Scarlet Street - 4K Ultra HD Blu-rayOverview -
One of the most brutal and devastating film noirs gets the 4K UHD treatment from KLSC. Scarlet Street stands as one of director Fritz Lang's masterworks and features sharply etched portrayals from Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea. The story of a middle-aged, milquetoast man who allows himself to be seduced, scammed, and suckered by a couple of seedy, greedy grifters still packs a gut punch almost 80 years after its premiere, and the impressive remastered transfer with Dolby Vision HDR and solid audio bring it to life like never before. Highly Recommended.
Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take
After the success of The Woman in the Window, director Fritz Lang and actors Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea reunited the following year for another film noir exercise. Scarlet Street may share some plot and character components with its predecessor, but in this case, familiarity doesn't breed contempt. On the contrary, this blistering and ultimately bruising drama eclipses The Woman in the Window and stands as one of Lang's finest movies. A slow-burn tale of deceit, manipulation, and murder with a haunting denouement, Scarlet Street deftly mixes elegance with an underlying, unadulterated nastiness that's both repugnant and fascinating. It's a film that's hard to like, but easy to love.
Based largely on Jean Renoir's early French talkie La Chienne (that's "The Bitch" in English), Scarlet Street chronicles the decline and fall of a middle-aged, naive nebbish whose desperate need for validation leads him into the clutches of a couple of unapologetic parasites who exploit his myriad weaknesses and take brutal advantage of him. Robinson plays Christopher Cross (not to be confused with the 1980s pop music star), a mild-mannered cashier at a New York City firm who toils diligently at a dreary job and is married to an emasculating shrew (Rosalind Ivan) who constantly barks at him. Chris takes solace in painting (although his wife only allows him to paint in the bathroom) and longs to make a connection with a beautiful young woman.
As they say, be careful what you wish for. While walking to the subway after a company dinner one night, Chris witnesses just such a woman getting shaken and punched by a brutish man. Chris comes to her aid and is instantly bewitched by her allure. It's fairly obvious the woman is a prostitute and the man who fled the scene is her pimp, but such sordid thoughts never enter Chris' mind. To him, Kitty March (Bennett) is a damsel in distress, and when she tells him she's an "actress," he buys the lie hook, line, and sinker. He expresses his love of painting, which gives her the idea he's a successful artist...and Chris does nothing to refute that notion.
Kitty's lover/pimp Johnny Prince (Duryea) convinces her to foster a relationship with Chris for nefarious purposes. She obliges, but is repulsed by Chris' unctuous fawning. ("If he were mean or vicious or if he'd bawl me out or something, I'd like him better," she says.) Kitty gets Chris to set her up in a swanky apartment where he can paint undisturbed, and she and Johnny thank him by hawking his artwork without his knowledge. Adding insult to injury, when a gallery shows some interest, Kitty takes credit for the paintings. What follows are twists, turns, violence, and devastation as Chris slowly pulls the wool off his eyes and realizes he's been duped.
Scarlet Street details Chris' descent into darkness with a mixture of comedy and creepiness. Lang expertly uses noir conventions (many of which he invented) and bitter irony to craft an absorbing tale that's deliciously distasteful. None of the characters are likable, yet somehow they draw us in and keep us transfixed. The script by Dudley Nichols, best known for penning such timeless classics as Bringing Up Baby and the original Stagecoach, is brilliantly constructed and keeps us constantly on edge. Surprises abound, the most notable of which is the ending, which somehow finesses the Production Code's rigid constraints. And speaking of censorship, this version of Scarlet Street restores a few seconds of shocking violence that had to be excised at the time of the movie's release.
Robinson, who reportedly didn't enjoy making the film, files one of his best performances, crafting an understated, disturbing, and heartbreaking portrayal of an unfulfilled man so desperate for a shred of happiness and dignity, he can't see what's going on around him. Robinson uses his homely looks to supreme advantage and always rivets attention, despite his low-key approach. He and Bennett make an appropriately odd couple, but the pairing, as it was in The Woman in the Window, is sublime. Bennett blossomed as an actress under Lang's tutelage (she was one of the few stars of the era who seemed to enjoy working with the perennially sour, occasionally sadistic director - they made four films together) and she's at her zenith here. Kitty is the quintessential tart and Bennett plays her with thinly veiled relish.
Duryea, noir's favorite bad boy, embraces his colorful role, too. With his Alfalfa hair, zoot suit, and trademark snarls, Duryea is always a magnetic presence and his scenes with Bennett sizzle. In supporting parts, Margaret Lindsay is a spark plug as Kitty's sassy, cynical gal pal (it's too bad Warner Bros didn't recognize this side of Lindsay during her long tenure at the studio in the 1930s); Ivan, who tormented Charles Laughton in The Suspect, is a hoot as Chris' wife from hell, and Samuel S. Hinds, who would famously play James Stewart's dad in It's a Wonderful Life the following year, supplies some much needed humanity as Chris' mild-mannered, sympathetic friend.
