The principal actors Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea had earlier appeared together in The Woman in the Window (1944) also directed by Fritz Lang. Local authorities in three cities banned Scarlet Street early in 1946 because of its dark plot and themes.
In 1934, Christopher “Chris” Cross (Edward G. Robinson), a meek amateur painter and cashier for clothing retailer, J.J. Hogarth & Company, is fêted by his employer, honoring him for twenty-five years of service since 1909. Company head Hogarth presents him with a watch and kind words, then leaves and gets into a car with a beautiful young blonde. Chris muses to an associate that he wonders what it is like “to be loved by a young girl.”
Walking home through Greenwich Village, he helps Kitty (Joan Bennett), a young woman who is being attacked by a man, stunning the assailant with his umbrella. Chris, unaware that the attacker was Johnny (Dan Duryea), Kitty’s boyfriend, walks with her to her apartment building. She accepts his offer for a cup of coffee at a nearby bar. From Chris’s comments about art, Kitty believes him to be a wealthy painter.
Chris becomes enamored with her. He is in a loveless marriage, tormented by his shrewish wife Adele (Rosalind Ivan) who idolizes her previous husband, a policeman who drowned a “hero” while trying to rescue a woman. After Chris confesses that he is married, Johnny convinces Kitty to pursue a relationship in order to extort money from Chris. Kitty inveigles him to rent an apartment for her, one that can also be his art studio. To finance an apartment, Chris steals $500 ($9,100 today) in insurance bonds from his wife and later $1000 ($18,300) from his employer.
Unknown to Chris, Johnny unsuccessfully tries selling some of Chris’s paintings, leaving them with a Greenwich village street vendor believing them worth no more than $25.00. They unexpectedly attract the interest of art critic David Janeway (Jess Barker) who believes them exceptional art. Kitty is maneuvered by Johnny into pretending that she painted them, charming the critic with Chris’s own descriptions of his art, and Janeway promises to represent her. However, Adele sees her husband’s paintings for sale in the window of a commercial art gallery as the work of “Katherine March” and accuses Chris of having copied March’s work. Chris confronts Kitty, who claims she sold them because she needed the money. He is so delighted that his paintings are appreciated, albeit only under Kitty’s signature, that he happily lets her become the public face of his art. She becomes a huge commercial success, although Chris never receives any of the money.
Adele’s supposedly dead first husband, Higgins (Charles Kemper), suddenly appears at Chris’s office to extort money from him. He explains he had not drowned but had stolen $2,700 from the purse of the suicide he tried to save. Already suspected as corrupt for taking bribes from speakeasies, he had taken the opportunity to escape his crimes and his wife. Chris lets Higgins into his wife’s room, ostensibly so he can get the insurance money Adele has gotten after Higgins’s supposed death, but does so when she is asleep in the room, thinking that his marriage will be invalidated when his wife wakes and sees her still-living first husband.
Believing he can now marry Kitty, Chris goes to see her, but finds Johnny and Kitty embracing and now knows that she has indeed been involved with Johnny all along. He confronts Kitty, but still asks her to marry him; she scorns him for being old and, laughing in his face, refuses to marry him. Enraged, he stabs her to death. The police visit Chris at his job, not for the murder but his earlier embezzlement. Although his boss refuses to press charges, Chris is fired. Johnny is accused of Kitty’s murder.
At the trial, all of the deceptions work against Johnny, despite his attempts to implicate Chris, and Chris denies painting any of the pictures. Johnny is convicted and put to death for Kitty’s murder, Chris goes unpunished, and Kitty is erroneously recognized as a great artist.
Haunted by the murder, Chris attempts to hang himself. Although rescued, he is impoverished with no way of claiming credit for his own paintings and tormented by thoughts of Kitty and Johnny being together for eternity, loving each other.
By Fritz Lang (YouTube) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons