Famous Couples of Noir: Chris and Kitty and Kitty and Johnny in Scarlet Street (1945)
Christopher Cross and Kitty March
Perfectly portrayed by Edward G. Robinson, Christopher Cross is a long-time cashier who is being honored for 25 years of service as the film begins. After the festive dinner, while talking with a co-worker, Chris actually foreshadows his vulnerability for his doomed relationship with Kitty. Speculating on the possibility that their boss is fooling around with an attractive blond, Chris wonders what it’s like “to be loved by a young girl like that. You know, nobody ever looked at me like that – not even when I was young.” Just minutes after the two men part, Chris sees a young woman being beaten on a street, and almost without thinking, Chris runs to her rescue, delivering a few whacks of his trusty umbrella to knock the man cold.
The woman is Kitty March, which must have been one of actress Joan Bennett’s favorite roles, she plays it with such gusto. After a nearby cop runs off in search of Kitty’s assailant, it takes only a flash of her smile and a touch of her hand to change Chris’ mind about waiting for the officer’s return and get him to walk her home instead. She demonstrates her powers of persuasion again when Chris shyly invites her to share a cup of coffee in the bar downstairs from her apartment. Once inside, Kitty switches her order to a Rum Collins, and after initially declining, Chris agrees to join her after Kitty purrs, “Don’t make me drink alone.”
Chris and Kitty deceive each other from the start. She lets him believe that she is an actress (smoothly telling him that her show just closed when he asks the name), and Kitty mistakenly thinks that Chris is a wealthy artist whose works earn up to $30,000 each. They continue to see each other, developing a symbiotic relationship headed straight for Doomsville but allowing, for a time, both to find just what they need in the other: Chris gains the admiration (he thinks) of a beautiful young woman, and Kitty reaps the financial rewards of associating with a wealthy (she thinks) older man. At their first date together, Kitty mooches money from Chris, first handing him a sob story about wearing borrowed clothing from her roommate and being unable to pay her rent, then proposing that he set her up in an apartment where he can paint her picture. She plays Chris like a saxophone – sometimes treading delicately, applying pressure when needed – to get what she wants.
The depth of Chris and Kitty’s deception is only matched by the opposition in their feelings for each other. For Chris, Kitty is everything he could have ever wanted: “I think of you all the time,” he tells her. “All I want is to see you, be near you.” As for Kitty, she seems to feel nothing but contempt and disgust for Chris – she hides a laugh when he confesses with chagrin that he is a married man. She rarely allows him to touch or kiss her, making faces when he does. (“I hate him when he looks at me like that,” she complains. “If he were mean or vicious or if he’d bawl me out or something, I’d like him better.”) And in one scene, when Chris asks if he can paint her, Kitty hands him a bottle of nail polish, sticks a foot in Chris’s direction, and instructs, “Paint me, Chris. They’ll be masterpieces.”
It is Kitty’s contempt for Chris, in fact, that winds up as her undoing. After spying Kitty in a clinch with her “secret lover” Johnny Price (another first-rate performance by the great Dan Duryea), Chris tells her that all is forgiven, and assures her that they can be married. When Kitty buries her face in her pillow, shoulders shuddering, Chris thinks she is crying from shame and gratitude. Instead, she is near hysterics with laughter. “Oh, you idiot!” she says. “How can a man be so dumb? I’ve wanted to laugh in your face ever since I first met you. You’re old and ugly, and I’m sick of you – sick, sick, sick!” In response, Chris grabs a nearby ice pick, and savagely stabs Kitty to death. Rather an abrupt and ignominious finish to this unlikely coupling.
