Robinson plays Chris Cross, a mild-mannered bank clerk who has just been honored for 25 years of service, but is unhappy with his dead-end job and his shrieking harpy of a wife. The only real pleasure he finds in his life is painting, which he does as a hobby. On the way home from his 25th anniversary dinner, Chris happens to witness Kitty March (Bennett) being slapped around by a man, who unbeknownst to him is actually her slimy boyfriend Johnny (Duryea). Chris chases Johnny off and begins to see Kitty socially.
Unfortunately for Chris, Kitty has no interest in him whatsoever, and – egged on by Johnny – seeks to bleed him for money. Even more unfortunately for Chris, his comments about painting give Kitty and Johnny the mistaken impression that he is a rich and famous artist. They set out to squeeze as much money as they can out of Chris, who is now hopelessly in love with Kitty.
Based on the French novel La Chienne ("The Bitch"), which had previously been adapted into a Jean Renoir film under that title in 1931, Scarlet Street reunited Lang, Robinson, Bennett, and Duryea, who had all worked together a year before on The Woman in the Window. It debuted to mixed reviews, but is now recognized as a highlight of Lang's Hollywood career.
The film is now in the Public Domain, and can be legally viewed for free on YouTube and most other streaming services.
This film provides examples of:
- Affectionate Nickname: Well, for debatable values of "affectionate", but Johnny routinely addresses Kitty as "Lazy Legs".
- All Girls Want Bad Boys: Kitty is deeply in love with the crooked, abusive Johnny.
- Alliterative Title: Scarlet Street.
- Alone in a Crowd: The final shot shows a homeless, guilt-wracked Chris shuffling down a busy city sidewalk filled with passers-by. Then it fades to Chris walking alone, with the sidewalk completely deserted.
- Arc Words: Chris's "problems with perspective" are frequently remarked upon, to say the least.
- Asshole Victim: Kitty is an awful person who lied to and manipulated Chris. Johnny, her scumbag pimp and partner, who is executed for her murder despite being innocent, is just as bad as her.
- Better Manhandle the Murder Weapon: Not shown in the movie, but Johnny explains that he picked up the ice pick before he realized that Kitty was dead.
- Cassandra Truth:
- Johnny goes all the way to the electric chair protesting his innocence in Kitty's murder.
- Likewise, Chris appears to have tried to confess he killed Kitty but is dismissed as a crazy bum. Not surprising, Chris doesn't even attempt to tell anyone "Kitty's" paintings are his own.
- Chekhov M.I.A.: Chris is his wife's second husband, and it is mentioned early on that her first husband drowned in the line of duty as a police officer. He turns up later in the film and tries to extort Chris.
- Chekhov's Gun: The ice pick, which Johnny borrowed to chip up some ice for champagne.
- Dirty Cop: Higgins, Adele's first husband, is remembered as a heroic policeman who died trying to save a drowning woman. In truth, he was already under investigation for taking bribes, and really just picked the woman's pocket after she died. He also abandoned Adele, indicating that he was no happier with her than Chris is.
- Downer Ending: Kitty is murdered by Chris. Johnny is falsely convicted and executed for the crime. Chris winds up jobless and homeless, and is seemingly doomed to spend the remainder of his life tormenting himself with guilt, shame, and the thought of Kitty and Johnny together in the afterlife.
- Henpecked Husband: Chris is yelled at and pushed around by his horrible shrew of a wife, who is always badgering him for money but won't cash in the large insurance payout she got when her first husband (supposedly) died.
- To a latter-day viewer, Chris donning an apron and chopping up food for dinner might not seem unusual, but in 1945 this was a way to signal that he was emasculated.
- Interrupted Suicide: Chris tries to hang himself from a light fixture, but is found and "saved" by his neighbors.
- Karma Houdini: A source of controversy for the film on its release, since The Hays Code of the era didn't allow crime to go unpunished, and yet a major character not only gets away with murder, but deliberately sends another man to the chair for his crime, and sees no punishment other than from his own conscience. Granted, the guilt drives him literally insane, which was enough to satisfy the Hays office, but not a number of state and city censor boards, which banned the film.
- Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Are the voices tormenting Chris toward the end merely products of his guilty conscience and Sanity Slippage? Or are they the actual ghosts of Kitty and Johnny?
- Never Found the Body: Chris's wife's first husband, believed to have drowned in the river years ago, turns up alive and wanting money. Chris is pretty happy, as it turns out this has freed him from his terrible marriage.
- Organ Grinder: The film opens with a shot of an organ grinder and his monkey on the street. Likely Foreshadowing of how Kitty and Johnny will manipulate Chris.
- Revealing Hug: The grimace on Kitty's face when Chris embraces her makes it perfectly clear how she feels about him.
- Sleeping Single: Chris and his wife, although given what a terrible person she is, that might be for the best.
- Stealing from the Till: Chris steals money from his bank to pay for Kitty and the apartment he got for her. While he literally gets away with murder, he is caught for this crime, and fired from the bank, although the manager declines to press charges.
- Stealing the Credit: Yet another way Kitty and Johnny take advantage of Chris (and a particularly cruel one, given that painting was one of the few joys in Chris' life): they pass his paintings off as Kitty's and make a fortune from them.
- Streetwalker: It is very strongly implied, though never definitely stated, that Kitty is a prostitute and Johnny is her pimp, and that the confrontation Chris witnessed in the opening scene was Johnny slapping her around for not having earned enough. When Chris takes Kitty to a bar for a drink, he asks her what she does that requires her to be out so late. She tells him to guess, and hopelessly naive Chris surmises that she's an actress. She rolls with it. (In the original La Chienne novel and the Renoir film, this subtext is text, with the woman explicitly portrayed as a prostitute.)
- Would Hit a Girl: Johnny slaps Kitty around, but she loves him anyway.