Film Forum ran a double feature of Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street and Anthony Mann’s Side Street on Sunday and Monday, and they’re two of the best films I’ve seen lately.
Scarlet Street is about Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson), an amateur painter who falls for Kitty (Joan Bennett), a girl who’s scamming him out of money he doesn’t really have. Chris sets himself up for the swindle by letting her believe he’s a major artist with paintings worth thousands of dollars. Kitty pretends to be an actress. The deception begins after they meet in the street, and Chris asks her to have a drink. It’s a great scene and the fact that they’re right beneath her apartment and keep talking about how late it is gives the scene some serious sex appeal. You almost forget that Robinson can’t be sexy, and that’s precisely the thing his character would like Kitty to do. From there, Lang keeps teasing out the flirtation between Chris and Kitty until it's clear Chris is desperate for her and refuses to believe she’s in it for anything but love. The way the relationship is drawn is devastating: according to common movie knowledge, the girl should go for him at least a little, but she never even considers it.
Before we’re certain that their affection is completely one-sided, the two have lunch and Chris describes how making a painting is like falling in love. (Another great thing about Scarlet Street is in how much detail it shows Chris’s wacky paintings.) At lunch, it starts to look like Kitty’s falling for Chris a little during his soliloquy, but as soon as he looks the other way her face screws up into mockery. The rest of the movie hinges on these kinds of details – if the first scene wasn’t alluring, Chris’s designs on Kitty would be too pathetic to carry the movie – and Lang fills the film with little touches that lesser movies might not bother with.
Because it's an Anthony Mann movie, Side Street is similarly interested in detail, as well as great action sequences and even greater locations. The best stuff is inside a bar where Farley Granger leaves a bundle of stolen money. The scenes in the bar are the ones that come immediately to mind when you think of Side Street because the details are spot-on, and Mann constructs the place with the depth of the academy frame he’s so good at utilizing.
Most of the activity in the bar takes place in the back, and Mann’s camera puts the action in the foreground, with sidewalk-level windows in the background. These scenes are the most tense, and the action hinges on all this little stuff, like a desperate Granger at the bar asking about an address without letting on why he really needs it. Meanwhile, Mann keeps the window far in the background, full of sidewalk action. And in between, he has all these extras moving around and talking to each other, and he gets all the details of a mid-afternoon bar just right. It’s an early example of Mann’s great use of depth, something he’d perfect in his pre-Cinemascope westerns. Add Granger’s nerves and the peculiarities of the bar (there are two counters in the place, one on either side), the effortless details, and it heightens the scene with a unique energy. This feeling of tension gets a concrete setting in the bar, and it becomes the center of Side Street. Little moments in movies don’t get any better than these kinds of scenes, these kinds of locations.
Both films are available on DVD; Side Street comes with Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night, which also stars Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell.