Fritz Lang and Nunnally Johnson take a deep dive into Psych 101 and come up with a winner: a milquetoast-meets-murderous-femme tale that pays off marvelously, even with its trick ending. Entranced more by his own gentle dreams than the allure of Joan Bennett, Edward G. Robinson imagines a perfect dalliance, and follows it up with a self-imposed punishment.
The Woman in the Window
KL Studio Classics
1944 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 107 min. / Street Date June 19, 2018 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Raymond Massey, Dan Duryea.
Cinematography: Milton Krasner
Film Editors: Gene Fowler Jr., Marjorie Fowler
Original Music: Arthur Lange
Written by Nunnally Johnson from a novel by J.H. Wallis
Produced by Nunnally Johnson
Directed by Fritz Lang
Considered a top noir and one of Fritz Lang’s very best American films, The Woman in the Window is a dreamlike meditation on crime and guilt, distilled to its essence by screenwriter and producer Nunnally Johnson. Yielding briefly to temptation, a saintly professor quickly finds himself caught in a maelstrom of crime and murder. Lang’s clean and simple graphic sense amplifies the story’s sense of oneiric clarity.
The Woman in the Window was successful enough to allow Lang and his stars Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea to come back the next year with the somewhat similar Scarlet Street, an even darker and creepier tale of a meek man destroyed by his secret inner needs. This earlier film is still considered Lang’s most pure investigation of the nature of guilt and conscience.
Nunnally Johnson lays out the events of the story in the cleanest manner possible. Meek professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robertson) finishes a lecture about “Some Psychological Aspects of Homicide.” With his family out of town, he admires a portrait of a beautiful woman in the window of an art gallery next to his club. Almost as if by magic, the subject of the painting is standing there beside him. The beautiful Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) invites Wanley to see her apartment. What begins as an innocent diversion becomes a nightmare of murder and guilt.
The name Sigmund Freud is written on Prof. Wanley’s blackboard as he explains that culpability in murder is a relative concept. He then says a rather platonic goodbye to his wife and kids at the train station, a scene almost identical to the opening of George Axelrod & Billy Wilder’s later comedy The Seven Year Itch. Amusingly, a woman at the station is carrying a long package. Might it perhaps contain a paddle for a canoe? Inspired by a reading of Solomon’s Song of Songs Wanley stops to stare at the beautiful portrait in the art gallery, and his fantasy of middle-aged adventure comes to life. The flesh & blood Alice Reed finds Wanley interesting and invites him for a drink. Then she invites him to her apartment, to see more pictures by the artist who did her portrait.
It’s all too good to be real. Alice’s angry lover Claude Mazard (Arthur Loft) bursts in, and a few seconds later the man is on the floor, Grace Kelly’d to death. Wanley decides that he doesn’t want to throw his life away and agrees to dispose of the body. But Alice retains his monogrammed pen as insurance. The body is discovered out in the country by a chubby Boy Scout, seen in a Fury– like newsreel. Wanley’s best friend, the D.A. Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) invites him out on the police investigation of what is really his own crime scene. Our nervous academic is surprised at how a few scraps of evidence allow the police to learn so much about the killer. Everything Wanley does points to his psychological desire to be arrested. He displays his nervous state to policemen and a tollgate clerk, and practically flaunts the idea that he’s a possible crime suspect in front of Lalor’s top detective. Lalor even jokes that Wanley is trying to be caught. The D.A. notes at least five circumstantial clues linking Wanley to the scene of the crime, but treats it all as a joke.
Nunnally Johnson and Fritz Lang use logic and cause & effect to sketch the complications that slowly convince Wanley that his fate has taken an unexplainable, fatalistic turn. The murdered man has an unscrupulous bodyguard named Heidt (Dan Duryea, in his second noir role), who soon blackmails Alice for money and sexual favors. Wanley gives Alice $5,000 in a vain attempt to silence Heidt, but blackmailers never know when enough’s enough. Perhaps an overdose of Wanley’s sleeping pills will do the job ….
