I like a lot of films made by Fritz Lang. And Edward G. Robinson delivered some fine performances over the years, even though many of the roles he took were so similar. This film is a good example of how both director and actor re-used a tried and tested formula, and did so within a year.
In 1944, Lang made ‘The Woman In The Window’, with the same three leading actors, and a very similar theme. Robinson played a character who is mild-mannered, and becomes embroiled in drama due to his attraction for a femme fatale. This classic film noir plot device soon became a tradition, and was picked up by Lang for ‘Scarlet Street’.
Robinson is once again an ordinary quiet man, (Christopher Cross) a cashier in a company where he has worked for decades, and is well-respected. He aspires to be a painter, but his home life is unhappy, where he is ruled over by a nagging, mean-spirited wife who keeps a tight hold on the family finances. One night, he intervenes when he sees a young woman (Kitty, played by Joan Bennett) being beaten, and becomes infatuated with her. Trying to impress her, he says he is a painter, and that his work sells for many thousands of dollars. He admits to being married, but says he will marry the girl if he is ever free to do so. He doesn’t know that she is in love with small time crook Johnny, (Dan Duryea) the man he saved her from that first night.
Johnny and the girl conspire to fleece him, believing him to be a wealthy man. She starts to ask for small amounts of money, and builds up to wanting a luxury apartment that she expects him to finance. In order to keep her interest, Chris has to defraud his company, steal money from his wife, and tries to take out loans too. He is soon in a spiral of debt and deceit, with Kitty dangling her affections to make him come up with more cash. When Chis eventually sets up Kitty in the apartment, and stores his painting there, Johnny devises a plan to sell them, and sets a chain of events in motion that will end in trouble for all concerned.
I really like this film. Lang sets the mood of the late 1920s very well, and even the set-bound filming feels authentic enough. Dan Duryea is suitably oily and unlikable as Johnny, and Joan Bennett reliable in her role as the unattainable Kitty. The story provides just enough twists to satisfy, and there is a supporting cast of solid actors too. But it is of course Robinson who dominates, able to make us feel for the unfortunate Chris, with superb acting laced with accomplished subtlety.