06 May 2010

Scarlet Street

With all its confused gender and identity swapping, this may be Hollywood's first transsexual picture. Scarlet Street tells the story of pathetic Chris Cross, a fifty-year-old virgin, who, despite being married for five years, has never seen a woman naked. To escape his crushing loneliness (and perhaps to save on rent, as well), Cross married his ball-cutting landlady, and ended up as her domestic servant. The frog-faced star of David, Edward G. Robinson, plays Cross, and appears in much of the film in a flowery apron, doing the cooking and cleaning. He's clearly the woman in his masochistic marriage, dominated and bullied by his butch wife. Cross' only pleasure comes from painting, but he's so beaten down, he doesn't think his pictures are worth showing.

In a fluke encounter, Cross meets Kitty, an attractive young woman whose beauty only goes skin deep--but that's enough to blind the hapless old eunuch. Kitty is a real alley cat, and she just about devours the mouse-of-a man Cross in a series of increasingly high-stakes cons.

Kitty is involved in an S&M relationship of her own with pimpish boyfriend Johnny. The more Johnny beats Kitty, the more she loves him. In fact, Kitty is a lazy tramp (there's a nice scene of her spitting grape seeds around her filthy apartment, dirty dishes piled high in the kitchen sink), and really only gets the energy required to fleece Cross from the motivational beatings Johnny gives her.

The sap Cross, who has been a loyal and faithful bank employee for twenty-five years, and a punching bag husband and *solid citizen,* begins what might seem a moral slide, as he steals from his wife and then the bank in order to get the cash necessary to support his Kitty addiction. But then money quickly starts flowing in when, in a rather far-fetched plot twist, Johnny accidentally launches Cross' art career. Cross' paintings are discovered and take the art world by storm, but at Johnny's violent urging, Kitty takes credit as the artist, which leads one art critic to marvel at the *masculinity* of her work. The colossal patsy Cross goes along with the scheme, stupidly thinking his pictures are only valued when they are believed to be the work of a woman.

Robinson's skillful performance, though, subtly suggests Cross has always been other than he appears, and that he just needed the scent of Kitty's kitty to give him the courage of his flawed convictions.

Indeed, when the mercilessly suckered Cross finally wises up and realizes what a dope Kitty has made of him, that she loves the repellent Johnny and considers Cross to be a literally laughable ugly old wimp, all of Cross' tangle of repressed conflicts and desires explode, and he assaults Kitty in a predictable act of psycho-sexual revenge (one can only imagine the sticky mess in his pants after he has had his violent way with Kitty. . .and the film would have played much better had the masochistic Kitty stayed true to character, and welcomed Cross' ultimate S&M finale).

Scarlet Street is not-quite a great movie. The plot requires a too-high degree of credulity, the early scenes are played a little too light, and there is an over-long and tediously moralizing post-script. Most damaging, however, is Joan Bennett's performance as Kitty. She tries hard, but lacks the charisma necessary to light up what could have been a great femme fatale role. She's dull, not seductive, and it makes Robinson's blind infatuation hard to believe.


  1. Yes, nearly great. I think it *is* one of the better Hollywood remakes, but I still prefer Renoir's original ("La Chienne") which is less angry, but funnier and sadder, and features one of my favorite actors Michel Simon.

  2. I've never seen *La Chienne*. . .heard a lot about it, would like to see it. . .but it's not on dvd, is it? Netflix doesn't offer it.

  3. I think this review is brilliant with a caveat. The gender focus is great. Didn't think that Chris' masculinity in his paintings may be the result of his emasculation via his marriage and that Kitty's feint of masculinity may be a hint to the root of her masochism. I disagree with the casting of Joan, however. I think she is perfect in the role and gave a realistic performance.