Kitty March and Johnny Prince
When we first meet Kitty and Johnny, he is smacking her around on a deserted city street, even delivering a couple of kicks after she’s on the ground. This incident offers a rather telling illustration of these two characters. It shows Johnny as the callous brute that he is, and it strongly hints at Kitty’s demeanor as the abused girlfriend who keeps coming back for more. After mild-mannered Christopher Cross comes to her aid and knocks Johnny flat, the first words out of Kitty’s mouth (after checking to make sure her jaw isn’t broken) are these: “Is he hurt?” And after first failing to stop Chris from going after a policeman, Kitty not only lies to the copper, telling him she’d never before seen her assailant, but she then sends the cop chasing in the wrong direction.
Just as Kitty regarded Chris with contempt, so does Johnny Prince view Kitty. His term of endearment for her is “Lazylegs,” (though not without good reason, as Kitty is a slothful slob, lounging around on the sofa in her negligee in the middle of the afternoon, dropping gum wrappers on the floor, and tossing garbage atop a sink full of dirty dishes). For Johnny, Kitty seems to exist only for his pleasure, satisfaction, amusement, or advancement. He thinks nothing of eating the food off of her plate, draining her glass of wine in the middle of a meal, reading her mail, or literally emptying her purse to take all of her money. It is his idea for Kitty to convince Chris to rent an apartment for her – “Someplace where I’ll like to come and see ya – not a dump like this.”
When Johnny has squeezed all the money he can out of Kitty, he has no qualms about taking a couple of Chris’s paintings and trying to sell them. And when it turns out that the pieces are worth far more than he’d imagined, Johnny doesn’t think twice about having Kitty sign her name to the paintings and claim to be the artist. Johnny even encourages Kitty’s relationship with an amorous art critic (who, incidentally, was played by Jess Barker, Susan Hayward’s first husband and the father of her twin boys). “He’s getting that look in his eye,” Kitty complains, to which Johnny rejoins, “All you gotta do is keep it there.”
Worst of all, Johnny treats Kitty like his personal punching bag. When we first encounter this twosome, Johnny is beating Kitty because he’d asked her for money and she only had $15 to fork over. On another occasion, during an argument, Kitty tells Johnny, “If I had any sense, I’d walk out on you.” Johnny slaps her face: “You haven’t got any sense,” he responds. And during what would turn out to be their final encounter, Johnny berates Kitty after they learn that Chris has seen them: “What use are my brains if I’m tied up with a dumb cluck like you?” He smacks her. “That’s the only thing you even understand. I’m through with you.” The physical and verbal abuse are quite shocking, especially in today’s world, and even more so because Kitty not only never seriously considers leaving Johnny, but, in fact, seems to view the violence as a sign of his devotion: “Listen, he can’t live without me any more than I can live without him,” she tells her roommate.
Ironically, it is Johnny who is convicted and sentenced to death for Kitty’s murder – partially because of his own warped stance toward her. After her body is found, Johnny is nabbed by cops in possession of Kitty’s car, money, diamond ring, and other jewelry. “Well, why wouldn’t I?” Johnny says when questioned by detectives. “She didn’t have any more use for it, did she?” And a reporter later remarks that Johnny might not have gotten the death penalty if hadn’t “shot off his mouth” during the trial: “He was a dead pigeon when he dragged the girl’s name through the mud.”
(One interesting note – in conducting my research for this post, I came across numerous articles and reviews of Scarlet Street. In nearly every one, Kitty was described as a prostitute or streetwalker. This label gave me pause. After all, at the start of the film, Johnny was beating Kitty because she only gave him a measly $15. And he certainly “pimped” her to both Chris and the art critic, David Janeway. On the other hand, it is mentioned in the film that Kitty used to work as a model, but she got fired for her chronic tardiness. And the question of how, then, did she support herself can be countered by the fact that she didn’t seem to be making any money – she did borrow her roommate’s dress for her first date with Chris, and she wasn’t paying her rent. The bottom line for me is that, since my first viewing of Scarlet Street, and in all the years since, it never occurred to me that Kitty was anything other than a lazy slob with a high sex drive and low self-esteem, and that Johnny was just an abusive, smooth-talking jerk who lived from one scheme to the next. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)