The eighteenth entry in an on-going series of audiovisual essays by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin. MUBI will be showing Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street (1945) from December 30, 2016 - January 28, 2017 in the United States.
In Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Scarlet Street (1945) it is never simply a matter of characters seeing or not seeing something important—although that can furnish the first, basic level of the intrigue. It is also a matter of what people really understand of what they see—which, in turn, has much to do with what they, consciously or unconsciously, project onto what is before their eyes.
So, while the film is full of moments where its central figure, the ‘poor sap’ Chris Cross (Edward G. Robinson), has his eyes averted, or doesn’t hear someone creeping behind his back, it also explores his willful blindness: he looks at Kitty (Joan Bennett) and sees an innocent angel where, according to all visible evidence (and in the jaundiced gaze of everyone else who knows her), there is only a manipulative prostitute; and he can never quite recognize the sinister male figures who populate his story, even after he has looked at them (or a photograph of them) directly.
In Dudley Nichols’s superb script—rarely has the work of a writer and a director meshed so well together—the metaphor that ties all this together is that of perspective. As an artist, Chris is a naïve or primitive painter: lacking academic technique, his depictions of incidents from his life (such as his first, fateful meeting with Kitty on a night street) emanate from pure feeling. But emotions lead him astray, when what he so desperately needs is knowledge, insight, perceptiveness—exactly the kind of perspective on his own situation that he lacks.
In any Lang film, some clever characters manage, more or less well, at least for a while, to build a fancy trompe-l’oeil out of faked appearances, performed identities, staged situations. That’s Dr. Mabuse’s specialty, and it’s also the case with Kitty and her unlovely pimp, Johnny (Dan Duryea) in Scarlet Street. But a larger trap—the Destiny Machine (to use Tom Gunning’s useful term) that is comprised in equal parts of metaphysical fate and social inequity—will eventually undo them all. Then they, too, will be victims of the limited perspective of other bystanders or witnesses, who have jumped to their own pitiless conclusions about whatever they have seen or heard.
That’s when Lang’s movies slam home terrible, fatal realities—when all tricky veils and pleasant sentiments fall away from the images lodged in his characters’s eyes. Only the director, finally, is the Master of Perspective; only he is able to get outside the scene to see, and indeed plot, all the angles. This is the Langian cinematic logic which we trace—especially as it involves the character of Chris Cross—in our audiovisual essay.