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A Time for Film Noir
Scarlet Street
Marina Workman
University of Maryland University College

Film Noir is the French term “black film” used to describe an era of movies filmed in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Films that are considered to fall under the film noir category touched on themes that were not yet acceptable in society. These types of films were centered on crime, drama, deceit, and sex. The films were the first of their kind to cross the line pass conservative films. Many people debate whether or not film noir is a genre, a style, or a tone. Film noir has not been proven to be a genre. Scarlet Street is a film noir that was filmed in 1945. The movie was directed and produced by Fritz Lang. It was filmed in a studio in Universal City, California. The setting of the movie was New York City. Scarlet Street is an hour and forty-three minute black and white film. It follows an older gentleman, Christopher Cross, played by actor Edward G. Robinson, as he falls in love with a young beautiful woman. In Chris’ mind there is nothing he wouldn’t do for this woman. The very beginning of the movie shows a group of men celebrating Chris’ 25th year as a cashier. He received a very expensive pocket watch from his boss, JJ Hogarth. Chris was first portrayed to viewers as an innocent, loyal, hardworking, and dedicated friend and co-worker. As Chris was presented with a cigar the camera focused on his fingers as they crossed in superstition. Chris watched his boss, JJ, leave the party with a young beautiful blonde woman. Chris watched in admiration. With a little too much to drink, Chris left the celebration and began to walk home. On his walk he stumbled across a woman being slapped and pushed around by a man. Chris immediately ran to the man and hit him with his umbrella, knocking him unconscious. As Chris went to help the woman, Kathryn (Kitty), from the ground their eyes met and Chris fell in love. Chris spent the evening with Kitty talking over bar drinks on the ground floor of the building Kitty lived in. Kitty explained that she lived with her friend Millie and she was an aspiring actress. She was deceitful from the moment she met Chris. She saw how well Chris was dressed and his expensive watch. She immediately thought he was wealthy. Chris told her he paints for fun and she assumed he was being modest at that he was actually a wealthy artist. When she made the assumption, Chris was too embarrassed to tell her he was a cashier. He asked her for her phone number and she told him she did not have one so he told her he would write instead. When Chris returned home to viewers were able to meet his horrible life with his demanding bickering wife. All he could do was think of Kitty. He wrote her a letter. It was later revealed that the man beating Kitty was actually her boyfriend, Johnny. Johnny convinces Kitty to use Chris for money. She begins to ask him for large amounts of money. Chris could not afford to give her money but he loved her so much that he did not want to let her down. Kitty manipulated Chris and convinced him to get her an apartment that she could live in and he could paint her there. Chris stole money from his wife who was storing bonds from her previous deceased husband (a police officer). Johnny and Kitty used Chris for his money. Kitty lied to Chris and told him that Johnny was the boyfriend of her old roommate. Chris moved all of his paintings to Kitty’s apartment and Johnny gets the idea to start selling them under Kitty’s name. Johnny sold the paintings and was told by a famous expert writer/critic that the paintings could sell for five thousand dollars. Johnny envisioned dollar signs and convinced Kitty to use Chris for more paintings. After Johnny sold the paintings people began to want to see the artist in person so Kitty became the “artist.” She became the actress that she always wanted to be. The paintings were being sold and very well recognized and Chris did not have a clue. Chris’ wife, Adele’s, ex-husband appears in an attempt to extort money from Chris. The former detective had faked his death because he had stolen money and did not want to go to jail. He tried to tell Chris that if he didn’t keep quiet about him being alive then he would ruin his marriage. That is exactly what Chris wanted so he made sure that the detective and Adele were brought back together. Chris was finally able to leave Adele. When he went to tell Kitty the good news and propose to her, he saw Kitty passionately kissing Johnny. Without thinking Chris went to confront Kitty. As he walked into the apartment Kitty yelled Johnny. Chris forgave her and then proposed. Kitty mocked and laughed at Chris and he was so upset that he began to stab her. Johnny was the main suspect and was convicted. Johnny was sentenced to death, Kathryn was recognized as a great artist based on Chris’ paintings that she claimed to paint, and