The Pursuit of a False Dream: Scarlet Street (1945)

scarlet-street-movie-poster-1945-1020413479Deception 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.

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6 thoughts on “The Pursuit of a False Dream: Scarlet Street (1945)

  1. That’s a great insight: “an ice pick to murder the emotional ice cold femme fatale.” It seems likely that Chris’s artwork only became famous because the artist (Kitty) was murdered, not because of the quality of the art.

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  2. Hello Snood-Meister, great insights as usual, my old shady film critic friend! LOL! At the end of the film, as Christopher Cross walks past HIS painting that is featured in the gallery window, which ironically is famous/attributed to the MURDERED Kitty. One has to wonder… if all of the attention is for the artwork itself… or the sensationalism of her murder!?! Just a thought about the world that we find ourselves in. Which unfortunately STILL holds true today! Anyway, the “masterpiece” painting is symbolic of his criminal act of murder against her! The artwork itself is a visual reminder which intrinsically links them forever & will probably haunt his conscious for the rest of his life! In the end, Christopher Cross used the appropriate weapon (AN ICE PICK) to murder the emotional ice cold femme-fatale Kitty! HILARIOUS!!! P.S. You need to finish watching “CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF” (50’s) with Paul Newman, Burl Ives, & Elizabeth Taylor! Can U live with MENDACITY… MY FRIEND!?! 🙂

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  3. I think hit a wise point on the perspective insight and noting that Chris Cross lost his dream, but I think there is more to his dream and what shattered his identity. Though I also would say his wife may of been more shallow than Kitty as she does have an element of grayness to her character. Kitty acts as a muse that rekindles Chris’s painting desire.

    In the end he didn’t just lose his delusional dream of Kitty but he equally lost his opportunity to paint. To cover for himself he basically couldn’t paint anymore and he had to witness seeing his painting of Kitty, being called her masterpiece sold while he was broke and empty, devoid of anything in his life. He doesn’t just have to live with his crippling conscious that taunts him for the murder he commit, he knows he could of actually achieved the dream he had lingering in his mind throughout his life.

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  4. Great post! I really dig your interesting theory on Christopher Cross’s expressionistic “no perspective” artwork in regards to his inability to see Kitty (Joan Bennett) using him. SPOILER ALERT: Scarlet Street was one of the first Hollywood films (since the production code of 34′) to have the killer go free and a innocent man (Dan Duryea) executed for his crime in the end of the film. This caused more controversy than praise at the films original release in 1945. Scarlet Street film was made under the independent banner of Diana Productions which was named after Joan Bennett & Walter Wanger’s daughter. The company was formed by Fritz Lang, producer Walter Wanger, and Joan Bennett herself. Interestingly, Scarlet Street has a lot in common plot/character wise with the great Marlene Dietrich & Emil Jannings film THE BLUE ANGEL 30′. Thematically speaking, the character Christopher Cross (Edward G Robinson) is literally a “feminized”& “castrated” male character within the narrative of Scarlet Street. For instance, Christopher’s domineering wife calls all of the shots in his troubled marriage and he literally wears an apron while he washes the dishes (traditionally seen as a women’s job at the time) which symbolizes this perfectly! Most importantly, in the freudian symbolic way in which the “castrated” Christopher Cross uses a knife (Phallic symbol) to kill Kitty in which consummates his unreciprocated/frustrated sexual passion for her in the end of this BRILLANT film!!! Lastly, the importance of painted portraits of characters from the past that loom over the present narrative… which is a Noir film staple. LAURA and THE TWO MISS CARROLLS 47′ are excellent examples that illustrate this. For instance, the portrait of Chris’s wife’s ex-husband which is very prominent in the dinning room and within the narrative of the film. She compares/berates Chris to him all of the time… in which Chris NEVER measures up to him as a “MAN”! Finally, I am glad that you liked my “EXORCIST post on The Disintegration of the Nuclear Family”. CHEERS!!! 🙂

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