Friday, June 05, 2015

Summer of Darkness Extra Credit: Scarlet Street

For those who aren't aware yet, I'm taking part in TCM's Summer of Darkness, which is a programming event for June and July, coinciding with an online course on the history and techniques of film noir. It just started this week, which should explain to you why I've been posting so many reviews under the Summer of Darkness heading. As far as suggested movie viewings go, I'm going to be moving at my own pace, due to both the fact that I no longer subscribe to a cable provider, and I've seen several of the movies multiple times. Right now I'm jumping around the schedule quite a bit, rewatching a film or two, and tracking down whatever films on the list I can get my hands on. Throughout the months the course instructor has chosen a few public domain films not airing on TCM that are easy to find online. I plan on watching those, and as I find time, covering a couple of other films that aren't mentioned in the course. Consider these personal tangents I'm embarking on in order to spice things up a bit, or broaden my own personal appreciation of the subject. 

The first public domain film is Fritz Lang's film Scarlet Street, which is available on Hulu or Netflix or, due it's public domain status, on youtube(linked below). If you haven't seen it yet, I highly recommend watching it before reading below the link. I couldn't find a satisfying way to discuss this film without going into detail about the plot, and specifically the finale. So yes, spoilers lie ahead. I believe the film will still have an impact if you read this first, but I understand many people like the go in clean. I know I do. Also, if you somehow came here by mistake and don't feel interested in my ramblings, feel free to click along the trail, but still, watch this movie. 

Scarlet Street opens with a '25th anniversary of employment' party for the whimsically named Christopher Cross(Edward G. Robinson). The beginning passages set Cross up as the ultimate sap; he's been working the same unglamorous job as a cashier for 25 years, he's middle aged and all of his friends seem to be substantially older than he is, he lives with a wife who emasculates him at every turn, and he even wears a comically floppy apron as he does the dishes. The only brightspot in his life seems to be his painting, a hobby which he only allows himself to indulge in on Sundays, as he locks himself in his bathroom to paint still lifes away from the disapproving glare of his wife. He may harbor small daydreams of seeing his work in a gallery one day, but seems content to simply show them to the odd coworker.

That changes one night when he sees his boss climbing into a car with a beautiful younger woman, and his daydreams begin to drift towards romance, and away from his loveless marriage and pathetic routine. On his way home on that same night, Cross comes across a woman being beaten by a man we will later learn is her boyfriend. Cross successfully fends him off with his umbrella, and is immediately smitten with the girl, Katharine, played by Joan Bennett. Cross sees his opportunity, and jumps at it. He begins a courtship of the woman, playacting at the type of affair a wealthier, more confident man might have. He steals money(first from his wife, later from work) in order to rent Katharine an apartment where they can be alone together. He thinks it's love, she just wants a place to lounge around and entertain her hoodlum boyfriend.

But does he really think it's love? I'm not entirely convinced. Robinson never seems all that passionate in the role, which drew some unfavorable notices from critics of the day. But to me he seems to be going through what he imagines a midlife crisis should be. He seems to not really care about sex, which is good because Katharine withholds sex with a variety of flimsy excuses. Cross doesn't seem incredibly interested in Katharine as anything other than a symbol to grasp on to. An imagined ideal of a more lively, romantic, adventurous life. He continues to steal, to lie, to hide part of his life seemingly not out of real desire, but the almost mechanical hope that this will all eventually get to a point where he feels fulfilled. The larger irony here is that what we see of his life before meeting Katharine seems to imply a sense of satisfaction. He's well respected at work, gets along with his coworkers, and even seems satisfied to simply paint on lazy Sunday afternoons.

To say Cross never reaches a point of satisfaction would be a gross understatement. He begins storing his paintings at Katharine's apartment, and Katharine's boyfriend, assuming Cross to be a famous artist, attempts to sell some of them. He quickly learns that no one in the art world has ever heard of Christopher Cross, and hatches a plan to sign Katharine's name to all of the paintings and pass them off as hers. Katharine quickly becomes a success, and word, of course, reaches back to Cross. Instead of feeling anger, however, he's overjoyed. He doesn't care that the paintings have someone else's name on them. He's simply happy to learn that people enjoy his work, and so he helps her by continuing to provide paintings for her to sign off on.

The ending, when it comes, contains so many reversals of fortunes that I wasn't quite sure where it would land. I've got a lot of plot points to get across in this paragraph, so strap in. Cross learns that his wife's former husband, presumed dead, had actually faked his death to skip out on some gambling debts. He threatens to return to his wife unless Cross pays him, but it's clearly a hollow threat. The man doesn't really want to return, and Cross realizes this, plotting to get them back together anyway. Thus, having cleared up the problem of his being married, he feels emboldened to propose to Katharine, but she spits his proposal back in his face. She laughs at him, mocks him, reveals she was only stringing him along for his money. In the heat of the moment Cross stabs her to death with an icepick and flees the apartment. At work the next day, when his boss calls him into his office where two officers are waiting, Cross assumes he's being arrested for murder. But no, it turns out the thefts from his employer were discovered. His employer, respecting and pitying Cross, decides not to press charges, instead simply firing him. And finally, in a montage of Brechtian deus ex machina, Katharine's boyfriend is arrested, tried, sentenced, and executed for her murder. Christopher Cross seems to be in the clear.

But, as the film's coda shows, he's not. He's lost his job, his wife, his home, and even his painting, as he can't reveal to anyone that he was truly the artist behind the suddenly popular works. He tries to kill himself, but is rescued at the last moment. He tries to turn himself in to the police, but they don't believe him. At the end of the film, five years have passed and Cross is homeless, sleeping on park benches. He walks slowly past a gallery where one of his paintings has just sold for thousands of dollars, and continues on down the street. Eventually the crowd leaves him, fades from existence, and he's left alone, trudging slowly through the snow and slush.

I know I bring it up often in these reviews, but the film's treatment of women was a bit suspect. Or rather, it would have been egregious had the film not treated its male characters with the same amount of pitying contempt. All of the women are either nagging shrews or moneygrubbing, self hating whores. But the major male characters don't get off any better. Katharine's boyfriend is an abusive oily creep. Christopher Cross is a sympathetic figure in the early parts of this movie, but as the film goes on we see that his misfortunes are all only attributable to himself. I spent some time after viewing the movie contemplating what it was saying about crime and punishment. Who were the heroes? Who were the victims? The film had a preponderance of victims; no one had a happy end. They all fell prey to their own desire for things they thought they wanted at the expense of those things they needed.

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