I’m thrilled to return to my blog with discussion of two movies that deserve our attention. I’ve seen Scarlet Street (Lang 1945) many times, and yesterday I saw La Chienne (Renoir 1931) for the first time. Now I have a great fondness for both films, related to their similarities as well as their differences. So, it’s face-off time!
This facet, like many others I’ll discuss, is about culture and era. “The Bitch” features the crassness the film deserves, as we meet character after character unworthy of our sympathy, despite the humanization of characters, especially Legrand (Michel Simon) and Lulu (Janie Marèse). Lulu prefers the abuse of her pimp “Dédé” (George Flamant) to the kindness of other men, and she goes from lap to lap in the pursuit of money like an overly friendly lapdog. Nonetheless, Lulu can also be seen as a quintessential victim of domestic abuse, accepting kisses and slaps as equal signs of affection because both show Dédé’s emotional connection to her. Dédé’s wrongful conviction allows us sympathy despite his deplorable character; however, it is Lulu who receives titular castigation. Of course, we can interpret the title as indicating her status in the film as a pawn, used by men as she uses them in turn. And yet it seems to blame her as the centerpiece, and I’m not crazy about that.
Scarlet Street has its overtones of blood and prostitution, but it’s rather tame. It fits its era, and we must take into considerations Hollywood restrictions on being more overt. Nonetheless, it’s just ok. Even with the complications, I much prefer the provocative La Chienne.
Winner: La Chienne
I haven’t seen Janie Marèse in any other film, and she made only a few with La Chienne being her last, having been killed in a car accident when co-star Flamant drove them off the road. What I can say is that she played the role well, displaying the multiple personalities a hooker must show to maximize profits. She was in turns coy and manipulative, sweet and flirtatious, and agonizingly desperate for Dédé’s affection. She is never truly sexy, in my view, but she is always what the men around her want.
Joan Bennett is delightfully “B” in everything she does. There is little subtlety but loads of charm and wit. She plays Kitty with a tough-as-nails nature that softens only a bit when she is longing for the attention of Johnny (Dan Duryea). Kitty doesn’t like being slapped around, nor does she like the affections of Chris (Edward G. Robinson), and her coldness makes me wonder why Chris keeps chasing her. She is an unemployed model not a hooker, moreover. Where Lulu state that she finds Legrand dull but unoffensive in bed, Kitty barely lets Chris have a kiss. Still, Kitty is a delightfully bratty, convincing “chienne” herself, and fun to watch.
Comparing the two is not easy, as again they play for their eras and according to the script. Kitty is not a prostitute; Lulu is. This choice makes La Chienne easier to understand in its choices than some facets of Scarlet Street, including the motivations of the leading ladies. This leads me to favor Lulu as a character over Kitty, much as I enjoy both actresses.
Winner: La Chienne
Michel Simon does a superb job of portraying Legrand (who is anything but the “greatness” his name suggests), a man who is dull and introverted yet full of creativity as well as suppressed rage. He is beaten down by his co-workers and his dreadful wife (see below), hidden away in his cashier’s cage. He has only his art to allow his inner spark shine until he meets Lulu and decides that loving her will cure all that ails him. He pampers and dotes on her, and allows himself to be duped even after catching her in bed with Dédé. The physical performance is particularly excellent, from facial expressions to the slow, hunched walk.
Chris Cross is a significant departure for Edward G. Robinson, and apparently he hated the role. Unlike his character in the previous year’s Woman in the Window, also directed by Fritz Lang, Chris is not an intellectual who gets in over his head but, like Legrand, a downtrodden cashier who longs for the good life, which primarily consists of a beautiful younger woman in his arms. He paints for escape, but Lang opts for a unique style rather than the more obvious talent of Legrand. Legrand works through his passions in paint; Chris displays his emotional distress, I’d argue. Chris thus paints Kitty, while Legrand paints himself, and these are the final images of the men’s art that we see in the films.
If I didn’t know Robinson hated the role, I wouldn’t have guessed it, which speaks well for his performance. But I believe Simon so much more. He embodies the role, while Robinson just plays it.
