Scarlet Street (Blu-ray Review)9 Apr, 2012 By: Mike Clark
Stars Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea.
The Library of Congress/Blu-ray salvation job of this top-tier contender for Fritz Lang’s best American film is fairly profound, particularly given that this is one Lang-in-Hollywood production where little was otherwise compromised. By this we mean budget-wise, as got to be the case later in the director’s career, by the era’s hardworking censors (though, indeed, some of them did try).
And a major print spiff-up was needed after the 1945 film’s long tenure in Public Domain Hell, owing to some rights quagmire stemming from either George De La Fouchadiere’s source novel or an earlier classic film that Jean Renoir had made of it as well: the more French in tone (which would figure) La Chienne from 1931. That version has never yet made its way to an American DVD release, though it did come out on VHS and even laserdisc back when we were all a lot younger than Edward G. Robinson looks in Lang’s take on the story.
Let’s face it: as an actor, Eddie G. didn’t even look that young in his 1930 breakthrough Little Caesar. But here, the Universal makeup department grayed his hair some to assist him in playing a henpecked husband who simply wants to get away from the grind and paint — though his character has labored as a cashier for so long that he’s presented with a commemorative pocketwatch for years of service as the story begins. He’s also married to a complaining old crone who can’t be much in the sack — and arguably worse, even dresses up their living room with a huge oil painting of husband No. 1. Thanks to her — plus that bellyacher Charles Laughton is married to in Robert Siodmak’s The Suspect from the same year — I spent a chunk of my moviegoing early adolescence wishing that these harassed gentlemen of dignity could rid themselves of these anvils in favor of younger women in two 1945 Universal releases.
But far less so in this case because it’s obvious at once that Robinson is being taken for a ride once we see him rescue a trashy/flashy Joan Bennett from a street beating by a supposed robber (Dan Duryea) who really isn’t. The source novel was published in America as The Poor Sap — and as much as Hollywood would allow in those days, it pretty obvious that Bennett’s character is what was once called a lady of leisure (far too much of it, as we come to see), with Duryea her pimp. The three stars reunited with Lang here from the previous year’s The Woman in the Window, which itself is the next thing to a classic depending on how much you think its controversial ending sinks it (or not). As Patrick McGilligan points out in his excellent biography of the director, there was actually a brief period in the mid-1940s (thanks to this duo and also Paramount’s Ministry of Fear) where Lang enjoyed commercial success — burning box office embers that got doused royally by the expensive flop of 1947’s Secret Beyond the Door (also with Bennett and her husband/producer Walter Wanger).
Dudley Nichols’ beautifully sanded Scarlet Street script depends a lot on twists, to say nothing of an ironic boomeranging capper that ranks with the era’s best. For those who’ve never seen the picture, which has been televised constantly since the early 1960s, one has to go easily on spoilers. But suffice it to say that even though a capital crime gets punished — and does it ever — this may be the only Hollywood movie of the day where the perpetrator escapes legal retribution. Movies would have been better between 1934-54 or longer if someone could have put censors to sleep permanently (preferably at the pound). But they must have dozing here, and problems were less with Hollywood’s Production Code than with individual state censorship boards. I am always amazed that so many of these latter problems occurred (as here) in New York state, when one would assume that the dust-ups would be far more likely to have occurred in places with heavier outhouse demographics. There must have been a lot of political hackery permeating Albany in those days.
Visually, the movie is a characteristic Lang stunner, particularly in the way he achieves perspective with split levels or otherwise gets the most out of his predominantly Greenwich Village set. The photography is by the great Milton Krasner, whose many credits include Demetrius and the Gladiators, whose new limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time awaits my viewing (it was among the first movies I ever saw in a theater). Victor Mature and Ernest Borgnine in Technicolor are something to contend with, though Scarlet Street has an advantage going in because it is as bedrock as black-and-white noir gets. The transfer here is spectacular: you can almost shave in the glisten off this baby.