Edward G. Robinson is mostly remembered for his various Warner Bros. gangster pictures in which he totes around a Tommy-gun intimidating and murdering people without remorse or regret. However, his greatest screen role, in my humble opinion, comes in Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street, a darkly cynical noir about a meek cashier played by Robinson who is seduced and falls in love with a con artist. As far away as one could get from the brash bravado of his earlier characters, this 1945 film has Robinson portraying a character who has given up in life, relegate to an unhappy marriage and a repetitive, meaningless job with his only passion, painting, consigned to a side hobby that is shouted down and torn asunder by a shrill, sour wife.
It is everything that Robinson is not and then some in the character of Christopher Cross. Small and unsure of himself, when he finds himself an unexpected rescuer of a young woman, he becomes easily seduced. What he doesn’t know is that he is being played by a couple of con artists, played by Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea, who wrongly assumes that Cross, is flush with cash. Wanting to impress and not let on to his true average nature, Cross delves deeper and deeper into a moral morass in which a good man is lead to do evil things by the pursuit of his own happiness.
Lang’s film teems with great dramatic ironies and crushing cynical themes of adultery and self worth. Every turn leaves the viewer’s stomach in knots as we see Cross take every wrong, naïve move. Cases of mistaken identity and false promises escalate into an ultimate tragedy in which there’s little chance for self-examination. All we are left with is our deep regrets and remorse. That is what the film is ultimately about and leaves a powerful, lasting image in its final moments that hammer in what could have ultimately been. It’s a deeply cynical film but ultimately, incredibly powerful and daring in the way it takes a humble, decent person and puts him through the ringer for just the idea of trying to live up to his dreams. It’s stark, scary, and, heartbreakingly real.