Scarlet Street - with apologies to Teddy Roosevelt - speaks softly, but carries a big stick. Despite its subtle presentation, it's not a film for the faint of heart or for anyone who believes in the inherent goodness of the human race. It's dark and devastating, but strangely exhilarating, and if you're a fan of quality moviemaking, film noir, and good acting, it's essential viewing.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Scarlet Street arrives on 4K UHD packaged in a standard case inside a matte sleeve. A 1080p Blu-ray disc is also included in the set. Video codec is 2160p/HEVC H.265 with Dolby Vision HDR and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Scarlet Street knocked around in the public domain for decades, which is never a good thing for a classic movie. Print quality ranged from mediocre to horrendous during that period, but thankfully KLSC has found a very good source for the film's 4K UHD debut. A "brand new HDR/Dolby Vision master" struck "from a 16-bit 4K scan of the 35mm nitrate composite fine grain (courtesy of Universal Pictures and UCLA)" yields a crisp, lush 2160p/HEVC H.265 transfer that outclasses any previous home video version of this classic noir. Print damage, though, is still an issue. I was quite concerned during the opening title sequence that's littered with speckles and scratches, but once the narrative begins, the quantity of marks considerably diminishes. Occasional faint vertical lines are the main culprit from there on out, but some nicks, a few blotches, and one reel change marker continue to crop up throughout the film. The blemishes aren't terribly distracting, but they do detract from what is otherwise an absolutely gorgeous rendering.
Crystal clarity, superb contrast, inky blacks, bright and stable whites, and varied grays produce a stunning, often dimensional image that brims with depth. Grain is evident, but the texture is beautifully resolved, resulting in an incredibly film-like presentation that faithfully honors Milton Krasner's cinematography. Excellent shadow delineation is essential for any Lang film and this transfer delivers in spades in that regard. Details in costume fabrics, bits of decor, and wallpaper patterns are distinct and breathtaking close-ups highlight Bennett's raven-black hair and Robinson's wrinkles and jowls. Some softness creeps in now and then and there's a rather jarring jump-cut toward the end of the movie, but such imperfections aren't surprising due to the picture's public domain history. Without a doubt, this is the definitive edition of Scarlet Street, and fans shouldn't hesitate to snatch it up.
The 1080p Blu-ray transfer is mighty fine as well. Clarity, of course, isn't quite as good and contrast pales when compared to the 4K UHD treatment, but the pleasing image surely outclasses other Scarlet Street Blu-ray releases.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies clear, well-modulated sound that's free of any age-related hiss, pops, or crackle. Scarlet Street is a surprisingly quiet film noir, but the eerie whispers that haunt Chris Cross toward the end are marvelously effective and the dialogue is nicely prioritized so we never miss a word. A wide dynamic scale embraces all the highs and lows of the music score by six-time Oscar nominee Hans J. Salter, sonic accents like subway rumbles are potent, and no distortion mars the mix.
KLSC includes two brand-new audio commentaries to properly examine this noir classic as well as a bunch of trailers, but sadly there's no preview for Scarlet Street. A featurette including insights by noir czars Eddie Muller and/or Alan K. Rode would have been nice, but no such luck.
Audio Commentary by film historian Imogen Sara Smith - Smith calls Scarlet Street "one of the indispensable noir films" in this engaging commentary that covers a variety of interesting topics. Smith compares Scarlet Street to The Woman in the Window and Jean Renoir's La Chienne, which was based on the same material, discusses the "mood of entrapment" and "stylized realism" that pervade the film, notes all the elements of society the movie skewers, outlines a sub-genre she calls "portrait noir," and shares some production tidbits. She also analyzes the characters, plot, and Lang's directorial style, examines femme fatales and the role of women in 1940s society, links Robinson's character in Scarlet Street to the actor's real-life experience with the House UnAmerican Activities Committee a few years later, and provides fairly in-depth bios of Robinson, Bennett, Duryea, and Lang.
Audio Commentary by author David Kalat - The Fritz Lang scholar delves deep into the director's film canon, dissects his style, and states Scarlet Street is "far superior" to The Woman in the Window in this top-notch track. Kalat notes this is the "uncensored theatrical version" of Scarlet Street and describes brief scenes that were cut before the movie premiered. He praises Robinson's talent, quotes Lang's notes from the period, examines the musical score and costume symbolism, and supplies thematic analysis. In addition, he provides some brief cast and crew bios, chronicles the conception and demise of the independent production company that mounted Scarlet Street, and details the numerous censorship issues and infighting that dogged the movie prior to its release. While I'm a big fan of Imogen Sara Smith, I have to say Kalat's commentary outshines hers, so if you only have time to sample one, I'd recommend listening to Kalat first.
If you're a film noir fan, Scarlet Street demands a prominent place in your collection. Deliciously nasty yet heartbreaking and haunting, Fritz Lang's searing portrait of manipulation and deception will stick with you long after the final fade-out. Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea, and a strong supporting cast deliver terrific performances and KLSC's brand-new Dolby Vision HDR master struck from a 16-bit 4K scan of the 35 mm nitrate composite fine grain and refurbished audio make this the definitive edition of a noir classic. Highly Recommended.
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