Scarlet Street : Problems with film

Problems with film

Anyone following the Classic Film Board might have noticed an interesting discussion going on there about Lang and Hitchcock (which has recently morphed to include Renoir).

In response to a reply to my Original Post, I decided to watch "Scarlet Street", which I hadn't seen for a while. I wanted to love the film, as part of my general rediscovery of Lang, and his Hollywood films (the German films I see often, and sometimes include in my film history courses), but had major problems with it, as I did, for different reasons, with "Woman in the Window".

1. The characters were schematic, simplistic, and over the top. The only actor who created a reasonable character was Edward G. Robinson. Dan Duryea was so unbelievable, I can't understand how anyone bought anything he said, especially the art people, who weren't blinded by the same frustrations and passions as Criss. Rosalind Ivan was so shrill, I couldn't see any possible basis for their relationship (even though it was "explained" to us. Joan Bennett tried, but didn't have it in her.

I'm usually more than willing to make that leap of faith, to suspend my disbelief, but this was pushing it. Hitchcock's didn't always make sense, but the characters did.

2. I can better understand why Hitchcock didn't deal with details. All the energy put into the plot towards the end - Johnny gets the ice pick, and the fact is known, Kitty tells her friend that Johnny's returned, etc. - drag down the whole film, and any emotional momentum.

As usual, there's much to like in the film, the atmosphere, and the post-war noir look at American society, but the flaws were for me, at least at this recent viewing, hard to ignore.

I'll be glad to read any comments.

Re: Problems with film

>1. The characters were schematic, simplistic, and over the top. The only actor who created a reasonable character was Edward G. Robinson.

I feel there is a point in the others being schematic, stylistic characters. His loneliness in the world is more emphasized then. Just my 2c.

Re: Problems with film

The characters have to bow too often to the plot---so they are uneven, inconsistent (emotionally and logically), unconvincing, stereotypical. None seem to act according to an identity, but to the dictates of the story line. Not a satisfying or convincing film---esp when it comes to character---not much more than a whole nest of interacting stereotypes. Yet, somehow, in the end, is a fairly effective film (perhaps the noir stuff saves it)

Re: Problems with film

In your case there in no problem with the film, the problem is with the viewer.

Karunesh

Re: Problems with film

>"1. The characters were schematic, simplistic, and over the top. The only actor who created a reasonable character was Edward G. Robinson."

A few of things about this.

First, I'm not sure why you found Chris Cross any more believable than the other characters. To me, he seems to be an all-too-perfect mark for Kitty and Johnny. He's a sentimental sap who's totally oblivious to what people actually think of him, and he's just about the most henpecked husband I've ever seen in a movie. Now, I still care about him, because I can see aspects of him in myself (and in other people I know)--even if he displays those aspects in a pure, or extreme, form that doesn't seem especially plausible. But that's because he's an important and evocative type of character (his idealized characteristics say something important about facets of all of our characters), and not because he's well-rounded or believable.

Second, the simplicity of the characters is something that I enjoy about Lang's movies. I tend to think of them as something like philosophical thought experiments: he's simplifying the people and their relations to such an extent because it makes everything crystal clear. (I think Andrew Sarris compares Lang's movies to fables at some point, and I guess that gets at a similar idea.) It allows us to get to the emotional and intellectual point of it all more directly. I think this adds potency, and not simply clarity. And I guess I don't see how making Johnny less sociopathic, or Kitty more affectionate towards Chris, or Chris's wife less of a shrew would add to the film in any way; it just seems that it would muddy the water unnecessarily.

Now, you might think the simplicity of the characters detracts from the film's plausibility--but I don't think the film is really going for realism. While the film plays realistically for most of its running time, I think it turns into a full-blow nightmare by the end. (And I think this is reflected in the visual style of the film, which is fairly anonymous before turning into an expressionist horror show in the final couple of reels.) The indignities and cruel ironies in Chris's life just end up piling to an implausible degree--and that's the source of a lot of the movie's power.

Third, I think the simplicity of the characters also contributes to a lot of the film's humor, which, on my way of looking at this movie, is crucial to what it's doing. I think the first hour or so of this movie is filled with genuinely funny, albeit exceptionally dark and nasty, black humor. I laugh a lot during this movie, and quite a bit that laughter is directed at Chris--which I'm sure is intentional. There are times when Lang seems clearly to be expecting us to take a sort of pleasure in the way Kitty and Johnny play with Chris, and to laugh along with them at his naivete. And I doubt I'd laugh as much if the characters weren't presented as exaggerated caricatures of human beings. If they seemed slightly more well-rounded, the awfulness of their behavior and the sadness of their lives would be too painful to laugh about.

