Film noir was born from the evocative shadow play of German Expressionism. As one of the greats of Expressionist cinema, it is only fitting that after fleeing the Nazis Fritz Lang would reinvent himself by making highly stylized noir films in Hollywood. Fritz Lang is best remembered for his classics Metropolis and M, but Lang’s American career peaked with the two noirs The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). Both starring the same central cast of Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea, these films have frequently been characterized as Lang’s pair of middle-class nightmares. Following the misadventures of Robinson’s middle class characters under the influence of Bennett’s femme fatales, Lang’s noirs serve as cautionary tales against lust and temptation.
The Woman in the Window features Robinson in the role of Professor Richard Wanley, a timid man left alone for a week when his wife and children go on vacation. Wanley’s only excitement in life comes from the intellectual discussions he has with friends at a social club. When Wanley becomes captivated by a portrait of a woman displayed in a gallery window, his friends tease him and contemplate acting on such an infatuation. Later that night when Wanley stops to look at the painting again, he meets the subject herself, a woman named Alice Reed (Joan Bennett). He buys her a drink and goes back to her apartment, all the while repeating that he shouldn’t be doing any of this. Suddenly, Reed’s lover barges in and tries to strangle Wanley who kills him in self-defense. They resolve to dump the body and hide any evidence. As the police piece together the murder, Wanley and Reed attempt to fend off her dead lover’s blackmailing bodyguard (Dan Duryea).
Robinson portrays lowly bank cashier and would-be painter Christopher Cross in Lang’s follow-up, Scarlet Street. On his way home one night, Cross rescues a woman (Bennett) from an attacker (Duryea) who is actually her violent boyfriend/pimp. Taking the woman, Kitty Marsh, for an actress, Cross pretends to be a wealthy artist to impress her. With this new information, Kitty’s boyfriend, Johnny Prince, devises a plan to milk Cross’s fascination with Kitty for money. Believing Kitty loves him, Cross embezzles money from the bank to pay for a swanky apartment and all of her needs. When he discovers that Kitty truly has no feelings for him and instead has been using him, Cross reacts violently. Lies, greed, infatuation, and betrayal all lead to tragedy for this unconventional love triangle.
These two characters played by Robinson are variations on the same mold, the archetype of the common man. Wanley and Cross are married, middle aged men who become entangled in murder and intrigue because of a beautiful, manipulative woman. In terms of their personalities, they have nothing in common. Wanley remains rational and calm in the face a police investigation and has a keen intellect, as seen in his philosophical discussions at the men’s club. He is also one of the most unlikely people to be caught in such a situation. Essentially, he is a professor who had one too many drinks with the wrong woman. Cross, on the other hand, is a hopeless loser who puts himself down for having never realized his dreams. Not that he needs any help putting himself down, as his wife, Adele, constantly reminds him that he cannot compare to her first husband whose picture hangs ominously in their living room. Within his own house, Cross has no freedom. This is made painfully obvious when he cleans the house and washes the dishes, all while wearing a flower-print apron.
The femme fatales in these films are played by Joan Bennett who manages to show two distinct versions of the cold-hearted noir vamp. As Alice Reed, she initially comes across as perfectly harmless, but closer inspection raises questions about her resolute calm in the face of violence, murder, and blackmail. What sort of woman must she be if she is the mistress of a man who would lunge at the non-threatening Professor Wanley in a moment’s notice? She should be given credit, however, for not turning on Wanley by putting him at the mercy of police inspectors or, worse, accepting her blackmailer’s proposition and skipping town. As Kitty Marsh, Bennett plays a very convincing lowlife harlot. Not only is she understood to be a prostitute who prefers her brutish pimp of a boyfriend to the smitten Cross, but scenes in her own apartment show her to be nothing but a lazy slob with great legs. Reveling in her new, extorted money, Kitty lets dishes pile up the sink as she spits grape seeds onto the floor.
Despite their having the same central cast, Lang’s two noirs are morally different. In The Woman in the Window, both Wanley and Reed are sophisticated and smart, as opposed to the wholly immoral characters of Scarlet Street. Wanley is essentially spending an evening with a beautiful woman on a whim so that he can brag to his friends later. Reed is a symbol of temptation, his forbidden desires, and agreeing to go back to her apartment ensures that he must confront the supposed evil hidden in everyone. His actions cannot be characterized as evil, though, since Reed’s lover is killed in justifiable self-defense. Wanley’s only fault is hiding the murder from police in order to protect his position. To do so, he conceals evidence and acts like a premeditated criminal, and Reed goes along with him. Ultimately, they are protecting their good reputations, but Chris Cross and Kitty Marsh never had reputations to protect. Cross acts out of selfishness and a romanticized desire for love. He wants Kitty because he is unloved and extremely lonely. His is to be pitied, but he is not without fault in the film’s many deceits and betrayals.
The ideas of selfish, wishful dreams and glamorous love are integral to both The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street and are illustrated through art. Both protagonists are typical middle aged men experiencing a crisis of desire: are they satisfied with their own lives or could they be happier with a beautiful young woman? Alice Reed’s portrait in the gallery window is enough temptation for Wanley who immediately begins fantasizing about her. She is an ideal, and, for a time, she exists in his mind. Art is even more crucial in Scarlet Street, as Cross aspires to be an artist but can only achieve mediocrity, at best. To Cross, art is inexorably linked to romantic love. Note that he compares his love for Kitty to his love for art. To deepen Cross’s humiliation in the film, Lang includes multiple slights against Cross’s artistic abilities and consequently his romance with Kitty. The previous occupant of Kitty’s studio apartment is cruelly revealed to have been a successful illustrator whose sketches still cover the walls, looming over Cross’s pitiful efforts. The object of Cross’s obsession, Kitty herself, demeans his art by having him paint her toenails – the only things he can be trusted to competently paint.
This points to the larger theme of Cross’s emasculation in Scarlet Street. Robinson’s character is the embodiment of the sap, a self-admitted loser. His home life is already a great source of emasculation, as his wife still idolizes her first husband. His desperate actions in killing Kitty and sending Johnny to the electric chair with one lie stem from his false expectations. He truly believed that Kitty loved him, and his rash act ultimately causes him to go mad. However, he is not haunted by guilt but rather haunted by the fact that he was deceived. Kitty and Johnny used Cross like a fool, and sitting in his bedroom at the end of the film, all he hears is Kitty and Johnny taunting him. Madness is therefore his punishment for selfish desire.
Scarlet Street is an undeniably darker, more disturbing film than The Woman in the Window, especially due to the latter’s disappointing ending. The plot builds toward such a darkly ironic conclusion, which is completely negated in a final scene. For all of its fatalistic undertones, the film is just Wanley’s extended dream. To be fair, this was not Lang’s decision but an ending forced by production codes that could not allow Wanley to commit suicide. Regardless, the film as Wanley’s nightmare better reveals that the good professor’s dream was merely a manifestation of his neurotic fears. While sleeping, Wanley acts out his moral nightmare, which then definitively steers him away from any immoral temptation. In this light, Lang’s noir becomes a thinly veiled moral cautionary tale.
Lang’s two films have served as textbook examples of the film noir genre since their release. Both films feature lust, power, women, and money, all essential elements of noir. Made today, they would no doubt dispense with the Hollywood code-appeasing retractions and live up to their exceedingly dark subject matter. Yet for all of Lang’s obstacles, Scarlet Street succeeds in depicting three sordid lives, love affairs, and most importantly a guilty character that goes unpunished, at least by legal standards. For this reason, it outshines its predecessor The Woman in the Window as a thrilling example of gritty film noir.