Scarlet Street (1945)

When it’s on: Friday, 29 December (8.55 am)
Channel: Talking Pictures
IMDb Link

Some time ago on these pages, I covered Ms Joan Bennett and her luminous starring role in Max Ophuls’s The Reckless Moment. Both in real life and on screen, Bennett was a compelling and fascinating lady, capable of adapting her talents to various guises just as her world away from film spun through a series of controversies and scandals. You can imagine her acting ability being put to good use as she switched from delicate victim to femme fatale, always with her survival instinct present and correct.

Before Ophuls cast her as a compromised middle class housewife in his 1949 movie, Bennett was perhaps best known for the two films she made with Fritz Lang in the middle of that decade, The Woman in the Window followed by Scarlet Street. Both feature the same cast members – downtrodden, broken Edward G Robinson and thuggish spiv, Dan Duryea – but it’s Bennett who takes two very different parts. In the earlier film she’s classy, but in Scarlet Street she plays Kitty, a low rent tramp, tied to petty conman Johnny (Duryea), who she loves despite suffering physical abuse from him. Though the script never states it Kitty is almost certainly a prostitute, or at least ‘fallen’ enough to use sex casually, and as a consequence she’s beautiful, brassy and in her manner and speech as pure as the driven slush. It would take a true sap to see anything in her beyond irredeemable white trash, and into her world slopes Chris Cross (Robinson), middle-aged, subservient, his soul crushed by life, and yet hopeful.

Through Dudley Nichols’s screenplay, Lang’s direction and a top notch performance by Robinson, Chris is one of those characters who appears to have stumbled into the film from bitter reality. He represents everyone’s broken dream. His lowly cashier’s job pays little and offers nothing, and yet he’s just completed 25 years’ service. He’s married to a lady who dotes on her former late husband, his portrait hanging in pride of place within the parlour to put Chris squarely in his place. Chris works and does the domestic chores while spending his scraps of spare time painting, a release from the dirge that offers him some tiny sense of pleasure. He knows his attempts at art aren’t very good, but that isn’t the point – he loves doing it, despite his harridan wife (Rosalind Ivan) complaining about the smell of paint and threatening to throw all his work away.

In Kitty – who he chances across one night – he sees a chance to turn his life around. She seems to show an interest in him, and that morsel of attention is enough to compel Chris to begin lavishing her with money and gifts, but the entire relationship is based on misconceptions and assumptions. He refuses to let the shades fall away and see her for what she really is, choosing to ignore shady Johnny who always appears to be around while claiming to be just a friend. As for Kitty, her initial meeting with Chris happens when he’s returning from a night out – he’s dressed opulently and is taking about £50,000 art purchases, which suggests to her he’s loaded, a big shot. Johnny tells her to exploit this, which she does half-heartedly. She doesn’t want to take their plan of swindling Chris out of his money too far, but it isn’t long before she’s in over her head. While Johnny starts selling Chris’s paintings to make a bit on the side, the pair have no idea that his largesse is coming from robbing the work safe, that he thinks it will all be worth it because it will ultimately lead to marriage with Kitty and some half grasped happily ever after.

The result of all this scheming and dreaming is an inevitable spiral towards destruction and doom for Chris, Kitty and even Johnny. Each character is punished in some poetic fashion, and while The Woman in the Window came with a final twist that suggested redemption and lessons learned, there’s no such optimistic coda to be found here. It’s as though Lang was robbed of taking his earlier feature to its natural conclusion by a studio fearful of such downbeat storytelling, but was allowed free rein on Scarlet Street and seized the opportunity, handing his characters their just desserts in various degrees of bleakness. As a cruel irony, Chris’s paintings happen to be spotted by a prestigious studio and go on to sell for thousands, though thanks to Johnny’s machinations by then the pictures bear someone else’s name. It’s a satirical note, a comment perhaps on the whims of fate, or a wink back in time to the director’s own early years as a struggling artist before entering the German film industry and becoming part of the Expressionist movement. In any event it shows the possible ‘happy ending’ Chris wishes for, but has long since pulled it from beneath him.

Scarlet Street builds to one of the most pessimistic and indeed depressing finishes I remember seeing on film, certainly where romantic Hollywood cinema is concerned. It brings a European ethos to bear, the sensibility that stories in which people do bad things won’t necessarily lead to an ending where the characters are compensated but instead face ruin, whether through death or forced to live, destroyed morally and haunted by the ghosts of the past.  It isn’t an easy film to stomach, but it successfully holds a mirror to the attitudes of the period, the Noir ethic reflecting society’s sense of uncertainty as the horrors of war and endings that held no satisfactory note were all too real. There’s a hint of unfairness about Chris’s fate, that his only real mistake was to fall in with a ‘bad crowd’ and allow himself to be duped, but hey, bad things happen to people who don’t necessarily deserve it and Chris, who lets himself be manipulated and has no right to imagine a future with Kitty, sort of has it coming. While Lang does offer a note of pity in his instance, it doesn’t really amount to much and the character, shattered and in the grip of a complete mental breakdown, is left to shuffle off into the void of his own making.

