little Caesar, and his talent for playing characters who are very trusting, or “deceived about themselves.” Sadly, Robinson was never nominated for an Oscar, and died before being able to collect the Lifetime Achievement Award the Academy finally bestowed upon him.

 

Duryea, who specialized in playing “hardboiled guys,” or “heels with sex appeal,” was the opposite of that in real life. He was a “peace-loving, college-educated family man” who “made up his mind to make a niche for himself … somewhere between a star and a character actor.” Bennett, who began her movie career as a “cute, baby-faced blonde,” dyed her hair dark brown, after which she was noted for her resemblance to Hedy Lamarr. Her portrayal of Kitty was “her first bad girl role.” Eventually, Bennett would star in the gothic TV series “Dark Shadows,” as well as the movie version.



(1&2) The lovers, Kitty and Johnny, scheme to make money from Chrispaintings. (3) Johnny decides to take a few of them to sell among the other street artists in Greenwich Village.





Smith uses the term “portrait noir” to describe films noir in which portraits feature prominently, such as “Laura.” “Scarlet Street,” with both its looming painting of Chris’s wife’s late husband, and Chris’s portrait of Kitty, qualifies as a “double portrait noir.” Discussing Lang, who was Catholic, Smith notes he was “fascinated by guilt” and made a lot of films about revenge. He had sympathy for criminals who are “driven and obsessed,” but was “fundamentally a moralist,” so nobody gets away with murder in his movies. His opposition to the death penalty is illustrated by his treatment of the execution scene in the film.


 

Even though the censors were unhappy with the amount of times Chris stabs Kitty, they were mollified by his being “sufficiently punished” by his guilt at the end, demonstrating that crime doesn’t pay. Nevertheless, when “Scarlet Street” came out, it was banned in several cities, but producer William Wanger (Joan Bennett’s husband at the time) fought the ban in court, and won. Naturally, all that publicity ended up helping to make “Scarlet Street” a box office hit.

 

— Peggy Earle



(1) Chris falls for Kittys helpless act. (2) But then he catches her and Johnny in the apartment. (3&4) Chris confronts Kitty about her deception, and she humiliates him. (5) Chris holds the murder weapon. (6) Johnny is arrested and charged with the killing. (7) Chris has become a miserable vagrant, plagued by his guilty conscience. (8) His portrait of Kitty, which had become famous as the self-portrait of the murdered woman, is taken from a gallery window and sold to a wealthy customer.

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