I’ve just finally got round to seeing the film noir classic Scarlet Street, directed by Fritz Lang – one of the many greats I had somehow managed to miss up to now. I’m not going to write a full review, but will be going off at a tangent about the artist whose work is featured in the film, John Decker. However, on the film itself, I will briefly say that I was struck by the darkness and feeling of menace building up all the way through, and especially by the haunting final scenes, which are justly the most famous. Many copies of the movie around on the web and on budget DVDs are bad public domain prints, but the picture and sound are much better on the remastered version issued by Kino.
Edward G Robinson is brilliant in the lead role as Chris Cross (great name, suggesting his conflicted nature) a meek bank cashier who is a frustrated artist. He has to create his masterpieces in a tiny bathroom, which is the only space he is allowed by his wife, Adele (Rosalind Ivan) – a character who I found something of a cardboard cutout.
Longing to escape from his miserable existence, he falls for Kitty March (Joan Bennett), who is probably a prostitute, though this is hinted rather than stated, controlled by her abusive boyfriend Johnny (Dan Duryea). Kitty wrongly jumps to the conclusion that Chris is rich, and sets out trying to milk him for money. Through a series of unlikely plot twists, she becomes celebrated as the supposed creator of Chris’ paintings, while he remains an unknown. This is a grey, sleazy world where everyone is on the make and none of the characters is really sympathetic – Chris is more likeable than the others, mainly because he is played by Robinson who always has a lot of charisma, but even he is prepared to steal from his bosses in the hope of buying Kitty’s sexual favours. And a scene where he is chopping meat for his wife makes it clear how much violence is simmering below that quiet surface.
Watching the movie, I was struck by the pictures which Robinson’s character creates, and especially by the one of Kitty which he passes off as her self-portrait – the eyes have a haunted expression and the painting really brings out a darker side of the character, something she is trying to keep hidden. I really wanted to find copies of the originals of these paintings online and see how they looked in colour, but have so far drawn a blank.
In any case, I wondered who really created these works, and was interested to find out that it was Hollywood artist John Decker, whose own life is surrounded in lurid legend and sounds like the stuff of film noir – he was born in Germany and moved to Britain but was interned as an enemy alien during the First World War, then travelled to America where he worked as a cartoonist and then moved to Hollywood as a portrait painter. He became one of the controversial hellraising Bundy Drive Boys, and was a close friend of great actor John Barrymore. He is said to have forged a Rembrandt although there doesn’t seem to be any definite evidence on this either way. There is an expensive biography by Stephen Jordan, Bohemian Rogue: The Life of Hollywood Artist John Decker, but I’m not clear from the details on Amazon whether this includes paintings or is mainly just tales of drunken exploits.
I have had permission to copy a photo of a painting by Decker of Anthony Quinn, which was posted on Flickr, by Devpow. I also wanted to include another beautiful painting of John Barrymore by Decker, which I came across on Flickr, in this posting, but haven’t as yet had any reply to my request to use it, so I’m linking to it instead – I don’t know if it is the picture of Barrymore as Hamlet which Tallulah Bankhead is said to have bought.