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JAMES MORRISON Cultural Hierarchy in Scarlet Street scenario familiar t? fans oífilm noir occurs at an impor- .tant moment in Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang, 1945). The agents ofofficialdom have surrounded Johnny (played by Dan Duryea), a young tough presented alternately as hard-boiled and dandified, and they demand oí him some information the audience knows he is able to provide . With a simpering smile and a cool, deliberate gesture, he deflects dieir attention from himself and, widiout compunction, indicates his devoted paramour, Kitty (played by Joan Bennett). Her initial disbelief gives way to dawning fear of the intransigence of his accusation, and she cowers and pleads, effectively convicting herself by protesting too much, crying ardently, "No, Johnny, no!" Eventually, though, she realizes her fervent denial is useless, realizes that she, like so many femmes fatales before her who despite the cognomen proved more fated than fatal, will have to take the fall. The obvious conventionalism of the scene in formal terms, however, is belied by its content. In spite of die heightened rhetoric of the scene, both verbally and visually—reminiscent, say, ofSam Spade's unyielding accusation of Brigid O'Shaughnessy at the end of The Maltese Falcon (Huston, 1941)—it depicts not the culmination of die plot's mystery but the initiation of a plot-within-the-plot. The officials are agents not of the institutions of law but of the institutions of culture, a Bohemian painter, the owner of a chic gallery, and a highbrow critic. Moreover, Kitty is being accused not ofmurder or robbery but—perhaps even more ignoble to judge from her response—ofpainting. At the same time, the accusation is complicit with a kind of robbery, since the paintings in Arizona Quarterly Volume 52, Number 1, Spring 1996 Copyright © 1996 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004-1 610 1 26James Morrison question are in fact not Kitty's but the work of Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson), a mild-mannered cashier who has become smitten with Kitty. Interconnecting forms of culture and modes of appropriation , Scarlet Street reconceives die conditions of forties film noir, producing in place of the expected conventions a parable about shifting cultural hierarchies in wartime and post-war America. Both this reconception itself and its range of applicability, whether inadvertent reflections of a contemporary Zeitgeist or functions of the self-consciousness many critics have been inclined to attribute to Fritz Lang, are best understood in the context of anxieties of die thirties and forties about the ascendancy of mass culture and consequent crises in the construction of cultural value and, more generally, cultural organization . In turn, as has often been remarked, such anxieties were themselves produced by the newly energized drive toward a national culture in die first halfofthe twentieth century. On the one hand, Scarlet Street opens itself to such exact cultural placement by way of, for example, the scrupulous specificity of its setting, New York and its environs in 1934, but on the other hand closes off such interpretation in a series of uncannily analogous refusals. Thus, for example, the film contains no signifiers, however oblique, of the "Great Depression" in spite of the clearly specified date of its setting, and thus it insists deceptively on its title as designating an actual location in the city, thereby evoking a non-real, allegorized Greenwich-Village-of-the-mind much in keeping, to be sure, with its stylized visual tepresentations of the urban landscape . The tension here between cultural specificity and incipient allegory serves handily to link the film to traditional constructions of film noir. On the one hand, the genre has been seen as reflecting the disillusionment oí American culture during World War II in its images of alien cities, asocial private eyes, and threateningly uncontained female sexuality. On die other, it has been seen as culturally anomalous, precisely /ailing to speak its society's concerns and instead turning inward upon itselfto ever more exaggerated styles, morbidly isolated psychologies , and increasingly closed narratives.1 Juxtaposing reflexive realism against nascent modernism, this complication , this paradox, is of much the kind around which anxieties over the rise ofmass culture took shape in critical writing in the United States of the...


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