In Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street, a middle-aged cashier, Chris Cross (Edward G. Robinson), is ensnared by Joan Bennett’s slatternly streetwalker Kitty “Lazy Legs” March after she and her gaudy boyfriend-pimp, Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea), discover that the Henri Rousseau-like canvasses Chris paints on Sunday afternoons are valuable.
Unhappily married Chris stores his unsigned paintings in the swanky love nest which he establishes for Kitty. Not that she allows him to make love to her; bliss for him is being allowed to paint her toenails, presumably scarlet, while she lolls around in a negligee and looks at him with contempt.
One of film noir’s most spidery femme fatales, aspiring actress Kitty has no qualms about passing Chris’s paintings off as her own and becoming a well-remunerated celebrity in New York’s art community. The leech Johnny buys himself a sports car out of the proceeds.
Most of Scarlet Street is set in Greenwich Village, including the scene in which Chris and Kitty first meet. Walking to an East Side subway station after attending a Saturday night dinner with his boss and colleagues, Chris spots Johnny beating up Kitty and hurries across the rain-slicked street to rescue her.
Timid though Chris is, he flaps at Johnny with his umbrella and succeeds in knocking him out. While Chris is fetching a cop, Johnny comes to and Kitty shoos him away. After sending the cop off in the opposite direction, she invites Chris to walk her home to her shared West Village apartment in a brick-fronted brownstone at 247 Grove Street.
He asks her to have a coffee with him in the bar, Tiny’s, at the house’s basement level. She persuades him to join her in a Rum Collins, though he’s already had too much champagne.
Inside, Kitty removes her see-through plastic mac and sits opposite Chris. Wearing a low-plunging shiny black frock, she is dressed to kill, and Chris is easy prey. He is already in love with her, which is a polite way of saying that he does not know that what he feels for this vulgar creature is lust. The movie traces his gradual downfall—which climaxes after he learns Kitty despises him—and his fate as a guilt-ridden homeless man sadomasochistically taunted by a ghostly female voice.
Scarlet Street originated in Georges de La Fouchardière’s novel La Chienne—meaning “bitch”—and Jean Renoir’s 1931 film version. Lang could hardly name his movie The Bitch in 1945. One rumor has it that he decided to call it Scarlet Street after he learned of Greenwich Village’s Carmine Street during a pre-production recce to the Village—carmine being a faintly purplish deep red.
Arrayed in purple and scarlet
However, in her book Fritz Lang (1976), Lotte Eisner records Lang saying “he did not know exactly what the title meant but that afterwards he remembered the passage in The Apocalypse of St. John [The Book of Revelation] where the whore of Babylon is described as ‘the woman arrayed in purple and scarlet’ and thinks that image may have been in the back of his mind.”
Since Scarlet Street was filmed on a sound stage and an outdoors lot at Universal Studios in the San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles, fans of the movie will seek in vain for locations from the film in Greenwich Village. Number 247 Grove Street doesn’t exist; ascending in numbers from west to east, Grove ends at number 210. (If you want to go to a Tiny’s in Manhattan, you’ll find a street level restaurant of that name and its “bar upstairs” at 135 West Broadway in Tribeca.)
Under the tracks
Nonetheless, the spirit of the movie’s Village scenes still survives around Grove Street, where several of the houses resemble the movie’s 247. The Village has a number of open street spaces similar to the one in which Chris hares towards Kitty and Johnny’s fight; the same space—seen from a reverse angle—is where Chris and Kitty talk to the cop.
The banded steel supports in the street that are visible in this scene (below) would have supported the Ninth Street Elevated Railway, or El, as it passed along Greenwich Street in the Village, indicating this is where Chris ran to give Kitty his unwanted help. Since Scarlet Street is set in 1934, the El would have still been running—it did not close until 1940.