Scarlet Street

© 2013 William Ahearn

The story goes that Ernst Lubitsch (or Paramount) bought the film rights to Georges de La Fouchardière’s novel, La Chienne  – it translates as The Bitch – and published in the US as Poor Sap that Jean Renoir had made a film of in 1931. Try as Lubitsch might, he couldn’t create a script that would make it past the Hays Office. The overriding problem is the story’s complete lack of a moral center and it’s just that Gallic twist – the title is sometimes translated as “Life’s A Bitch” – that makes the Renoir film so sardonically amusing.

Lubitsch wasn’t the only one looking to do a remake. Jean Renoir also considered the idea – according to Tom Gunning’s The Films of Fritz Lang that cites Renoir’s Letters, edited by Loraine LoBianco and David Thompson, as a source – and discussed it with Dudley Nichols who had written “Swamp Water” and “This Land Is Mine” that Renoir had directed. In My Life And My Films, Jean Renoir mentions that he and Nichols had considered remaking “Les Bas Fonds” (“The Lower Depths”) and their numerous letters discuss several remake possibilities.

The genesis for the Lang version originated with producer Walter Wanger who found – according to Patrick McGilligan in Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast – the property in studio files. Wanger, Lang – and Wanger’s wife – Joan Bennett had formed Diana Productions and were looking for a script for their first film. Diana Productions also optioned Taylor Caldwell’s Dynasty of Death so that Lang could adapt it to a film.

Lang wrote a 30-page treatment and then worked with a writer that didn’t work out and all that came out of the script meetings was the title “Scarlet Street” that Lang claimed was his idea based on Greenwich Village’s Carmine Street. In another version – according to Lotte Eisner in Fritz Lang – “Lang says he did not know exactly what the title meant but that afterwards he remembered the passage in the Apocalypse of St John where the whore of Babylon is described as ‘the woman arrayed in purple and scarlet’ and thinks that image may have been in the back of his mind.” In another version “somebody” at the meeting suggested the title.

Dudley Nichols became available and he wrote the screenplay with a lot of input by Lang. Joan Bennett was a given and Edward G Robinson, Dan Duryea and cinematographer Milton R. Krasner who were all involved in “The Woman In The Window” signed on.

In The Celluloid Muse: Hollywood Directors Speak, Lang told Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg that he “clashed” with Joe Breen of the Hays Office and then Lang told Peter Bogdanovich in interviews for Fritz Lang In America – when asked if “Scarlet Street” had any censorship problems – “Funnily enough, no. I read somewhere that the Hays Office had been created by a Jesuit. And Hays himself was a Catholic. I had not the slightest difficulty with this picture – because [Christopher Cross] was punished – a great punishment.”

On other occasions, Lang had other versions of the censorship problems of “Scarlet Street.” Lang told Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg that he actually met with Joe Breen and argued his case, telling Breen, ‘“Look, we’re both Catholics. By being permitted to live, [Christopher Cross] in ‘Scarlet Street’ goes through hell. That’s a much greater punishment than being imprisoned for homicide. After all, it was not a premeditated murder; it was a crime of passion. What if he does spend the rest of his life in jail – so what? The greater punishment is surely to have him go legally free, his soul burdened by the knowledge of his deed, his mind constantly echoing with the words of the woman he loved proclaiming her love for the man he’d wrongly sent to death in his place’ . . . and I won my point.”

An odd point in that while the killing of Kitty could be minimized to a “crime of passion,” Cross’ perjury in the trial of Johnny certainly borders on premeditation. That the Hays Office didn’t object to Johnny’s execution for a crime he didn’t commit and focused instead on Cross’ untraditional “punishment” as a moral point is either a glaring oversight or a moral ambiguity I’ll never understand. The issue of Johnny’s execution also didn’t appear in contemporary reviews.

Whether Lang met with Breen – in another version of the story it is Will H Hays that he met with – or whether this is another Goebbels fantasy really isn’t important at this point. The Hays Office signed off on “Scarlet Street” without much fanfare and the resulting struggle with censorship came from the censors in New York State and in Atlanta, Georgia, among other places, that resulted in one line of dialog – “Where’s the bedroom?” – being deleted and the number of times Kitty is stabbed being reduced (from four or five times to once). Both deletions have been restored and all the censors accomplished – typically – is what the publicity department always hopes for: The sale of more tickets.

During the war years Joe Breen was almost besieged by producers in Hollywood and from London to relax the rules against mild swear words such as “hell” and “damn” in war films to make the characters more credible. Breen famously replied: “The mission of the Hays Office is not patriotism, it is morality.”

