Friday, 23 December 2011

Scarlet Street

The BBC are playing some of Fritz Lang's Hollywood period films this week, deep into the early hours. Scarlet Street (1945) is one of the best of these,  a classic of film noir. The action takes place in alleys, coffeee bars, and apartments - the underworld of a prosperous modern city. Lang brought the language of German expressionism to American cinema: each scene is beautifully shot, with deep shadows modelling faces and interiors and suggesting the darkness of this shifty, amoral universe. Usually the camera is still, impassively capturing the characters as they move within small spaces, the frame suggesting the constrictions that the world places upon them. Even the spacious large apartment where the destructive female resides is made to seem dangerous, angular, an analogy for the spiritual blankness of its tenants. There are brilliant touches, like the long shot of Johnny being taken to his fate, and the sudden suggestive cut from that to the buzzing of the electric light outside the apartment where the protagonist is burned up by guilt. The individual shots of witnesses int he trial take us right back to Lang's German pictures like Spione and M.

The noir of fiulm noir really describes its picture of the human heart. Cynicism is all-pervasive, the cheating and fakery of the plot echoing the main character's name, Chris Cross. In Scarlet Street, love is either deliberately feigned as a ploy, or surges up as a delirious obsession, a kind of illness. Artistic talent is ignored, derided, traded upon and finally commodified. Nothing is to be believed and everything is for sale. Even the apparent models of rectitude - the boss J.J and the supposed dead husband Homer - have their own shadowy secrets, while the respectable wife is a terrifying harridan behind closed doors. The familiar pieces of film noir chess are there - the hapless sucker, the con man, the femme fatale, the Tiresian bartenders who have seen it all - and we watch as they go through a story as remorseless and inevitable as a Greek tragedy, the acting - led by Edward G Robinson and Joan Bennett - immaculate as every point.  There can be no happy ending, no sudden salvation, just the chance calamities of fate and the ineluctable and awful justice which awaits them all.