Not to be confused with the 2021 movie of the same name, 1944’s The Woman in the Window is the second of three film noirs Fritz Lang made with Joan Bennett and the first of two he’d make with Edward G Robinson. It’s a queer beast – noir with a plot trick picked up from The Wizard of Oz, a trick used so brilliantly it rescues what looks like a film that’s gone weirdly off the rails.
Robinson plays the tweedy psychology professor called Richard, Dick to his friends – Sigmund Freud bubbles around beneath the surface of this plot and that name is no accident – who, while admiring a portrait of a hot babe in a gallery window, turns to see that Alice, the babe herself, is standing in the street beside him. Rapidly leaving his comfort zone, Dick is soon improbably in a club having a drink with Alice, a femme so fatale that you can see her nipples through her sheer top.
It’s all too good to be true, of course, and the fact that the prof is bathed in the sort of gauzy lighting usually reserved for female stars, while Alice is not, suggests that he’s more the quarry than the hunter, an impression only emphasised when she invites him up to her place to see her etchings (sketches of her, in fact).
One death later and the dream has turned to a nightmare, the professor has a body to get rid of and the cops are on his tail. More to the point, though no one actually suspects him, he’s almost giving the game away repeatedly with a series of blunders that the professor’s old friend and drinking buddy, District Attorney Frank Laylor (Raymond Massey), cannot help but have noticed, surely?
The plot is a light lift from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and its theme of self-incrimination would later be used week in, week out in the Columbo TV series (which also acknowledged its debt to Dostoevsky). But in 1944 it was more likely 1930’s The Blue Angel – professor loses head to a nightclub singer – that came to mind.
The casting is interesting. Both Bennett and Robinson had started out with completely different screen images than the ones on display here. She’d been the breathy blonde ingenue in a string of films, but after dying her hair dark, pitching her voice a bit lower and swinging the equipment around a bit more, became a classic (and hugely popular) screen vamp. Robinson, by contrast, had risen to fame as a gangster in movies like 1931’s Little Caesar, but then stayed at the top by broadening his range, often playing men like the professor – quiet, unassuming guys with hidden depths.
Playing to type, on the other hand, is Raymond Massey as the DA, Massey’s bark and gimlet eye suggesting he knows that the professor is guilty of something even though the script insists he doesn’t – it’s the tension between Massey’s performance and Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay that give the film much of its fizz.
A technical whizz, Fritz Lang’s fluid camera slides in and out of scenes, often on a crane even on low shots, which is how he’s able to glide over obstacles and get right up into the face of the professor or Alice at key moments. The dialogue, too, is taut and there’s barely a line in Johnson’s screenplay that isn’t the setup to a later payoff.
With half an hour still to go, it all seems to be a case not of if but when the professor finally exposes himself. And then Dan Duryea (again, playing right to type as the “heel with sex appeal”) turns up as a blackmailer trying to shake Alice down.
In the weird finish already mentioned, Heidt (Duryea) is dealt with in a way that satisfies none of the rules of storytelling, or film noir, or anything at all, until, in a bravura reverse, Johnson’s screenplay brings the whole thing to a conclusion with a twist that is not only satisfying but asks us to look again at some of the storytelling twists and turns we were doubtless only too happy to go along with earlier in the film.
The end. Lang, Bennett, Robinson and Duryea would be back the following year with Scarlet Street, in which something like the same characters run through another satisfying noir scenario featuring silly Edward G, mercenary Joan and bad Dan.
PS: I’m linking to Eureka’s Masters of Cinema Blu-ray, a decent version (there are some bad ones out there).
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© Steve Morrissey 2022