The history of Film Noir is littered with poor dumb saps who end up wrapped around the finger of a conniving woman. The most famous are probably Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity and John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice, in which both guys end up murdering for their femme fatale. But one of the most pathetic dupes in noir has to be Edward G. Robinson in the lesser known, but subtly powerful Scarlet Street.
Noir was inspired by the German Expressionists, and Scarlet Street, from 1945, was directed by one of the greatest of the German Expressionists, Fritz Lang. The DVD I saw has a terrible print, but I could still detect some of the genius of Lang, particularly of scenes on the shadowy streets of Greenwich Village, or the ending, with Robinson haunted by his own demons in a cheap hotel.
Robinson is Chris Cross, a meek, lovelorn cashier. At the film’s outset he receives a gold watch for 25 years of service, and he gets tipsy on champagne. Walking through the Village on his way to the subway, he sees a woman being accosted. With impulsive bravery, he beats off the attacker with his umbrella, and becomes smitten with the woman, Kitty March (Joan Bennett). There are a few problems: Robinson is married to a shrew, and the man beating up Bennett was her boyfriend, Dan Duryea.
Robinson is a Sunday painter, and because he is reluctant to tell Bennett what he really does, she assumes he’s a rich and famous artist. Duryea, not angry or jealous in the least, encourages Bennett to get money from Robinson. The old man is so in love with her that he steals his wife’s first husband’s insurance money. Later he will steal from his firm.
Things progress from bad to worse when Duryea passes Robinson’s paintings off as March’s. The ending comes as quite a shock, and though the film is an old one I won’t spoil it here, except to say that there are a couple of deaths.
Robinson is very effective as the hen-pecked dreamer (he wears an apron while washing dishes, a cinematic representation of emasculation–see Jim Backus in Rebel Without a Cause). Bennett is also good as the reluctant golddigger. But I really liked Duryea, who though now largely forgotten, was a mainstay supporting actor in noir films of the 1940s, and starred in a very good one, Black Angel.
This film is further reinforcement that if you’re an old, ugly guy, don’t believe it if a young girl shows an interest, especially if she asks you for money.