The Woman in the Window (1944) Fritz Lang
At his speech at Noir City DC last month, Eddie Muller mentioned five pivotal film noir movies that were all released in 1944. One of those films is Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window. (Can you guess the other four without clicking on the link?)
Edward G. Robinson plays Professor Richard Wanley, a man whose wife and children have gone on vacation, leaving him to hang out with his friends (Raymond Massey and Edmund Breon) at his downtown club. In the same building where his club is housed, Wanley sees a portrait in a window, a portrait of a stunningly beautiful woman. Wanley becomes obsessed with the woman, a woman he’s convinced he’ll never meet and probably isn’t even real.
Yet later, when Wanley sees the portrait again, he also sees a reflection of the woman herself in the window. Her name is Alice (Joan Bennett) and she invites Wanley to her apartment.
Let the noir begin.
It is here the dual nature of Wanley – what he should do and what he wants to do – is brilliantly explored by Lang. Wanley knows he shouldn’t be alone in Alice’s apartment late at night, yet he can’t walk away. It’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that Alice’s jealous lover (Arthur Loft) stops by, flies into a rage at Wanley’s presence, and tries to kill him. But – aided (intentionally?) by Alice and a pair of scissors – Wanley stops Alice’s lover. Permanently.
What to do with the body? What about an alibi? What if I’m seen leaving the building? These and many other questions race through Wanley’s mind as he tries to think through what he’s just done and how to cover his tracks. And what about Alice?
What follows is classic film noir, not only a man trying to get away with an accidental murder, but more importantly (and more thought-provoking) how to reconcile his conflicting dual natures and desires. Lang ratchets up the tension to an incredible degree with a number of tricky situations and traps, all the time letting the camera and Milton R. Krasner’s expert cinematography lead the way.
1944 audiences who had seen Edward G. Robinson play the guy on the right side of the law in the classic Double Indemnity (released just two months before The Woman in the Window) had an opportunity to see what the actor could do as the trapped, helpless everyman on the run. (Robinson would play a similar role in Scarlet Street, released a year later.) Robinson is excellent in the role of Wanley, but he’s also surrounded by excellent performers such as the cool Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea as the slimy blackmailer, and others.
The film has clearly earned its classic status, but the ending (which I will not spoil for you) – while still effective in many ways – mars what could’ve been a true masterpiece of film noir. Some would say it still is that, and I couldn’t argue, but the original ending from Nunnally Johnson’s script (based on the novel Once Off Guard by J.H. Wallis) simply would not gain Production Code approval in 1944. Yet the masterful Lang somehow pulls it off.
I watched The Woman in the Window on YouTube, something I rarely do, but the quality wasn’t as bad as what I had expected. A DVD is available (one edition finds the film paired with The Stranger), but from what I’ve read, the quality isn’t that great. An all-region Spanish Blu-ray edition is available, but it’s a bit more than I’m willing to pay. Hopefully we’ll see a domestic Blu-ray release in the near future. Cross your fingers…and stay away from portraits in windows.