And “morality” seems to be the crux of “Scarlet Street” and this aspect of a character is not “Langian” – in terms of his German films – it is pure Hollywood. It isn’t a quality found in any of the characters in his German films – not even child killer Hans Beckert in “M” displays any remorse – and the same is true of films from the Weimar era that supposedly influenced “Scarlet Street” such as Karl Grune’s “The Street” (1923) or Joe May’s “Asphalt” (1929) or even Josef von Sternberg’s “The Blue Angel” (1930) – as The Spectator mentioned in its 1946 review – and certainly not the French original, Jean Renoir’s “La Chienne” (1931). Gavin Lambert writing in Sight and Sound in 1955, noted that “Scarlet Street” is “Lang’s most European American film . . . creating some dark texture impressions of an anonymous, melancholy urban world.” The “anonymous, melancholy urban world” might be the European quality, yet, the guilt is pure Hollywood and how that guilt arrives to haunt Christopher Cross is rather interesting.

Cross seemed utterly unperturbed for murdering Kitty. He shows up every day at Johnny’s trial and even has the fortitude to lie under oath on the stand with not a hair out of place or unshaven stubble. His feelings of guilt arrive via a suggestion of a reporter on a train that tells him there’s a “little man” inside him that will never let him get away with anything. And that is what inspires Cross’ guilt as if remorse isn’t innate but learned.

Or is it remorse? In Fritz Lang, Lotte Eisner states that Lang had to make a crime-does-not-pay “gesture” to the Hays Office and that Lang said that “Chris [Cross] suffers neither from the death of Lazy Legs nor from having sent an innocent man to the electric chair. [Cross] suffers only from a jealousy which cannot be assuaged even by the death of the two people involved. He still hears their love talk, is tortured by it, and this is what turns him into a bum.”

Lang isn’t exactly a reliable witness as has been demonstrated time and again. Nichols described it as a “crime doesn’t pay” film and on other occasions so has Lang. The film seems to backup what Lang told Eisner about the jealousy angle in that Cross doesn’t go insane until after the lovers are reunited in some imagined afterlife and, no, there are no parallels to Lang’s “Der Müde Tod.” It’s after Johnny’s death that Cross begins to hear the voices and the reporter on the train talking about the “little man” inside is misdirection since Cross shows no signs of guilt prior to Johnny’s death. Eisner says that Cross looks “shabby and unshaven” and whether that’s the beginning of his haunting or the result of climbing the pole – in a scene that was cut – to watch the voltage drop when the electrocution takes place is a coin toss. Either way, it isn’t until Johnny’s demise that Cross manifests anything out of the ordinary.

“Scarlet Street” is either a derivative re-imaging of the German “street” films or an innovative twist on them. What separates “Scarlet Street” is the moral basis of the film or the ultimate jealousy leading to insanity depending on how the film is viewed. Any way the film is viewed, it’s clear that Thea von Harbou didn’t write it and the result is either Lang falling back on his Christian upbringing – as he told Bogdanovich – or taking the morality of Hollywood films to their logical extreme.

If there’s a downside to the jealousy angle, it’s in how it is expressed and – once again – the use of anachronisms rears its ugly head. In the scene where Chris Cross attempts suicide there is the flashing light of a neon sign – that would be repeated in numerous postwar Hollywood crime films – and that Yasujiro Ozu had made fun of in “Dragnet Girl” almost a decade previously – as well as the voices of the “ghosts” that seem almost silly at times and may be similar to the choices that led the preview audience of “Fury” to laugh out loud. Cross hearing voices could have been in the scene at the end where the police stop him in the park and he “confesses” to the two murders. He could have complained to the police about hearing the voices and that would have convinced them in their belief that he was insane.

Recent academic criticism has ended the conversation about whether Cross was motivated by guilt or jealousy. “Scarlet Street” is actually about the Holocaust. In “A Very Notorious Ranch, Indeed: Fritz Lang, Allegory, and the Holocaust,” appearing in Journal of Contemporary Thought, Walter Metz cites Tom Conley as “the second critic to use allegorical criticisms to interpret the cinema of Fritz Lang. In Film Hieroglyphics, Conley connects ‘Scarlet Street’ (1945) to the horrors of the Holocaust. Using a Derridean-based method he labels ‘hieroglyphic criticism,’ which is based on analyzing what he calls the written ‘rebus’ within the film image, Conley studies an early scene in which the protagonist, Chris Cross, stands under a sign in Greenwich Village which reads ‘JEWELRY.’

“Conley argues: Jewelry allows other inflections to bear upon the protagonist, to mark and endow him with traits running in directions other than the narrative. JEW(EL)RY: thus the word that is a mannequin enclosing another term, the El, to be heard during the first primal scene, is first anticipated in the center of JewELry. If it is subtracted from the word, the remainder is Jewry, which brings forth the phantasm of genocide at the moment of the liberation of the concentration camps, a time synchronous with the production of the film. Jewry will be what is redeemed (in the pawnshop) through the passage of Christopher Cross. EL subtends the sign of the Hell of the unimaginable dimensions of the camps.”

Apparently, Tom Conley took a correspondence course in film criticism from Emily Litella of Saturday Night Live, circa 1976. Whatever interpretation – guilt or jealousy – resonated with audiences isn’t known and “Scarlet Street” was not only a hit but also a cause célèbre in the seemingly never-ending struggle against the local censorship boards. Generally, the film is considered one of Lang’s best Hollywood films.

Cloak and Dagger