Scarlet Street, dir. by Fritz Lang, 1945

Every aspect of a truly artistic film (or a work of art in any medium) should in some way contribute to the key idea expressed in it. The title is no exception. An ideal title should serve as a metaphor for such idea and be constructed in a way that – a) doesn’t reveal the idea before the climax; and – b) provides the meaningful additional bit of metaphorical meaning that deepens the audience’s understanding of the idea as expressed in the climax.

Seen in this perspective, the phrase “scarlet street” doesn’t refer to any actual geographic location in the film, but rather should be interpreted as a metaphor. The word “scarlet” may be interpreted as the color of blood – or, in its more archaic sense – as “wicked”, “heinous”, “immoral” or “unchaste”. The word “street” of the title may of course refer to the final condition of the main character of the story (who ends up being homeless, that is, becomes a “street person”) – but it can also be interpreted in its traditional meaning, “the public road”. The combination of the two words, therefore, is likely to signify something like the “heinous road”, “road of shame” or the “path to hell”.

(Curiously, a similarly constructed metaphor was used as a title for another classic film that is also usually attributed to the film noir genre: 1950s “Sunset Boulevard” – this title can be interpreted as “road to darkness”.)

But let’s get back to the message of “Scarlet Street” now. It should become obvious after we analyze the behavior of its key characters.

The main character of the film, Christopher Cross, has spent the last 25 years in the state of wasteland: working as a cashier in a bank and barely allowing himself to indulge in his passion to painting as an after-hours hobby. He lives with the woman he hates, whom he had married just because he couldn’t stand the loneliness.  One night he attacks a thug who’s beating up a street-walker, and ends up going out on a date with the woman he’s just saved. Despite all the signs, he refuses to acknowledge Kitty’s profession and prefers to think that she’s an actress who just happened to be returning home from an evening performance. She, in turn, although having instantly identified Christopher as a bank clerk, prefers to ignore it, and manages to convince herself that the aging man she picked up is not only a professional artist, but a rich and successful one, too. This self-deception is so strong that Kitty manages to convince Johnny Prince, her amateur pimp, that they can prosper by shaking down some of the dough from that “rich artist”.

Being a small-time crook, Johnny flatters himself with the idea that one day he may go to Hollywood and become a film star. Kitty is so sure that she is in love with Johnny and that Johnny loves her back and will one day marry her, that she ignores not only the ample evidence that Johnny just uses her to get money for his gambling, but also the fact that Johnny beats her up at every opportunity. Christopher, having met Johnny in the new apartment he rented for Kitty, recognizes him as the street thug who was beating Kitty up, but refuses to believe his eyes, and prefers to trust Kitty’s words that Johnny is her former roommate’s boyfriend.

After Johnny sells Christopher’s paintings to a street dauber (who, incidentally, imagines himself as a true artist and a “master of perspective”) – a famous art critic comes to visit the person who painted these great artworks. The critic mistrusts Johnny, who informs him that Kitty painted all the pictures – but after speaking with Kitty for a few minutes, fools himself into thinking that it is indeed true.

To provide for Kitty, Christopher has to embezzle money from the bank where he works. The bank owner, J.J.Hogarth, nearly catches Christopher red-handed, but chooses to ignore the obvious signs, and just drums his fingers on the envelope containing the stolen cash.

When Christopher finds out that Kitty sold his paintings as her own, he, blinded by his desire for Kitty, paints more artworks and allows her to sign them. He is so certain that she is in love with him, too, that he never even asks himself how such attractive young woman could fall for the aging, ugly, ordinary guy like him.

Missis Cross’s ex-cop ex-husband, long thought dead, reappears and allows himself to be persuaded, against every bit of common sense, that he can get his hands on the insurance cash hidden in his wife’s drawer. This sets Christopher free, and he arrives to Kitty’s place, only to catch her with Johnny and to face the truth he long refused to acknowledge: that Johnny and Kitty are lovers. When Kitty exacerbates that realization by teasing him, Christopher kills Kitty with ice-pick and later frames Johnny, who is sent to electric chair for the murder he didn’t commit. As a trade-off, Christiopher has to give up painting, because any artwork he may produce from now on can implicate him in the crime.

Christopher ends up homeless and insane, tormented by the ghosts of Kitty and Johnny, and watching wistfully how his (Kitty’s) paintings are sold for huge money to people who delude themselves into thinking that they can appreciate art.

At the end Christopher is sunk in a much deeper wasteland than the one he was in at the beginning of the story.

Denial (and active self-deception) lead to subjectivism (insanity) and to meaningless, de-actualized existence. Denial is such a widespread phenomenon, that it requires a great deal of effort to recognize elements of denial in our own attitudes, but it’s necessary because only after removing the denial we can begin to take steps toward meaningful life.

Dimitri Vorontzov

Tuesday, April 26 2011, 10:00 PM, New York

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