Chris got away with murder. There are many aspects of this film that makes it a film noir. The era in which it was produced, the costumes that were picked to portray the area and setting, and the darkness of the film. The film was full of crime and deceit. There was not a single good character in the entire film. Chris was the criminal who essentially got away with murder but was being punished by his conscience. He did not necessarily feel guilty for killing a woman or lying and sending another man to death for his crimes. He seemed more upset that he was made a fool of by Kitty and Johnny. He was humiliated. Throughout the movie it is seen that Chris’ paintings lacked perspective. That is a trait that was seen throughout all of the characters. All of the characters saw things as how they wanted them to be and never took the time to imagine anyone else’s point of view, which is what led to the tragic consequences. The film is definitely a film noir. There was sort of German expressionism particularly in the scenes during the end of the movie. There were whispers of conscience reminiscent of Lang’s “M”. In the hotel room, the camera man shoots Robinson in the flashing sign coming in through the sharply angled panes of the window. That was the most beautiful shot of the film. The cameraman made use of the lighting. The darkness and brightness of some of the scenes really helped viewers determine the tone. Chris’ home was dull while Kitty’s apartment was bright and full of life. The sound and music helped enhance the drama. During the scene when Kitty was being attacked there was a very loud sound that sounded like a subway passing. The sound distracted viewers from seeing how unrealistic the hits were (to include the blow that Johnny took from Chris’ umbrella). Like all films during that time the movie was shot on film. The cuts were noticeable but very smooth. Some of the transitions from scene to scene just went straight to a black screen for a few seconds. “The step from one scene to the next sometimes creates a moment of mystery, a question as to how much time has passed and how far the plot has moved forward since the last fade-out as in the transition from Johnny and Kitty initially looking over the new apartment, to Johnny asleep in bed there, obviously some days or possibly weeks later” (Martin, 2011). The scenes transitions in the film demand an active response and engagement from the viewers. Some important aspects of Lang are pushes viewers to infer, deduct, and figure things out. The costumes played a huge role in making the characters. Chris dressed extremely nice because he was at a party in the beginning but he continued to dress nice throughout the movie because of his job as a cashier. Kitty was very well maintained even though she was lazy and did not like to clean. Kitty’s costumes made her something that she was not. She was acting. Johnny dressed like the slick gambler that he was. Some of the frames had the shadow around the edges of the screen. Fritz Lang did a great job directing this film, especially during the era where films like this were being banned from different states. This film was everything people did not want to see then, but this film paved the way for the crime, drama, and sexually explicit films. Although this film did not show nudity or sex scenes, it was full of sex. Kitty used her beauty and her body to get Chris to do whatever she wanted him to do. This film was carried and made a huge success by the story line and the actors/actresses. Combined the story and the characters kept viewers entertained making the Scarlet Street one of the great classic film noirs. The difference between this film and how films are made today would only be affected by the technical aspects and the cinematography. Directors have seen the visions of film noir and can easily take this film and use it to give current films a modern approach to what was film noir. The story can be told a hundred different ways. Although the film is full of deceit and crime it is no longer out of the ordinary. A remake of this film on digital with a modern twist would not be a bad idea. I really enjoyed this film. I never thought I could enjoy black and white films. Scarlet Street kept me entertained and wanting to guess the ending. I was in total shock the entire movie. I thought that Chris was the good guy and it turned out he was just as bad as Kitty and Johnny. Chris lived in a fantasy world. All the characters seemed like they were in a show. I would have loved to grow up in the film noir era just to witness the public as this movie was released. This is definitely one of the films that I could watch again and recommend to those around me.

Reference
Martin, A. (2011). Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism. Retrieved from: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/film/movie/contents/scarlet_st._final.2.pdf

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