Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Scarlet Street

This month, the Cinématheque Pusan is having a retrospective of the films of Fritz Lang.

Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street (1945) is based on the same novel and play that inspired Jean Renoir's La Chienne (1931), but Lang pushes the material away from comedy towards existential tragedy. Renoir's film ends with laughter. Lang's ends with madness and despair.

Lang moves the story to New York's Greenwich Village. The hero, Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson), is a meek cashier and Sunday painter. At an office party, Christopher and his co-workers catch a glimpse of the boss getting into car with his young mistress. Christopher, who's in a loveless marriage, wonders what it would be like to be loved by a young woman. On his way home that night, Christopher sees a woman being attacked on the street and comes to her rescue.

In the Renoir film, the woman was a prostitute and the man who assaulted her was her pimp. Although Lang's film begins with the image of a street lamp behind the opening credits, Kitty (Joan Bennett) isn't a prostitute, even if she sometimes acts like one. We learn that she used to have a job, but after she started dating Johnny (Dan Duryea), a small time card player, she "could never get to work on time." Johnny calls her "Lazy Legs."

Johnny is a homme fatale. He needs money to enter a high stakes card game, and when Kitty doesn't have any to give him, he beats her up. To impress Kitty, Christopher tells her he's a painter, and Johnny leaps to the conclusion that he's got some money. (Eventually, Christopher steals some bonds left to his wife by her first husband in order to pay for a studio apartment for Kitty.) Johnny doesn't seem the least bit concerned when Kitty tells him how much she hates it when Christopher tries to kiss her.

Kitty tells Christopher she's an actress, and in a sense, she is. Christopher starts storing his paintings at Kitty's apartment when his wife, Adele (Rosalind Ivan), threatens to throw them out. Johnny takes two of them to a street vendor in Washington Square to sell them, and when the unsigned paintings are bought up by an art critic, Kitty plays the role of the artist, repeating the same flowery twaddle that Christopher fed her when he was pretending to be a painter.

Lang seldom uses non-diegetic music, preferring the ambient sound of an organ grinder on the street or a radio program coming from the apartment downstairs. In the latter part of the film, the audio is more subjective with Christopher haunted by the voices of those he wronged.

Although I liked the film on first viewing, seeing it again, I found myself growing impatient with it, and I'm not sure why. Either watching movies like Iron Man (2008) has obliterated my attention span, or the characters are too predictable to sustain interest for 103 minutes. La Chienne is a classic and a good 13 minutes shorter, so unless you're living in Busan right now, that's the one to see.

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