Directed by Fritz Lang
Produced by Walter Wanger
Screenplay by Dudley Nichols
Based on La Chienne
1931 novel and play
by Georges de La Fouchardière (novel)
André Mouézy-Éon (play)
Starring Edward G. Robinson
Music by Hans J. Salter
Cinematography Milton R. Krasner
Edited by Arthur Hilton
Fritz Lang Productions
Diana Production Company
Distributed by Universal Pictures
December 28, 1945 (United States)
February 14, 1946 (New York City, New York)
Country United States
Box office $2,948,386
Scarlet Street is a 1945 film noir directed by Fritz Lang. Two criminals take advantage of a middle-age painter in order to steal his artwork. The film is based on the French novel La Chienne (“The Bitch”) by Georges de La Fouchardière, that previously had been dramatized on stage by André Mouëzy-Éon, and cinematically as La Chienne (1931) by director Jean Renoir.
The principal actors Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea had earlier appeared together in The Woman in the Window (1944) also directed by Fritz Lang.
It’s 1934. Christopher “Chris” Cross (Edward G. Robinson), a meek amateur painter and cashier for clothing retailer, J.J. Hogarth & Company, is fêted by his employer, honoring him for twenty-five years of dull, repetitive service, from 1909-1934. Hogarth presents him with a watch and kind words, then leaves getting into a car with a beautiful young blonde.
Walking home through Greenwich Village, Chris muses to an associate, “I wonder what it’s like to be loved by a young girl.” He helps Kitty (Joan Bennett), an amoral fast-talking femme fatale, apparently being attacked by a man, stunning the assailant with his umbrella. Chris is unaware that the attacker was Johnny (Dan Duryea), Kitty’s brutish boyfriend, and sees her safely to her apartment building. Out of gratitude and bemusement, she accepts his offer for a cup of coffee at a nearby bar. From Chris’s comments about art, Kitty believes him to be a wealthy painter.
Soon, Chris becomes enamored of her because he is in a loveless marriage and is tormented by his shrewish wife Adele (Rosalind Ivan), who idealizes her former husband, a policeman who apparently drowned while trying to save a woman. After Chris confesses that he is married, Johnny convinces Kitty to pursue a relationship in order to extort money from Chris. Kitty inveigles him to rent an apartment for her, one that can also be his art studio. To finance an apartment, Chris steals $500 ($8,800 today) in insurance bonds from his wife and later $1000 ($17,700) from his employer.
Unknown to Chris, Johnny unsuccessfully tries selling some of Chris’s paintings, attracting the interest of art critic David Janeway (Jess Barker). Kitty is maneuvered by Johnny into pretending that she painted them, charming the critic with Chris’s own descriptions of his art, and Janeway promises to represent her. Adele sees her husband’s paintings in the window of a commercial art gallery as the work of “Katherine March” and accuses him of copying her work. Chris confronts Kitty, who claims she sold them because she needed the money. He is so delighted that his paintings are appreciated, albeit only under Kitty’s signature, that he happily lets her become the public face of his art. She becomes a huge commercial success, although Chris never receives any of the money.
Adele’s supposedly dead first husband, Higgins (Charles Kemper), suddenly appears at Chris’s office to extort money from him. He explains he had not drowned but had stolen $2,700 from the purse of the suicide he tried to save. Already suspected as corrupt for taking bribes from speakeasies, he had taken the opportunity to escape his crimes and his wife. Chris lets Higgins into his wife’s room ostensibly so he can get the insurance money from his death but does so when she is asleep in the room, reasoning that his marriage will be invalidated when his wife sees her still-living first husband.
Believing he can now marry Kitty, he goes to see her, but finds out that Kitty has cheated on him. He later confronts Kitty, but still asks her to marry him; she scorns him for being old and refuses to marry him. Enraged he stabs her to death. The police visit Chris at his job, not for the murder but his earlier embezzlement. Although his boss refuses to press charges, Chris is fired. Johnny is accused of Kitty’s murder.
At the trial, all of the deceptions work against Johnny, despite his attempts to implicate Chris, and Chris denies painting any of the pictures. Johnny is convicted and put to death for Kitty’s murder, Chris goes unpunished, and Kitty is erroneously recognized as a great artist.
Haunted by the murder, Chris attempts to hang himself. Although rescued, he is impoverished with no way of claiming credit for his own paintings and tormented by thoughts of Kitty and Johnny being together for eternity, loving each other.
Edward G. Robinson as Christopher Cross
Joan Bennett as Katherine (Kitty) March
Dan Duryea as Johnny Prince
Margaret Lindsay as Millie Ray
Jess Barker as David Janeway
Rosalind Ivan as Adele Cross
Arthur Loft as Dellarowe
Charles Kemper as Patch-eye Higgins
Russell Hicks as J.J. Hogarth
Samuel S. Hinds as Charles Pringle
Anita Sharp-Bolster as Mrs. Michaels
Vladimir Sokoloff as Pop LeJon
Cy Kendall as Nick
Tom Dillon as Policeman
All primary cast members are deceased.
Scarlet Street reunited director Fritz Lang with actors Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea, who had worked with him in The Woman in the Window (1944). The film was based on the French novel La Chienne (“The Bitch”) by Georges de La Fouchardière, that previously had been dramatized on stage by André Mouëzy-Éon, and cinematically as La Chienne (1931) by director Jean Renoir. Lang’s 1954 film Human Desire was based on another Renoir film La Bête humaine (film) (1938), which was based on Émile Zola’s novel on the same name. Renoir was said to have disliked both of Lang’s films.
Scarlet Street is similar to The Woman in the Window in themes, cast, crew and characters. Robinson plays a lonely middle-aged man like he did in the earlier film and Bennett and Duryea play the criminal elements again. Both films were photographed by Milton R. Krasner. Walter Wanger, who produced the film, had earlier produced Lang’s 1937 film You Only Live Once.
Despite being considered a classic of film noir along with Lang’s earlier film The Woman in the Window, Robinson, who noticed the thematic similarities between the two, found the Scarlet Street monotonous to do and couldn’t wait to finish it and move on to other projects. Robinson disliked making the former film as well.
Twelve paintings done for the film by John Decker were sent to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City for exhibition in March of 1946.