Deception involves two parties: the deceiver and the deceived. In film noir, a main character will often play both roles. In Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945), Kitty March (Joan Bennett) deceives Chris Cross (Edward G. Robinson), making him believe that she loves him. An important theme in the film is that people are deceived by a false dream when they have a wrong perception of reality.
Chris is a man of honesty and integrity. In the opening scene, he attends a work party in his honor, and receives a watch for 25 years of faithful service. However, when he meets Kitty, he begins to compromise his moral values, not telling her that he is married. Later, when Kitty hints that she needs money for a new apartment, he steals the money for her. Overpowered by his desire for Kitty, Chris is willing to do anything to be with her: to lie and to steal.
Chris is a dreamer, and it is the tragic nature of dreamers to deceive themselves. Charlie Pringle (Samuel S. Hinds) tells Chris: “When we are young we have dreams that never pan out, but we go on dreaming.” A dream that is impossible to achieve is an illusion. Chris’s illusion is that Kitty loves him, despite it being painfully obvious to the viewer that she feels nothing for him. His dream of being with her is a false dream.
Chris previously had a dream to be an artist, a dream that died. But after meeting Kitty, he dares to dream again: the dream of loving a beautiful young woman and being loved in return. Chris’s false dream about Kitty is based on a wrong perception of her that parallels the problem with his paintings: They have “no perspective.” A painting without perspective lacks depth, and Chris lacks the depth of character to see the truth about Kitty: She is shallow and does not love him.
When Chris’s dream is shattered, his identity implodes. Shocked by the realization that Kitty deceived him, he murders her, and later lies on the witness stand, sending Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea) to the gas chamber. Chris’s shattered identity results in the complete loss of his conscience. His identity is shattered because the dream of being with Kitty was only thing that mattered in his life. He sacrificed everything to be with her including his moral values.
After losing everything that mattered to him, Chris regains something far more important. The final sequence of the film suggests that his conscience has been restored. Five years later, he is homeless, asleep on a park bench in the cold of winter. A police officer says that Chris wanted to be sentenced and executed for two murders and tried to turn himself in. This shows us that his sense of right and wrong has returned, a small measure of redemption.
The pursuit of a false dream shattered Chris when he finally faced reality. His desire to be with Kitty was an attempt to escape from the pain of his present reality: an unhappy marriage and a mundane job. Chris’s tragic end serves as a warning: In the pursuit of a dream, we must not lose our conscience. If we lose our conscience, we lose our soul.