scarlet street (1945)
Scarlet Street is Fritz Lang's masterpiece of tragedy. Here he dives deep into the pit of the soul and surfaces with a picture that details all of life's deadly sins with razor sharp accuracy. A film of timeless power, Scarlet Street drives relentlessly toward its closing moments all the while detailing an entirely different story, it's only when we see what lies deep in the core of our characters, things we tried willfully to disregard, that the brilliance of Lang's movements is made clear. Populated by no character who isn't vile in one way or another, the film shows us a different kind of underworld than most noir, it's the underbelly of society who retains the civility and appearances of upstanding quality, and deep within their mind retains another person altogether. Cold and ruthless in their sluggish and insecure ways, the characters on display in Scarlet Street are all cowards by one stretch or another and in their cowardice they find malice and in their malice, find their undoing. Never before or after has such a portrait been painted in such vivid life, much of it owed to Lang's unflinching construction, as the film spirals nearer and nearer to its conclusion he does not allow us to look away, never breaking from the mental anguish and experience, never interrupting the skewed view of a deranged mind with anything more than equally expressionistic visuals. Lang's mastery of noir stylistically add all the flourishes needed, but his narrative edge sharpens as it cuts through the film's runtime. The picture only gains power as it travels forward. The perfect orchestration of one incredible mental terror to the next brings the portrait to life and in Lang's hands it never rests for a moment. One of the masterpieces of the Noir era, Scarlet Street is a potent blend of tragedy and desperation.
It is perhaps the desperation felt by all in the film for something outside of themselves that they are emulating that makes it the deeply troubling film that it is. All in the film have an ideal before them they are looking to embody, the life of another that they wish to copy in some way, and Lang brings us deeply into the whirlpool of our folly. Lang lays out a tale of our exterior and interior self, the logical and the desire unbound. Edward G Robinson's character is the epitome of the lust and longing in equal measure, but it may be Joan Bennett's who captures the tragic tale most completely. As Lang drives us onward into the darkness, we're blind-sided by the seemingly sweet and simple tale he's been spinning all along. It's this rug-pull moment that keeps us on our toes through the picture's conclusion, which continues to defy expectation and move us to worlds beyond where we've been in intense subjectivity. This is the film's more shocking aspect in many ways that we are pulled deeper into the subconscious of the already Freudian depths of Robinson's experience. As the lighting becomes more abstract, our images presented become more vividly dream-like during the film's progression, is there anything more sinister than that flashing light in the window of Robinson's new flat? The images he paints are flat and dream-like as well, which keeps being referenced as a lack of 'perspective' on his part, Lang makes the film seemingly dive into this motif, lacking any kind of perspective outside of the skewed mind of our character. Dan Duryea provides the perfect foil to all of Robinson's traits in this love triangle, he fills the girlish mind of Bennett and holds the key to her heart, but for all of his animal charms and smooth talking he's a huckster con artist in a cast full of characters conning one another. Lang's expert navigation of the lies and liars is Scarlet Street's most outstanding narrative balancing act, keeping everyone in this skewed world in a proper light, never succumbing to easy or stock characterizations. It's the seemingly simple tale told with an expert touch that separates the film from much of noir and even Lang's other work. Similar to its companion piece (with the same cast) The Woman in the Window, Lang's exploration of cinema as a dream world with dream logic is the perfect fit for the dark and brooding noir era. Those long, looming shadows set against the harsh interiors in Lang's world of visual poetry, the spaces in the cramped apartments seeming to swallow up our characters, and the breath of fresh air that is Bennett's new apartment as she takes in the luxurious balconies and terraces. Lang brings us down a dark path and in style.
Scarlet Street is grade A film noir and for an era known for its dark storytelling, Lang goes to depths not normally hit. A deep place in the mind where nightmares live, a nightmare taken from a fantasy of selfish liars. Lang does his best to side step taking in the direction of a moral tale and focuses us solely on the internal experience of what Robinson is experiencing, and the film builds perfectly toward its conclusion. Love and desperation, passion driving the world's best creations and worst crimes, Lang shows us the dark and the light, and brings us there with a trio of great performers. All of them are, in their way artists, the art of Bennett and Duryea just happens to be conning people (and themselves). Lang's Scarlet Street is the stuff black & white dreams are made of.