Usually when I say that a movie leaves a bad taste in my mouth I don’t exactly mean that as a compliment. With Scarlet Street, however, I’m paying tribute to the strychnine-bitter finish that Fritz Lang worked so hard to give his wrenching noir masterpiece.
SPOILER ALERT! The movie ends with Criss Cross, the gentle, manipulated cashier (and genius painter), killing Kitty, the object of his obsession, after she laughs at his marriage proposal. When the cops put the finger on Kitty’s pimp boyfriend for the crime, Cross lets the not-quite-innocent man go to the death house for the murder.
Tortured by his sins and hallucinating the ghostly, gloating whispers of his victims, Cross becomes a bum, a pathetic presumed lunatic who confesses to a crime that nobody believes he committed.
The first time I saw this movie, during my teenage noir binge, the abject defeat of the main character absolutely floored me. Noir protagonists tend to go down in a blaze of tragic glory or at least catch a ray of dubious, studio-mandated redemption.
The pitiable failure of Criss Cross—unrecognized as both a great artist and a remorseful murderer—and the anticlimax of Scarlet Street‘s conclusion depressed the hell out of me. Lang slashed a hole in the silky lining of Hollywood’s fantasy world.
These days the ending of Scarlet Street actually inspires me. Its grim fatalism testifies to the courage of some filmmakers and producers working within the constraints of a commercial system.
Indeed, the Production Code didn’t allow for murderers to escape death or legal punishment in the last reel—often resulting in some mutilated or at least unlikely denouements.
Determined to avoid such a botched ending, Lang decided to bring his case to censorship honcho Joseph Breen and harp on a feeling close to every Catholic’s heart: guilt. As the director recalled:
“I said, ‘Look, we’re both Catholics. Being permitted to live, the Robinson character in Scarlet Street goes through hell. That’s a much greater punishment being imprisoned for homicide. After all, it was not a premeditated murder, it was a crime of passion. What if he does spend the rest of his life in jail—so what? The greater punishment is surely to have him go legally free, his soul burdened by the knowledge of his deed, his mind constantly echoing with the words of the woman he loved proclaiming her love for the man he’d wrongly sent to death in his place…’ And I won my point.”
What do you know? Catholic guilt is good for something after all.