"Scarlet Street" opens in Fritz Lang style - dark city street, raining, complete with hurdy gurdy man with monkey - and moves into a smoked filled room with cigar chomping men gathered around a conference table, imbibing happily. They are celebrating 25 years of service by cashier, Christopher Cross (Chris Cross, played by Edward G Robinson), who receives a gold watch from the company president.
The evening is a success, Chris walks his friend Samuel Hinds to the bus stop in the rain (for no other movie purpose other than to have Hinds invited over Sunday afternoon that will introduce us to Chris’ home life). Chris then encounters Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea) slapping around Kitty March (Joan Bennett). He gives him a shove and then in such non-Edward G Robinson-form, flinches back, holding his umbrella up in defense. But Johnny doesn’t get up right away. Chris runs for a cop, Johnny runs off, Kitty tells the cop he went the other way, and Chris is smitten with Kitty, stopping for a drink together while walking her home.
Kitty leads Chris to believe that she is an actress, Chris lets her believe he is a wealthy artist (he is an amateur painter). Chris pursues her. She resists because she’s in love with Johnny, who is always looking for easy money and Johnny insists that she take Chris for all she (they) can take. Chris sets her up in an apartment where he also keeps his paintings due to his shrew of a wife (Adele) who berates him at every turn, and continually compares Chris unfavorably to her first husband, the late police sergeant who gave his life trying to save the life of a jumper.
Kitty lets Chris believe that Johnny is her roommate’s boyfriend. At one point Chris asks her who Johnny is and she freezes, whirls around, and stonily asks, “why do you ask that?” To support her, Chris steals money from his wife and from his employer
Johnny starts to doubt that Chris is a wealthy artist and takes a couple of his paintings to a vendor in Washington Square, where an art critic snaps them up. Johnny sees the money road and tells the dealer and critic, who later track him down, that Kitty is the artist. The art is a success, Chris’ wife sees the paintings in the dealer’s window, comes home and accuses Chris of being a fake because he’s copying the work of artist, Katharine March (Kitty’s full name).
Chris is surprisingly cool with this, still thinking that Kitty is in love with him and is doing this for the both of them. The art begins to rake in the money.
Here’s the big twist: someone asks to see Chris outside his office, and he meets Adele’s first husband, recognized from the large picture Adele has hanging in their living room. He is looking for money from Chris to stay away, not knowing that Chris would welcome his return so Chris can escape from Adele and be free for Kitty. Chris sets up a scenario that will bring Adele’s first husband back into their home for Adele to discover. Chris has his suitcase packed and leaves as he hears Adele screaming about the intruder.
Alas and alack, when he arrives at Kitty’s apartment, he finds Kitty declaring her love for Johnny, drops his suitcase and leaves. Johnny is dismayed that Kitty talked him into staying and thereby blowing their money train and leaves her. Shortly afterward Kitty hears steps coming back and hopes it is Johnny, but it’s a drunk Chris is at the door. He declares his love and wants to forgive her but she is cruel and laughs at him, at which point he grabs an ice pick (conveniently loaded with Johnny’s fingerprints) and stabs her to death.
A drunken Johnny also returns but after Chris has done the deed. The cops come to Chris’ workplace and he thinks he’s caught, but it’s for the embezzlement not the murder. The tip was phoned in by Higgins (Adele’s first husband, taking his revenge). His employer won’t press charges but he’s lost his position. “Chris, it was a woman, wasn’t it.”
Johnny’s arrested for the murder of Kitty as he is found with many of her valuable possessions (“You cleaned her out.” "Well, why wouldn’t I? She didn’t have any more use for them, did she?”).
Witnesses at the trial are filmed by themselves, in a very effective black and white circle, while each gives a brief statement. The trial turns on whether Kitty could paint or if the work was by Chris. Chris denies that he could paint, thereby sentencing Johnny to death. This is what he wants but he ends up being haunted by the voices of Johnny & Kitty, tries to commit suicide, and ends up being a homeless man, treated as crazy when he continually tries to turn himself in for the murder of two people.
“My Melancholy Baby” plays throughout the movie, most poignantly in the room with Chris after Johnny’s execution, against an ominous drumbeat (telltale heartish) when he’s hearing the voices of Kitty and Johnny.
The very last scene shows the homeless Chris walking past the art dealer who is selling the portrait of Kitty, done by Chris, to a woman for $10,000.00. Chris is expressionless, the crowd disappears from our view, which was never in his, and he walks on, finally and completely alone.
La Chienne (1931) Jean Renoir“La Chienne” was Renoir’s second sound film and in this original version, Kitty is now Lulu (Janie Mareze), Johnny is Dede (Georges Flamant), and Chris Cross is Maurice Legrand (Michel Simon).