And I don't think the humor in Scarlet Street is there simply to make the movie more pleasurable--though, without that humor, this might well be an unbearably grim movie. I feel like our laughing at Chris, and the way those around him openly disrespect and manipulate him, is vitally important to the impact of the end of the film--because it's Chris's realization that the people around him see him as a joke that precipitates his slipping into violence and madness. And we, the audience, have been laughing right along with those who see him as a joke; we're culpable on some level, too. (And how can we ignore the nagging worry that maybe--just maybe--the people around us see us as ridiculous in the same way that we've seen Chris as ridiculous throughout the movie?)

Re: Problems with film

I dunno, compared to many other classic era Hollywood movies, I found the acting mostly fairly understated. Sure, the Duryea guy was quite one-dimensionally scummy the same as - apparently - in all of his roles and Robinson´s wife a crude caricature of domestic evil (her original husband, when he appeared, may have been the worst though because he constituted the moment when Robinson´s mishap reached the point of ultimate ham fisted overkill), but Robinson and Bennett were quite stellar.



"facts are stupid things" - Ronald Reagan

Re: Problems with film


Second, the simplicity of the characters is something that I enjoy about Lang's movies. I tend to think of them as something like philosophical thought experiments: he's simplifying the people and their relations to such an extent because it makes everything crystal clear. (I think Andrew Sarris compares Lang's movies to fables at some point, and I guess that gets at a similar idea.) It allows us to get to the emotional and intellectual point of it all more directly.


How is this different from a traditional morality play? I think the main problem with Lang's American movies is that they just aren't that special and all the earnest film students in the world can't convince me otherwise.

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Re: Problems with film

Can't say; I'm not a film student.

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Re: Problems with film

Thats a really excellent post wvq2.

Re: Problems with film


I can't understand how anyone bought anything he said, especially the art people

So who says that the art people believed much of anything that came out of Johnny's mouth? From their point of view, the only relevant thing that he ever had to say was where he got those paintings. Beyond the claim that Kitty painted those canvases, nothing he says matters to them one way or the other; they don't have to buy into anything else that he says.

And Kitty is the one who sells them on that one thing being true. She succeeds in sounding the part when she succeeds in parroting back what Chris had said to her about his painting.

Re: Problems with film

Watched it for the first time over the weekend online since it is public domain and have to say it was disappointing. Especially since it was Fritz Lang and I had seen it on a lot of Top Noir lists. Kind of slow and silly. The ending was suitably bleak.

Re: Problems with film

I am a big fan of this film. I thought Joan Bennett was awesome as the femme fatale who ends up being the one taken down. Her portrayal compares well with other film noir examples, such as Jane Greer in Out of the Past or Gene Tierney in Laura, two other excellent examples. EG Robinson cast against type as a loser who both evoke sympathy and less favorable emotions was also great. Margaret Lindsay's more minor role was also well played.

The direction was also tops. See this film if you have not before.

Re: Problems with film


Totally ridiculous film, filled with horrible acting and plot holes
galore.

Are we really supposed to believe that Robinson's character is so stupid
he would fall for Bennett's horribly conceived character??? She is
never once convincing, and anyone with half a brain cell would've been
on to her. Outrageous.

Secondly, as if major art crtics would have never spotted Robinson's
work before, either through old friends or other connections. It is also
ridiculous that a gallery would buy the paitnings and Bennett and
Duryea would get as far as they did with such a scheme.

And the true humdinger? The first husband just shows up out of the blue,
with such a totally unbelievable story and falls for such a stupid
set-up.

This film is so far-fetched it boggles the mind. And, no, this film
is NOT on a par with the brilliant "Laura."

JR HATED this film and one can see why. Awful.

Re: Problems with film

Lines like 'and don't forget to bring the money' kinda screwed it up for me. Chris would have had to have a below than normal IQ to hear her say that and not catch on immediately to what was up (if not earlier in the story).
It was such a direct, bold line that it made me flinch - and come to think about it, she would have to be the
worlds worst hustler, due to low IQ herself, to come out with such a line. All she had to do was re-direct the conversation back to the money by saying to Chris as he was walking out the door was something like
'And I do feel really bad about having to ask for the money Chris...ok, see you tomorrow'. That Lang,
Robinson himself (who has handled some amazing dialogue eg 'Double Indemnity' didn't suggest a re-write
boggles my mind - it just that bad,

Also, anyone notice that when the cat was let out of the bag that Chris was not the famous/wealthy painter he had led her to believe he was, that she had zero reaction ?

Re: Problems with film


Are we really supposed to believe that Robinson's character is so stupid
he would fall for Bennett's horribly conceived character???
She is
never once convincing, and anyone with half a brain cell would've been
on to her. Outrageous.


Characters are representative of narrational themes. Scarlet Street reflects struggles of masculine identity, Christopher's struggles continue in his naviety over Kitty's true intentions. So the characterisation might seem ridiculous, but they reflect the narrative's thematic purposes.

I'd rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not.

Re: Problems with film (spoiler warning)

My problem with the film only comes with one thing. Chris' fingerprints would be on the ice pick which was the murder weapon. Johnny would have fingered him for the deed, but the police didnt fingerprint him. Take nothing away from this film though its fantastic.
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