For MovieMovieBlogBlog’s second annual Sex! Blogathon, I had many possible choices, for there is ample sexual desire in noir, and passionate embraces and secret affairs are certainly attention-getting in many a noir picture. There is a lot of love-hate passion in particular, in such post-war gems as Gilda (1946) and Born to Kill (1947). More often than not, sexual attraction gets you into trouble…and even gets you killed, as Double Indemnity (1944) and Out of the Past (1947) show so very well.
I’m particularly drawn to self-delusion in noir — the way the femme fatale convinces herself she’s truly in control, the cop who believes he’s above the law, the murderer who feels justified to the bitter end. And sex is a central vehicle for film noir delusion. One excellent example of the function and misdirection of sexual desire in noir is Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945), the film I’ve chosen to write about for the blogathon. (Spoiler Alert: I’m gonna give away the ending in this post.)
Hollywood film of the 1940s was significantly marked by the strictures of the Production Code, post-Depression disillusionment, and WWII. Film noir was the darkest expression of these combined contexts, and emigre directors who’d fled Nazi Germany for the US had a strong hand in shaping noir’s specific contours. Fritz Lang, a Jew who’d been raised Catholic and one of Weimar’s most talented creators, fled Germany after directing such masterpieces as Metropolis (1927), M (1931), and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933). These moody combinations of Expressionism and poetic realism had a strong influence on noir, which yielded some of its artistic complexity for box office success at the demands of the Jewish American moguls of Hollywood. One of the most compelling of these compromise films, released as WWII ended, is Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945).
The film features Edward G. Robinson in the role of aging everyman Christopher Cross, a henpecked husband (by the awesome Rosalind Ivan as Adele Cross) and dull office worker ripe for a midlife crisis, which is provided by Joan Bennett’s Katharine “Kitty” Marsh, a bad girl goaded by her criminal boyfriend Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea) to become a femme fatale and make them rich. Neither Kitty (aka Lazylegs) nor Johnny want to work for a living, so Johnny forces Kitty to bring in the dough through taking advantage of Chris. Seduction is no problem at all, but Johnny and Kitty fail to realize Chris has no money.
Sex is particularly compelling in Scarlet Street because it’s everywhere and nowhere — typical of the film’s era and noir style. Kitty desires cold, calculating Johnny and is repulsed by gentle, soft-hearted Chris. Chris yields to desire to recover happiness and youth through his attraction to Kitty, though he never presses her for more than clothed embraces and a few kisses, even when he sets her up in her own apartment. And Johnny’s desires are about money and power, not the sins of the flesh.
Competing and incompatible desires and perspectives dominate the movie and result in its inevitable disastrous ending for all concerned. The femme fatale is punished, as is the crook, and the everyman suffers what his fate has led him to. Sexual desire is never equal, mutual, and satisfying when it is present (Kitty, Chris) and it isn’t always even relevant (Adele, Johnny).
Most troubling in gendered terms is the conflation of sexual desire and aggressive power. Characters who feel otherwise disempowered (Kitty by Johnny; Chris by Adele) find ways to attain power at another’s expense:
You can’t trust anyone in noir; we all know this lesson of the genre. But in Scarlet Street, the specifics of gendered power imbalances and the violence that ensues are related directly to the particular dangers of sexual desire. By the end of the film, no one is left unpunished, especially everyman-turned-murderer Chris Cross, doomed to wander the streets alone, haunted forever by Kitty’s voice, inanely murmuring, “Jeepers, I love you, Johnny.”
If you haven’t seen Scarlet Street, it’s worth your time even after this spoiler of the ending. It’s public domain and easy to find, and a great lesson on power and desire. (Also see The Woman in the Window (1944) by Lang, featuring the same cast in similar roles.)