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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Scarlet Street (1945)



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Something unusual and special happens in Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street, a remake of the French film La Chienne. It involves the audience emotionally in strange, improbable ways, resulting in a film that starts simply and gradually piles on conflicting emotion after conflicting emotion, until, at some point, we must step back and admit that we are in no position to judge. We can judge actions, sure. We know right from wrong. But what if the right things are done for the wrong reasons, or the wrong things done for the right reasons? How come the punishment for acts of stupidity are sometimes greater than for acts of cruelty? How just is it when someone is punished for something he didn't do, yet deserves the punishment anyway?

Edward G. Robinson's performance as the main character is key to the movie's effectiveness. Robinson does a complete 180 from his usual gangster roles: here he is the most sympathetic man imaginable. He's pathetic, really, but he has a good heart: too good, in fact. He's a fragile, broken man who seems incapable of distrust. This seems only to attract those who would take advantage of him, and he blindly lets them. It's heartwrenching, but we step back, understand that this is a movie and something will come around in the end. But don't think you know how. The movie is unpredictable but not arbitrary: looking back, we realize that the end of things is what everything was leading up to from the first scene. And what do we feel about this complicated situation? I certainly don't know. Perspective is everything, and this movie presents us with too many that differ too much for a swift verdict to be rendered.

As thought-provoking and utterly emotionally involving as the film is, it is not perfect. There are at least two sequences in the second half (one having to do with selling paintings and negotiating the attentions of an art critic, the other being the final resolution) that run too long and disrupt the pacing. There are a lot of beautiful words, all uniquely suited to their speakers -- yet one wonders if so many were necessary. In the first half, yes: but the second, while still ultimately delivering, distracts itself too much with reaffirming what has already been established. Trimming the bottom 10% of this film would have done it wonders.

But the imperfections of Scarlet Street almost make it all the more intriguing, in a way. As it teaches us, perspective is king. To see the diamond in the rough, might that be as special an experience as seeing the cleaned and polished diamond in plain view? Curiously, this question isn't as theoretical as it sounds. This film makes great viewing in a double feature with The Woman In the Window, also directed by Fritz Lang, also starring Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea, and also released in 1945. It's a kinder film, better paced and polished, but explores similar themes.