A milquetoast cashier. A scheming prostitute. Her even harder-scheming boyfriend. The misrepresentation of art. A faked death. A sudden, very real, murder. All of these hard noir elements find their way into Scarlet Street, Fritz Lang’s initially dismissed but several times re-evaluated 1945 crime picture. We remember the Austrian auteur, and rightly so, for such immortal pieces of early 20th-century European cinema as Metropolis, M, and the Dr. Mabuse trilogy.
But from the mid-thirties onward, Lang directed English-language films prolifically, often using novels as source material. You can watch Scarlet Street, a work from that period which has drawn more and more cinephilic attention since its release, free online. Starring Edward G. Robinson as a clothing-store clerk and hapless part-time painter alongside Joan Bennett as his working-girl object of frustrated desire, the film appeared as the second adaptation of Georges de La Fouchardière’s book La Chienne, the first having come from Jean Renoir.
“An uncompromising subversive remake,” critic Dennis Schwartz calls Scarlet Street, “with a particularly acute American accent.” In Cinema Journal, Matthew Bernstein called it “dense, well-structured film noir.” But the picture came in for a critical drubbing at first: the New York Times‘ Bosley Crowther called it “a sluggish and manufactured tale,” and Time bemoaned its “painfully obvious story.” But whatever the arguments about the movie’s artistic merit, it clearly touched a nerve with the New York State Censor Board, who banned it on grounds that it “would tend to corrupt morals.”‘ The city censor of Atlanta cited “the sordid life it portrayed, the treatment of illicit love, [and] the failure of the characters to receive orthodox punishment from the police,” calling it “licentious, profane, obscure and contrary to the good order of the community.” Does Scarlet Street retain its power to shock? Did Lang craft it with a complexity and elegance not obvious to American audiences of the mid-forties? Click play and find out for yourself.