If you’re a fan of classic noir, or of jacked-up, pathological carnivalesque in general, you’ll be excited to learn that the Magnum Opus of iconic filmmaker Fritz Lang’s gritty and surrealistic Hollywood tenure, Scarlet Street, is at last available on Blu-ray from Kino Classics. Lang, a veteran of silent-era Expressionism in his native Germany and later paean of American noir, cited Scarlet Street as his own personal favorite of his American period, and witnessing the film for the stylish and soul-skewering crucible that it is, it’s not difficult to understand why. Scarlet Street features acclaimed period staples Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea, and is presented by Kino in a beautiful, crisp, and near-uncut-as-possible transfer.
Scarlet Street stars Robinson as Christopher Cross, a henpecked cashier and would-be artist whose oppressive, monotonous existence is uprooted unexpectedly by a late-night, drunken confrontation with Johnny Prince (Duryea), a man Cross assumes is a mugger. In reality, Prince is a pimp interrupted in the act of roughing up his girlfriend, Kitty (Bennett), who misinterprets Chris’s casual remarks about himself to mean that he is a wealthy and famous painter capable of providing her with a lavish and pampered existence. Chris, a married man, soon becomes enamored of Kitty, and is reduced to stealing from his boss in order to desperately bolster the illusion of his own wealth and prestige, unaware that Kitty and Johnny are privately conspiring against him.
One of the few films produced during Lang’s brief period of creative autonomy in Hollywood, Scarlet Street is both searingly mundane and operatically stylized in its depiction of an unassuming nebbish destroyed by his own awkward libidinal confrontations with unrealized glamour. Robinson, a perennial of the noir tradition, is renowned for his ability, despite distinctive craggy features and a hallmark style of inflection, to embody with versatility a gallery of paradoxical roles – from benevolent authority figures, to hardened Mafiosos, to the modest breed of aging, vulnerable naïf he portrays here. The performances from Robinson, Bennett, and Duryea, and the film’s tight and impassioned style of production are stellar, and Lang’s gut-punching, jugular-vein cinematic treatment of Robinson’s degradation and ruin at the hands of crass, frivolous extortionists is transcendently powerful, harrowing, and sad.
Lang’s original print of the film was unfortunately subjected to cursory nitpicking by censorship organizations, and a few cut scenes from Lang’s original version have been permanently destroyed or lost. Kino presents the film in its most complete existing theatrical cut, with a gallery of production stills, lobby cards, and frames from scenes that were later deleted, plus a comprehensive commentary track by film historian David Kalat. Seventy-seven years after its first release, Scarlet Street is still a riveting film, and an unquestionable high watermark, not just of the noir tradition, but of Hollywood filmmaking in general.