Fritz Lang’s 1945 movie, “Scarlet Street,” features a very naive old man and a couple of con artists so dumb it amazes me that it doesn’t play more like a comedy. But the innocent story of an older man infatuated by a younger women leads to one of the darkest endings in film noir history, and the film can be counted as a must-see picture for its tight-framed visual style and clear focused black and white cinematography.
Edward G. Robinson stars as Christopher Cross, an extremely mild-mannered and honest bookkeeper. The movie begins at a party in a New York City restaurant, where the boss gives Chris a pocket watch for 25 years of valuable service. Eventually, Chris steps away from the party and goes out into a driving rain storm, where he sees a man slapping a pretty girl. He strikes the man with his umbrella, knocking him down. The man runs off before the police arrive, but Cross walks the girl home.
The girl, Katherine “Kitty” March (Joan Bennett), comes off as savvy and street smart, which should be a warning for Chris to stay away. He instantly becomes smitten by her and tells her about his hobby of painting canvasses on Sunday. Kitty misinterprets this to mean Chris is a successful artist who commands upwards of $50,000 per painting. Her con-man boyfriend, Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea), gets into the act, egging her on to take Chris for all his money. Kitty plays along, but the resulting ruse plunges Chris into dark and unusual behavior.
Kitty keeps asking for more money, and Chris eventually puts her up in a large studio apartment in Greenwich Village, New York City. Chris, however, lives with his wife in a loveless marriage. When his wife threatens to throw out his paintings, Chris moves them to Kitty’s apartment. In a comic turn of events, the paintings are discovered by a famous critic, and Kitty is thought to be the artist. The paintings end up in a prestigious gallery where they sell for good prices. Chris handles this like he does everything else, with misguided indifference.
It doesn’t seem like much of a moral dilemma for Chris to get rid of his annoying and shrewish wife, but once Chris begins his deceitful plunge into Kitty’s world, things go bad quickly. He thinks about killing her until a better idea suddenly occurs to him. Kitty never seems like a good person to fall in love with; she’s always eating fruits and spitting the pits on the floor or throwing her cigarette down in her apartment. In addition, Johnny’s always around, which would unnerve any sane man. Chris needs to unhook himself from everything, and he manages to do it in the worst way possible.