'Scarlet Street' in Classic Cool Context

This Saturday at 9 p.m. , KCET brings you Fritz Lang's 1954 film noir, "Scarlet Street," which stars Edward G. Robinson as a naïve artist whose life spirals dangerously out of control when he falls in love with the wrong woman. This is the latest entry in KCET's "Classic, Cool Theater" series, which aims to give you not only a great film but also a vintage cartoon, two newsreels and an of-the-era musical number. All those extras add up to what makes "Classic Cool Theater" so special: context. In the spirit of this unique package, we're offering you a peek at the America -- and the Los Angeles -- that received "Scarlet Street" on December 28, 1945.

Lies, betrayal and murder lie around every corner in Fritz Lang's "Scarlet Street." The characters not only walk through physical shadows in Fritz Lang's expressionistic representation of 1945 Greenwich Village -- they live in them too.

For instance, Edward G. Robinson's nebbishy protagonist. Christopher Cross, is secretly in love with a prostitute named Kitty, played by Joan Bennett, who plots to extort Cross for all the money she can at the behest of her brutish boyfriend, Johnny. Meanwhile, Chris' domineering wife, Adele, still longs for her dead husband, who may have had things to hide as well.

This twisted psychological study into human nature is a direct descendant of German Expressionism, an artistic tradition epitomized perhaps most famously by Lang through such iconic films as "Metropolis" and "M." Those works, plus his many others, led
the British Film Institute to dub him the "Master of Darkness." Lang fought on the eastern front during World War I and was wounded three times. Lang's use of darkness in cinematography and subject matter belies a history of trauma and pain.

Take a Closer Look Back

One of German Expressionism's first cinematic examples is Robert Wiene's 1920 masterpiece, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." The horror film, like "Scarlet Street," also portrays a man becoming infatuated with a woman. Here's the famous abduction sequence
from that film in which a somnambulist wakes up after 23 years and instantly falls in love with a woman he intended to kill.

"Scarlet Street" was the first picture produced by Diana Productions, a company founded by Bennett, Walter Wanger (her husband and the film's producer), and Lang. But Lang, Bennett and Edward G. Robinson collaborated a year earlier on the film "The Woman in the Window." Here's the trailer:

As depicted in "Scarlet Street," the visual art scene was alive and well in Greenwich Village during the 1940s because New York City was a haven for émigré artists fleeing Europe during World War II and the federal government was funding public murals through the Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.).

This W.P.A. mural can be found at the San Pedro Post Office:

Abstract expressionist painters Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell all lived in Greenwich Village in 1940s. But Los Angeles was home to abstract expressionists during the decade too. Rico Lebrun was active in L.A. while serving as a master
instructor at the long-defunct Jepson Art Institute Downtown.

This is Lebrun working on his crucifixion triptych with Morton Taylor in 1950:

"Scarlet Street" was adapted from the 1931 novel by Georges De La Fouchardière known as "The Poor Sap" in the U.S., but as "The Bitch" in France. The book was also made into a film in France that same year, which was directed by the legendary Jean Renoir.


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