The Woman in the Window

Alice and the professor meet

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.

Heidt blackmails Alice
It’s blackmail: Heidt and Alice



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 fact 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 of not if but when will the professor finally expose 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 alluded to in the opening paragraph, 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.

I’m linking to Eureka’s Masters of Cinema Blu-ray, a decent version (there are some bad ones out there).



The Woman in the Window – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



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© Steve Morrissey 2022









Things to Come

HG Wells on set in Things to Come, with Margaretta Scott and Raymond Massey

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

20 July

 

László Moholy-Nagy, 1895

On this day in 1895, the painter, photographer and member of the Bauhaus school Moholy-Nagy was born in Bácsborsód, Hungary. Born László Weisz, he changed his Jewish surname to a more Hungarian one after his Jewish father left the family, and took Nagy (pronounced Nodge), later adding Moholy after the town of Mohol, where he grew up. He studied law in Budapest before fighting in the First World War, during which time he became involved with progressive artists and the “Activists”. He studied art for a while after the war, in 1919, before heading to Berlin in 1920. By 1923 he was teaching at the Bauhaus, where he expanded his interests (and teaching) into the fields of photography, typography, sculpture, printmaking and industrial design – most of them not prestige fields. He resigned from the Bauhaus and became a freelance designer, working in theatre, book design, advertising and film. He moved to London when the Nazis came to power and lived with Walter Gropius for a while, became a photographer of contemporary architecture for Architectural Review (commissioned by future poet laureate John Betjeman) and also worked on producer and fellow Hungarian Alexander Korda’s film Things to Come as a special effects designer. He then moved to the USA, where he became the director of the New Bauhaus in Chicago. This closed after a year, but Moholy-Nagy went on to become the head of the Institute of Design, later part of the Illinois Institute of Technology. He died in 1946 of leukaemia, leaving behind a wealth of photographs, kinetic sculptures and a lively interest in constructivist-flavoured functional design that influences people to this day.

 

 

 

Things to Come (1936, dir: William Cameron Menzies)

Things to Come takes us right back, not just to 1936 when it was made, but almost to the dawn of modern sci-fi. Written by HG Wells (The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, War of the Worlds) – who was often on set during shooting– it is also one of the most fully realised modernist films that we still have. None of the work László Moholy-Nagy did on the sets was ever used, but the influence of fellow modernists is obvious – this is a hymn to progress, albeit with a very 1930s flavour: it’s keener on authoritarian central control than any futurist film made these days would be. Plotwise there isn’t very much to speak of. We start off in the present, in 1936, where life is more or less peaceable. Then we jump on twice. First a few decades where war is total and civilisation has broken down entirely, leading to a brutish dictator taking control. And then again to 2036 and the beautiful, designed environment of calm and order, whiteness everywhere, light, air. It all looks a bit like Albert Speer’s visions of the future dreamt up for Hitler, but no one working on Things to Come could have known anything about that then. Looking at it now, some things seem shocking in a way they wouldn’t have been then. It is British, for starters. Unabashed straightforward non-ironic sci-fi could only be American (or Soviet) in future decades. But in the 1930s, still possessing the largest empire the world had seen, Brits felt confident enough to predict that the world a hundred years hence would be shaped in their image. Hence Everytown, the futurist paradise, a place full of people speaking with the sort of clipped accents that now belong in an audio museum. Then there’s the acting, done as if each speaker is standing on a stage and shouting to the gods. A lot of those present – Raymond Massey, Ralph Richardson, Edward Chapman – were theatre actors originally, but even so their performances reek of the artificial. But then maybe that’s only to be expected, given the tone of the thing. Portent was the dominant tone of sci-fi, right up until the 1970s. Think of The Day the Earth Stood Still, or Star Trek or 2001, all earnest as hell. No, the thing to take away from Things to Come, apart from the fact that it predicted the horrors of the Second World War, is its amazing high modernist look – huge plazas, cities roofed in, monorails, geometric grids, flying walkways, the design trademarks of architects such as Norman Bel Geddes, Le Corbusier, John Portman, Mendelsohn & Chermayeff, in materials such as glass, steel and new plastics, a mix of European Modernism and the American International Style that hasn’t been matched. Things to Come predicts the world of the shopping mall and the international airport terminal, with a progressive, cheery vision of the future where people just conform. It all now looks deeply suspect. And if that doesn’t make something worth watching…

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The future – in 1936
  • As close as we can get to HG Wells on film
  • The modernist sets
  • A cast of thousands

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Things to Come – Watch it now at Amazon