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Sex, Obsession and Joan Bennett’s Outstretched Legs: “Scarlet Street”

One of Fritz Lang’s best films explores why some can only be turned on by sexual power games.

By Dan Callahan

Fritz Lang always obsessed over the opening sequences of his movies; in his old age, he was often able to remember these initial scenes shot for shot and nuance for nuance. For Scarlet Street (1945), Lang devised one of his cleverest openings; after the credits, we see a blond streetwalker passing by on a dark city street, giving us a whiff of the illicit, the tawdry, the desirable.

Next we see an organ grinder with his monkey entertaining a sexy blond who sits waiting inside a car; he’s a literal fool for this woman, and for money.

Inside a private club, we then see the type of older lady who spends her whole life answering a phone in an office. She’s sitting outside of what sounds like a noisy men’s smoke club, and with her image, we feel the chill of sexless responsibility.

She’s the crushing ordinariness of daily life set against the thrill of that blond in the car coolly regarding the man trying to please her. In just under two minutes, Lang has set up a grid of information and associations that will carry us through the rest of his movie, one of his own favorites. “Somehow a certain film just seems to click, have all the right touches, and turn out the way I hoped that it would,” he said.

Inside of a private party room, Chris Cross (Edward G. Robinson) is given a watch by his boss for twenty-five years of service as a bank cashier; the boss then leaves to be with his mistress, the blond in the car outside. Cross has worked at the same bank from 1909 to 1934 (around the same time that Lang was forced to leave Germany and find work in Hollywood), and he’s married to a voluminous British complainer (Rosalind Ivan). Cross, a Sunday painter who’s never been able to master perspective, has been forced to do most of his painting seated on the rim of his bathtub with the bathroom door closed. Such is the fate of a man whose name has made him a target of ridicule all his life. But it gets worse.

After the party for his steady job-serving, Cross gets lost in Greenwich Village and sees a man slapping a woman from a distance. Rushing to help this damsel in distress, Cross strikes out at the man; Lang cuts back to Cross covering his face, as if waiting for the counter-blow (Lang holds on this shot just long enough to make it feel dreamlike, suspended in time).

The dream is soon punctured when Cross starts talking to the slapped girl, Kitty. As played by Joan Bennett, Kitty is one of the most unapologetically vulgar heroines in film history, with her metallic Jean Harlow voice and her habit of stretching her arms to press her breasts tight against her gleaming black satin dress.

When Cross asks her what she does for a living, Kitty smiles and says, “Guess,” but he’s such a naïve man that he doesn’t catch her obvious meaning; it’s later revealed that Cross has never even seen a woman naked before. Kitty’s lover and pimp Johnny (Dan Duryea) keeps her in line by smacking her around, and Lang makes it extremely clear that this girl is turned on and even enslaved by sexual violence. Johnny calls her “Lazy Legs” because of her habit of sitting around her filthy apartment with her shapely gams stretched out, eating grapes and spitting the pits out on the floor.

The sentimental Kitty keeps listening to a record of “My Melancholy Baby,” the kind of obnoxiously catchy popular song that gets trapped in your head for days, or for a lifetime (Lang has composer Hans Salter naggingly weave this song all through the movie). Bennett had played a Cockney streetwalker in Lang’s Man Hunt (1941); for that film censors insisted that she have a sewing machine in her room so that her character could be passed off as a seamstress. There’s no sewing machine alibi in Scarlet Street.

Kitty is a schemer, a tart and a crass creep like her boyfriend Johnny, who also lives for sex of a particular kind, and Lang gets this across best when he has them renting a studio apartment that the besotted Cross will pay for. The landlord shows them the bedroom, and there’s a hard cut to black that lasts for a measured moment or two before we fade back in to Johnny’s straw hat on the ground and his long, slim body stretched out exhausted on the bed.

The camera pans across the floor to take in one of Kitty’s open-toe shoes, her gloves, a handful of cigarettes, and her purse, and the impression we get is the aftermath of an all-out S & M sex bout.

Kitty comes into the bedroom with her dress pulled open and her slip showing; she goes to the mirror and checks her teeth, as if she’ll need them later for biting flesh.

Moments later, seducing Cross, Kitty sits down on her bed with her legs tucked under her so that her sexy calves bulge out, and when Cross kisses Kitty, she winces; she can’t stand his gentleness, and she later admits that she’d like him better if he was “mean and vicious” with her.

What Lang is investigating here, with surprising boldness for 1945, is why some people can only be turned on by power games and willing erotic degradation, which Kitty mistakes for “love.” (Lang’s pals said that he was aroused by S & M sex, especially in his earlier German years, and it’s almost certain that he had something going with his leading lady right under the nose of her husband Walter Wanger, who produced Scarlet Street.)  It’s a film noir that melded his geometric visual art and knowledge of sex with unusual pity for the brutalized sensitivity of men like Robinson’s Cross, transfixed by Bennett’s Kitty to the point of helpless rage. Bennett can be stilted at times, but there’s no arguing with the way she masterfully stretches out one of her legs so that Cross can paint her toenails.

She ironically groans at Cross’ artwork, “They’ll be masterpieces,” in a way that sneers at his artistic aspirations while gloating over her sexual power over him. This is a startling moment, and one that brings together all the ironies and reversals that lead to the tragic ending of Scarlet Street, one of Lang’s own masterpieces.

Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in The House Next Door, Bright Lights Film Journal, Senses of Cinema, and the L Magazine, among other publications.

Lead image found at Doctor Macro’s High Quality Scans.

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  • Steven Boone says:

    Great evaluation of my favorite Lang film. This movie gives me shortness of breath. Reading hot pieces like this one, I sometimes wish Hitchcock, Lang and Bunuel had found time remake some of each other’s work.

  • alsolikelife says:

    Now there’s an idea for a game. Hitch-Lang-Bunuel directorial tag.

    I’d love to have seen (irrespective of chronology / if they were alive when the original was made):

    A Bunuel version of REAR WINDOW or M. He’d bring out the comic absurdity of both scenarios, the foolish, pervy obsessions of Jimmy Stewart’s character, and the farcical qualities of the mobs in M.

    A Hitch version of CLASH BY NIGHT or EL

    I’ll offer reasons on the others later… for now hoping someone else joins in.

  • jerseyjoe says:

    This is classic film noir. I once took a course in that genre given by Roger Ebert and this is one of those that he spoke admiringly of.

    There’s an interesting issue here. Robinson was a great lover of art. I had read of that but it became personal knowledge one day.

    I was visiting a museum in Detroit. It may have been in the late 60s or early 70s. I don’t recall the museum’s correct name. Maybe it was the Detroit Art Institute? Something like that.

    It was morning, shortly after opening hours, on a weekday. I thought I was the only visitor. As I was enjoying the famous industrial murals, I realized that the man who had come standing next to me was Mr. Robinson.

    We shared thoughts about the art and politics of the murals as we walked from one to another. He was very erudite but in an unpretentious way. I never said anything about recognizing him as a big star and I have no doubt he knew I did, but appreciated being able to just talk about what was in that moment. For my part, I was happy with seeing someone like him just be himself. It was a mutually agreeable bargain.

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