Life is unkind to middle-aged bank cashier Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson), but tonight he is enjoying the lingering effects of the champagne from his anniversary dinner. He has been awarded a pocket watch for being, as his boss patronizingly asserts, “a 14-carat, 17-jewel cashier” for 25 years. As he walks through Greenwich Village this late evening, on his way to a Brooklyn-bound bus that will take him home, he witnesses a mugging. A wily thug slaps a slinky brunette down into the street. Chris lunges forward and clobbers the thug with his umbrella. Chris then runs to fetch a patrol cop, and the thug limps off with the woman's cash. Rather than wait and file a report, as the cop requests, the woman nods at a bewildered Chris.
“My friends call me Kitty,” purrs the woman (Joan Bennett) as they walk away. Chris asks her if she would like coffee, but she wants a drink. Inside the bar, tough-talking Kitty tells Chris she is an actress in a play that just closed. Charmed, Chris says he loves the arts and spends his free time painting. Shrewd Kitty assumes he is a wealthy artist. Although Chris explains he is an amateur, he is pleased she is impressed. He admits he is married and needs to get home, but adds he would love to see her again.
Later, upstairs in her apartment, the thug materializes and curls up next to Kitty, who complains he hits too hard. Thug Johnny (Don Duryea) snipes that he needed more money and did not intend to squabble on the street. Kitty explains her evening with her would-be savior, and Johnny convinces her to put the shake on lovesick Chris and see how much falls from his pockets.
Meanwhile, Chris, miserable with his shrewish wife, Adele (Rosalind Ivan), is given an ultimatum to get his paintings out of their apartment. When Chris meets again with Kitty and tells her this news, she suggests he rent an apartment in which he could paint and she could live. Smitten, Chris agrees and begins to embezzle from work to afford the sizable new studio. Johnny manages to keep away from Kitty while Chris visits, but he has bigger dollar signs in his eyes. Johnny and Kitty soon hatch a scheme to sell Chris's paintings to an art dealer who pays top dollar — and the dealer thinks the artist is Kitty.
When veteran director Fritz Lang made Scarlet Street, a reworking of Jean Renoir’s La Chienne, he had no idea it would become not only one of his most respected titles, but also one of the best in the film-noir tradition. The project came together easily, as the thriller Lang had just directed, The Woman in the Window, not only resembled the narrative of Street, but it also provided him with three key performers, Robinson, Bennett and Duryea. Also returning from Woman was director of photography Milton Krasner, ASC, whose moody, atmospheric cinematography was a good fit for Woman and an even better fit for this dark, bleaker tale. Indeed, Krasner's shadowy urban images are strikingly cold and sinister, in line with the grim plot of Street. To creatively feature Chris's artwork (by painter John Decker) in gallery windows with complicated dissolves and trick photography, John P. Fulton, ASC, was brought in as a special consultant.
Because of its public-domain status, Scarlet Street has been available in numerous home editions, and the best — until now — was Kino Classic's 2005 DVD. Kino has revisited the film, this time for a high-definition transfer, again using film elements from the Library of Congress. A welcome return to the dark streets of Lang's Manhattan, the image presentation here is generally sleek and full of deep, inky blacks and high-contrasting whites. Krasner's images have a rich, more detailed presence. Lines in fabrics, creases in wallpaper and makeup lines on actor's faces can now be seen. There is a fresher immediacy to a title often seen in soft, faded presentations. In comparison to the previous Kino DVD, the canvas here, with a slight level of film grain visible and no evidence of intrusive DNR, is clearly the winner. Although occasional lines and print dirt are visible, the source material from the Library of Congress is in very good shape, and this presentation appears to be the best home-screen version to date. The monaural audio track is not perfectly free of age-related hiss, but it is a reasonable effort considering its age.
Kino has supplemented the feature once again with a series of stills and an informative audio commentary by historian David Kalat. In spite of the lack of newly produced supplements, crossing Scarlet Street in this vivid HD treatment is well worth the trip, whether you have never walked these lonely blocks or you have been down this road before. Chris’s irreversible decline and transformation from mild-mannered pushover to desperate avenger and, finally, to haunted, lost soul, makes him one of film noir's most bitter and memorable casualties, and that transformation has been handsomely polished for the film’s HD debut.