It’s introduced by a puppet act, and after the third puppet beats down the first two (in deed and word), he states that this play “has no moral whatsoever and proves nothing at all...The three main ones (characters) are HE, SHE, and THE OTHER GUY, as usual.”
The opening company party is quite different than in “Scarlet Street.” It’s a general get-together not honoring anyone but seems to be a prelude to further night time activities. The group mocks Maurice because he doesn’t join in the frivolity and he’s referred to as a wet blanket and the “life of the party.” They try to get him to come along to the after party, just for laughs for them, but he poetically declines, and they dislike him even more.
As Maurice returns home, he comes across the same abusive boyfriend to girlfriend scenario but this time there is no cop called. Legrand grabs a cab to take Dede and Lulu home to their respective places, and Lulu freely admits that Dede is her boyfriend and they’ve been together three years. Apparently this doesn’t matter because Maurice is smitten. Lulu promises to write to him. Maurice then returns home to his very verbally abusive wife, Adele (the only name remaining the same in both movies), and takes what she dishes humbly and without much reaction. (The first husband this time was a sergeant who died in World War I.)
One month later, we find Lulu ensconced in an apartment funded by Maurice. Once again, Lulu picked out the wallpaper so Dede would feel at home. Lulu still believes Maurice is rich, and he continues to get money from her (stealing from Adele and his employer). Lulu tries to keep as much of the money for herself as she can because if Dede finds out about it he’d “put the bite”on her to pay his own debts.
One clearly major difference between a movie made in France at this time and in 1945 Hollywood was the Hayes code. Renoir was much freer to frankly show the relationships between his characters. In “La Chienne” it is very clear that these two parties are sleeping together. In “Scarlet Street,” she barely lets him touch her.
Lulu’s girlfriend and Lulu: “Do you love your painter?” “I can’t say it disgusts me to do it with Maurice. It’s just nothing.” “So why do you do it with Maurice?” “Dede was broke.”
Shrew wife Adele continues to mock Maurice’s paintings (“Self-portrait, again?”) and throws her ownership of the apartment in his face (“Nothing here is yours.”), along with her first husband, Alexis (“He was a real man.”).
Lulu wants to leave Maurice, Dede tells her to stay with him for the money, and when Lulu claims to have no money for Dede today, he takes a couple of Maurice’s paintings off the wall. He shops them around to dealers where again, they are spotted by an art critic and appreciated by a dealer. Lulu, as Clara Wood, becomes the famous artist.
This time Maurice himself sees the art in the dealer’s window and is not upset. Lulu explains that her brother took them to the dealer and once again, Maurice thinks she’s doing this for them but Dede is keeping the money.
After leaving work one evening, Maurice is met by none other than Alexis, the “dead” husband. Alexis tries the same ploy on Maurice as it becomes clear that neither man wants to be Adele’s husband. Alexis switched his papers with a dead pal in a POW camp to get away from his wife, not the army.
Maurice has much more fun with his plan than Chris did, however. Maurice gets home happy and drunk, looks at Alexis’ picture on the living room wall and tells Adele “I’d love to see your face if he came back.” The subsequent scene is much more creative than in “Scarlet Street” and too much to relate here.
Maurice sadly leaves and Dede is angry with Lulu because she talked him into staying overnight. Now will be no more pictures for Dede to sell. He slaps her around a bit and she has no trouble taking it. But he’s finished with her. In a nice little twist from an earlier scene with Lulu and Maurice, Lulu asks: “Then, you’ll write me?” “That’s right...I’ll write you.”
Next morning, Maurice is back, trying to be forgiving and understanding, but she’ll have no part of it and turns cruel “If it wasn’t for your money, I’d have dropped you like a hot potato.” But like Kitty, it’s the cruel mocking laughter that turns the tide. The scene moves from a letter opener, down to the street musicians below, and then back up to the third story window where we see Lulu’s bloodied body and Maurice still kissing her hand.
The street crowd has grown around the musicians and no one sees Maurice leaving the building. But everyone sees the obnoxious Dede drive his large car right into the middle of the crowd before he goes upstairs and quickly comes back down. The trial goes very differently but the result is the same and we last see Dede being woken up on his last day on earth.
The epilogue gives us Maurice who randomly meets up with Alexis, both being vagabonds of a sort. Maurice cheerfully describes himself as having been “a junk man, hobo, drunkard, thief, and to begin with, a murderer.” We see Maurice’s self-portrait being put into a car, whose occupant throws 20 francs to the bum on the street. Maurice happily picks it up and says to Alexis, “Life is beautiful. Come on.”
Both films are by master directors and therefore worthy in their own right. An interesting back story to “La Chienne” is that Michel Simon (Maurice) and Janie Mareze (Lulu) became real life lovers but Mareze was killed on the way to the movie premiere of “La Chienne” in a car driven by Georges Flamant (Dede). Sad ending to a very short career.