Film Noir Loves a Tell-Tale Heart

A few dates are all it takes to realize that Miss Film Noir, despite her reputation as one of the most beloved and oft-studied genres in cinematic history, is one strange, frighteningly bipolar dame.

The deadly molls, hard-bitten gumshoes, and rain-drenched streets popularized by Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, and their compatriots (and brought to glorious cinematic life by directors like Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, and John Huston) conjure up an era of inelegant theatrics and romanticized cynicism that has become difficult for the modern viewer to stomach. Their stories are yellowing snapshots of a past where improbably sarcastic characters battled for their souls against the backdrop of an eternal, obsolete night.

Yet despite the over-dark settings, archaic slang, and unlikely stereotypes that populate most noir film, they contain a persistent and morally relevant timelessness. To this day, no genre deals as clearly or as deeply with the never-ending conflict between a man and his temptations, or with the corrosive, devouring effects of sin. And what could possibly be more timely and relevant than that?

Scarlet Street, from legendary director Fritz Lang, is a lesser-known member of the noir family—an odd fact given that it is one of only a handful of films in the public domain—but one well-deserving of our attention for the way it makes use of typical noir characteristics, and then subverts them.

Edward G. Robinson, a classic-film icon best remembered for his breakout role as Rico in Little Caesar, is Christopher Cross: bland cashier by day; failed painter and hen-pecked husband by night. Fresh off the depressing celebration of his insignificant 25-year career at a clothing retailer in New York City, he happens across a young woman (Joan Bennett) being viciously attacked by a street thug, and rushes to her defense.

Oblivious to the unmistakable signs of her unsavory occupation, Chris is smitten with the bright young thing—Kitty March is the first ray of life and hope that has fallen on his mundane existence for many years. Reluctant to reveal his lack of accomplishments to his new-found acquaintance, Cross allows her to assume that he is a wealthy, unattached artist. She, in turn, conceals a secret of her own: the violent young man from whom she was rescued is actually her boyfriend, Johnny, who has been schooling her in underhanded dealings since they first met.

Recognizing the potential in Cross' growing infatuation, and goaded on by Johnny's desire for an "easy mark," Kitty ensnares the hapless cashier with a mesmerizing mixture of brashness, beauty, and charm. But Johnny's insistence forces Kitty to speed up her plans of entrapment: Soon, Cross is embezzling his employer's funds, crafting a rift in his already-fragile marriage, and watching Kitty make a fine living posing as the "artist" behind his previously-unknown, but now surprisingly successful paintings.

All this, Cross suffers gladly for the sake of his new-found love, but when Johnny enters the picture and threatens to reveal the shallowness of Kitty's devotions, things take an ugly turn. In a drunken, jealous rage, Cross confronts Kitty, only to learn that she finds him as useless and unappealing as he has always believed himself to be. Stung by her rejection, he lashes out violently, and Kitty pays the ultimate price.

Appalled at his uncharacteristic action, Cross resolves to punish the man he holds responsible for destroying something infinitely more precious than Kitty's life—her innocence. Assisted by a series of strangely fortuitous circumstances, he frames the hapless Johnny for his crime, and escapes unscathed.

Or does he?

The film departs in a number of ways from the well-established noir path, particularly in its main characters. Cross' age and lot in life are much less glamorous than that of most noir protagonists; he is not simply ordinary, he's insignificant. And Kitty is an equally atypical noir woman, lacking much of the mystery and allure that makes her fellow femme fatales so deadly. But the most striking instance of Lang's departure from the genre's traditions is in Scarlet Street's finale.

Film scholars have long remarked on the unexpectedly straight-forward and morally upright endings of many noir films, speculating that the Hays Code's insistence on the victory of virtue over cynicism may have been to blame—an accusation which, if true, produced some of the most iconic endings in cinematic history: Walter Neff speaking his halting confession into a detective's tape recorder; Joe Gillis floating face-down in Norma Desmond's swimming pool; Harry Lyme reaching up from the Vienna sewers with his last breath.

In Scarlet Street, however, such a memorable moment of justice and moral triumph is conspicuously absent. Lang takes great pains to convince his audience that there is no possible way that Cross will ever suffer publically for his crimes, despite his eventual efforts to admit to them. So thoroughly did Cross he succeed in convincing the police of his innocence (and sending Johnny to the chair) that his attempts to square the scales of justice fall on deaf ears.

The film's final shot, with Cross shuffling woefully past the art gallery where his final masterpiece has just been sold, gives audiences a glimpse of his future—a future haunted by the clamorous imputations of his victims. He, like so many of us, has managed to avoid the public consequences of his sins, but he will spend the rest of his days confronting the one jury he cannot possibly escape: himself.

While the bleakness of the film's finale is undeniable, it leaves behind a glimmer of hope, challenging us to move beyond Cross' guilt-ridden desperation, to focus upon the possibility of his redemption.

Despite his unconscionable actions, Christopher Cross is a good man; as a good man, his future will be ever-clouded by the memory of the violence he has committed. Yet this memory may prove to be his saving grace, for it is an undeniable sign his conscience is working on him, reminding him at every turn of his heinous crime. In the daily struggle to appease the accusations of his conscience, he may finally work out his salvation, purified by the justice of his self-recriminations, and sanctified through the injustice of escaping unpunished in the face of such overwhelming guilt.

Cross is doomed (and blessed) to live out his name, carrying the cross of his transgressions until the end of his earthly days. As one of the film's characters tells Cross, "Nobody gets away with murder. No one escapes punishment."

That is true for all sin, and thank God for it. But let us be even more grateful for the role we ourselves are allowed to play in the drama of redemption, and the conscience plays such an active part in the working-out of our own salvation. God, in His infinite Wisdom, makes use of our own self-knowledge and guilt to prepare us for His grace, saving us through the poundings of our tell-tale hearts.

And Miss Noir is the surprising dame who can still be bothered to remind us of it.

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