So why watch it at all? The reality is Scarlet Street is masterly film making and that ought to be reason enough. Lang was a perfectionist, slave driving his cast and crew to put his personal vision onto the screen, and in this film he spared no effort in capturing it. Milton Krasner, the cinematographer who would be rewarded with an Academy Award for Three Coins in a Fountain a decade later, applied Lang’s visual language with some stunning imagery. The way Chris sees Kitty, bathed in white and angelic, utterly at odds with reality but emphasising his ironic perception, is bathed in soft white light. Later, as our ‘hero’ embarks on his walk of ruin, the shadows creep into the frame more. He’s living in a pathetic hovel, light offered harshly by a neon sign outside the window, which leaves most of his room shrouded in darkness. Chris hears the voices of Kitty and Johnny, his ‘Hello, Lazy Legs‘ and her whispered, sexy ‘Jeepers Johnny, I love you‘ taunting him, presumably for the rest of his days, and the camera all but suggests that those black corners contain their spirits.

Robinson is absolutely believable as the film’s victim, to such an extent in fact that when I picture him it’s as this character, all those years playing hoodlums and the likes of Keyes in Double Indemnity playing support to his role in Scarlet Street. The same with Bennett. Lang saw in her the beautiful woman who has lived and those years of blows, bad choices and bitterness have created the jaded character of Kitty, in her own way every bit as pathetic as Chris, trapped within a destructive relationship and heading in just one direction. There aren’t very many film roles, especially for females, from the classic period that hinted at such a complicated back story for their characters, honing them into the people they are in the movie, but Scarlet Street suggests exactly that and without slapping minutes of exposition onto the screen. The result is a pessimistic work, but a masterpiece in the telling and execution.

Scarlet Street: *****

The Reckless Moment (1949)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 5 January (2.25 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Recently, I’ve taken the opportunity to watch a couple of Max Ophuls’s films from his American period. He reminds me a lot of Douglas Sirk, his fellow German director who came to the USA and, in his work, showed a mirror up to society and found it wanting. There was Caught, Ophuls’s study of the capitalist American dream, Barbara Bel Geddes achieving it when she marries Robert Ryan’s millionaire. It quickly becomes apparent that Ryan’s a rich asshole, a megalomaniac who’s surrounded himself with sycophants on the payroll and, in his eyes, Bel Geddes carries exactly the same status. So she runs away, into the arms of James Mason’s kindly and understanding doctor, and the film’s dilemma becomes one of choosing true happiness on modest means or an empty life of wealth.

Mason’s services were retained for The Reckless Moment, a title that makes better use of his talents as it was frustrating to see an actor of his intensity and range taking on a straight role in Caught. In this entry, the character he plays is complicated and interesting, a blackmailer who falls in love with the victim because she is from a level of society to which he can never aspire. The romantic undertones between him and Joan Bennett are palpable, but I’m not sure ‘romance’ is the appropriate word; instead Mason’s character slips from turning up on her doorstep with the aim of extorting money from her to helping around the house, carrying her groceries and interacting socially with her family. His effort to impress himself on a middle class family is quietly heartbreaking. You wonder what he’s experienced previously to give up on his lot in chasing a clearly lost cause.

And that’s just one element of a great thriller that takes a step into nightmarish Noir territory, presenting viewers with the sort of unresolvable dilemma that keeps the suspense ticking until its close. The central plot hook is familiar territory to Joan Bennett, who starred in The Woman in the Window five years earlier. When not walking around in daring see-through blouses, Bennett’s character became embroiled with Edward G Robinson when the pair accidentally murder someone and then attempt to cover their tracks, something you know will be a hopeless exercise because in these films, crime never pays. Just like in The Reckless Moment, she’s blackmailed for $5,000, five gees, an impossible quandary that feels like the start of a slide into despair and ruin.