Winner: La Chienne
If this film were being done as a community theater production, I’d want to play the wife. It’s a comic delight in its overwritten obnoxiousness, whichever version we’re talking about.
Magdeleine Bérubet plays Adèle Legrand as an unrelenting shrew. Even when she’s bested in an argument, she doesn’t admit defeat. She is small, plain, and her voice could peel paint. What more could you ask for as a foil for the ungrand Legrand?
Rosalind Ivan is Adele Cross, and cross she indeed is. She differs from her predecessor in the nasty wife role primarily in the demands she puts on Chris. She emasculates him (see photo above), making him do traditional housewifely duties, such as cooking and cleaning. That she was his landlady adds literal power to her domineering nature, deepening the character and the loathing between husband and wife. For this added texture and Ivan’s heightened style, her performance is my preference.
Winner: Scarlet Street
Georges Flamant shines as André “Dédé” Jauguin, a cold, vicious, greedy, and lazy pimp. He’s handsome and knows it, using his charm along with his violence to get whatever he wants from Lulu, and I buy every scene. She begs him to stay, and his facial expression of disgust is plain. When he is intimate with her — either in bed or on the dancefloor — he is fully convincing, a bit of Valentino in his slick swagger. You can see why Lulu desires him, though his abusiveness makes it painful in literal and symbolic ways to watch. He slaps her, kicks her, and verbally browbeats her at every opportunity, intermittently giving her a kiss or a command with equal arrogance. I was astonished to learn this was his first role, and saddened that the car accident that killed Marèse ruined his career.
This said, I adore Dan Duryea, who plays bad boy Johnny Prince (ha) with such tacky wit. He is entirely unsexy, and his abuse is limited to one slap and the nickname “lazy legs” for his female partner in crime. We all know the woman who falls for the dumbass jerk, and Duryea knows how to play a jerk. Still, his charisma is fairly superficial here, where Flamant inhabits sliminess so deeply you want to punch him.
Winner: La Chienne
The portrayal of the “bitch” murder could not be more different in the two films. Scarlet Street is typical Hollywood, stagy and maniacal. The overkill, as it were, of B noir even with an A budget.
By contrast, there is La Chienne‘s murder and post-murder scenes. Lulu’s laughter, cuts to a street scene of musicians, and the final shot of the bloody pillow, Lulu’s bleeding throat, and Legrand’s frantic kissing of her hand and face is powerful and unforgettable. We can debate whether this is about direction or studio/era demands, but La Chienne wins this round without question.
Winner: La Chienne
In La Chienne, years pass after Dédé is put to death for the murder of Lulu. We see Legrand living as a bum, earning money by opening car doors for the wealthy on busy urban streets. He accepts his fate, such as it is, never having confessed to the murder nor tried to return to normal life. Perhaps he is mad, just another crazy old man on the street. The film closes as he and his ex-wife’s first husband (Roger Gaillard), also a bum, go off to spend the twenty francs Legrand has just “earned” on a meal. As they pass, a man exits an art store with Legrand’s self-portrait and puts it carefully in an expensive car. We contrast what he is and what he might have been as the film ends.
In Scarlet Street, less time passes, but Chris is also destitute and living on the street. He has tried to kill himself, and suffers that he cannot claim his artwork (that Kitty has signed). Unlike the carefree madness of Legrand, Chris suffers from his choices, ultimately followed by the ghosts of Kitty and Johnny, knowing they are together in the afterlife forever, symbolized by the whispered repetition of Kitty’s inane refrain, “Jeepers, I love you, Johnny.”
If I could combine the two endings, I would. Neither fully satisfies me, though Renoir’s is far more subtle and moving. Lang aims more for a noir haunting, and I get the concept. Still, the refrain is rather campy, and not emotionally powerful, at least to this viewer.
Winner: La Chienne
The Winner: La Chienne
It’s pretty clear that a single viewing of La Chienne has wowed me more than Scarlet Street has in multiple screenings over a number of years. I still love Scarlet Street for its B noirish charm, and the performances are so much fun. But La Chienne hits the target in tone, style, and depth of characterization, and so it wins my face-off.
How about you? Seen both? Let me know which is your favorite and why!