The character Bennett plays in The Reckless Moment is very different from her glamorous role in Fritz Lang’s entry. Here she’s Lucia Harper, a respectable housewife living in the quiet Los Angeles suburb of Balboa. It’s a typical 1940s small community, where everyone knows each other and added to that each other’s business. The world is presented as idyllic, though the Harper family, once you peer beneath the surface, is dysfunctional and far from perfect. Mr Harper works away from home, in West Berlin, and won’t be home for Christmas. While Lucia’s son, Tom (Henry O’Neill), is just an over-exuberant teenage lad, her daughter, Geraldine Brooks’s Bea, is a different prospect altogether. She’s chosen art school over going to college and here she has hooked up with older man Ted Darby (Shepperd Strudwick). Believing the age gap between Darby and Bea is intolerable, Lucia goes into the city to tell him to stop seeing her, only to get an insight into his true character when he says it will cost her, five gees to be precise. Lucia refuses and returns home, but Darby follows her and meets Bea in the boathouse. Bea’s been clued in by Lucia about his blackmail attempt and brushes him off, but a tussle ensues and only finishes when she runs off and Darby is inadvertently killed. Early the following morning, Lucia discovers the body and the anchor he’s collapsed upon. You or I might contact the authorities at that point, but instead she tries to spare her daughter and the family’s reputation and dumps the corpse in some nearby swamps.

End of the matter? Yeah, course it is. The body’s discovered and the police start searching, though it’s clear that only a staggering leap of logic would lead them to the Harper’s door. Unwisely though, Darby’s loose and fast lifestyle led him into building a string of debts. He owed money to Nagel and Donnelly (Mason), and in collateral they possess a number of love letters Bea had written to Darby. The letters are incriminating, evidence of the link between the Harper family and Darby, and Donnelly turns up to see Lucia and demand five gees for their return, or he’ll take them to the authorities. Lucia flusters; she doesn’t have that kind of money. Her inability to just get rid of Donnelly is horrifying. When other family members show up and invite him for dinner or some chatter about the ‘old country’ (he’s Irish, like Lucia’s father), two things become transparent – the easy sociability of the household, in which people can only ever be there if they’re friendly, and Lucia’s rising sense of shame. And then something else – Donnelly responds. At first it feels like a ploy, as though he knows he’s an embarrassment to her and plays up to the family’s good-natured attention in order to turn the screw, but as the days pass it transpires his feelings run deeper than that. He buys her a gift when they meet at the shop. He pays and serves coffee to her at a moment of tension. Donnelly steadily becomes the husband figure in her life, ostensibly protecting her from the tougher partner, Nagel (Roy Roberts), but in truth serving as surrogate in the absence of Mr Harper. The lengths he goes to in order to protect her become pivotal when Nagel shows up and he’s forced to decide between the racket and Lucia.

It’s a fascinating study, part affection (Lucia’s a beautiful woman) but almost certainly more to do with the world she represents, a cosy and friendly environment that is obviously alien to the hard knock life he knows. This was early in Mason’s career as an American film star (he was a major British player, with certain wartime titles going on to be among the country’s most profitable at the domestic box office), but already he was establishing himself as a mature actor, lending credibility to his character and the relationship he establishes with Lucia. What could have been a straight melodrama gains heft as the dilemma they share is dealt with, as far as possible, in a relatable, adult fashion.

But it takes two, and Bennett as Lucia is simply electrifying. Having enjoyed some delicious femme fatale roles earlier in the decade (the character she plays in Lang’s Scarlet Street, again opposite Edward G Robinson, ranks among the screen’s ultimate honey traps; it’s very dark) as well as dominating the gossip columns with endless details about her private life, this role was a real gift. As a housewife for whom the family means everything, she readily shoulders responsibility for disposing of Darby’s body, deals exclusively with the blackmail levelled against her daughter (about which Bea knows nothing), maintains a busy and disorganised home, and frets over the household bills. Knowing she has to raise the five gees, she take it upon herself to visit pawn shops and loan offices, the latter almost a comic situation as she’s shoved inside a glass booth, this respectable woman, whilst in other booths we can see little episodes of anonymous financial desperation play out. She does it all practically, just because that’s her role and it what she does. There’s no collapsing under the strain; the only time we see her cry is at the film’s close when she’s been released from her predicament. Incidentally, there’s a great piece on Bennett’s real-life shenanigans over at Shadows and Satin; it’s well worth a read, particularly as it makes a refreshing change to find that she had the last laugh.

The Reckless Moment was not a success upon its release, and there’s a sense of it being hopelessly ahead of its time, its psychology too sophisticated for the audiences to whom it played. Ophuls responded by returning to Europe (he was a Jew who fled his native Germany when the Nazis arrived, and then moved across the Atlantic when his new home in France fell in 1940) and enjoyed arguably his most impressive creative period, certainly the most celebrated. The tendency to sidetrack the four films he directed in America is natural enough, but wrong. The Reckless Moment is brilliant cinema.

The Reckless Moment: ****