Not since Henry Hathaway’s more fantastic Peter Ibbetson had a Hollywood movie so beautifully described a dream state; Lang’s The Woman in the Window lies halfway between that amour fou classic and Luis Buñuel’s even more explicitly surreal Ensayo de un crimen (The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz). From the moment that Wanley meets Alice, his life becomes a dream. The professor had revealed to his friends something of his wistful idylls of sexual adventure, and he’s clearly inspired by the erotic poetry of the Song of Songs (the Bible has everything). He’s a sweet soul uninterested in the burlesque houses that attract even the stuffy D.A.. Wanley considers himself middle-aged and broken-down, and is not attracted to his wife even though he loves her. Alice appears first as a hallucination, and is unaccountably attracted to the pleasant but far from handsome Wanley. For Wanley, she’s a clear case of wish fulfillment, a dream come true.
The Woman in the Window makes a lot more sense when we take it in the same way that we regard another dream film, William Cameron Menzies’ Invaders from Mars. In that picture, everything we see and hear is distorted by the psychology of an imaginative child. The story details are absurd because a ten year-old is ‘writing’ them. In Window Lang tells a similar Wizard of Oz- like story, and in fact his comic finale directly references Oz.
Everything we see is a product of Professor Wanley’s subjective daydreams, especially his vision of Alice Reed. Even in 1944, a model living in an apartment as luxurious as Alice’s would have to have a special source of income. She talks about seeing a gentlemen three or three times a week, yet Wanley isn’t ready to admit that she’s a kept woman. He’d rather concentrate on her taste in art. Even that shows Wanley’s own limitations, as the apartment he’s imagined for Alice looks too much like a magazine illustration. The ornate, ‘flowery’ cherubs around the bed would seem to be direct inspirations from The Song of Songs.
As much a sex fantasy as ‘the babe upstairs’ of The Seven Year Itch, Alice is tailored to order from Wanley’s requirements: she’s intoxicatingly attractive, but also cultured and refined. Most importantly, Alice appreciates Wanley in a way that he never expected any woman to appreciate him. But the straight-arrow professor won’t permit himself to consummate his desires, not even in his dreams.
The ‘respectably repressed’ Professor Wanley eventually reaches the limits of his erotic comfort zone. Since he’s writing the script, Wanley interrupts (self-censors?) his evening with Alice before it can heat up. The murder story that follows and his increasing willingness to behave like a criminal can only be Wanley’s self-punishment for his thoughts of adultery. He imagines that his friends the doctor and the District Attorney cannot accept him as a murderer.
As pointed out by Imogen Sara Smith, Edward G. Robinson is in the opposite situation from the character he played just before in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity. The absurd investigation we see is really the workings of Wanley’s brain erecting a self-mocking self-destruct apparatus: the net is closing in, my friends will expose me, all is lost. Wanley’s eventual decision to commit a real murder is even more out of character. We all have dreams in which we mull over events and decisions we regret. Wanley, the scientist of abnormal psychology, invents a temptation, and follows it up with his own self-decreed retribution, as a means of self-punishment.
Like young David MacLean of Invaders from Mars, Professor Wanley takes his fulfillment/punishment fantasy as far as he can, until it all becomes too much for him. And like the clownish Richard Sherman of The Seven Year Itch, when it’s all over he’ll be happy to retreat to his conventional life, safe from erotic temptation.
Any flashback that isn’t dull, is going to be tricky. The notion of a sequence in a movie being a subjective, imagined version of reality below the film’s own established reality is almost unique. Such things were discouraged in films unless obvious transitions were in place. But even when, say, a flashback is bordered by wavy blur dissolves and announced in past-tense voiceover, viewers assume that its content will be just as literal as other parts of the narrative, simply shown out of sequence. Hitchcock introduced a ‘lying’ flashback in his Stage Fright and found that his audience considered it a cheat. A couple of movies later in I Confess Hitchcock signalled the fact that the leading lady’s testimony was an idealized fantasy, with special music, lens diffusion and tilted camera angles. It didn’t matter — audiences took what they saw literally.
Until its conclusion Woman in the Window doesn’t distinguish between reality and the dream state; it therefore operates on a more surreal plane than Hitchcock’s literal stories of crime & guilt. Professor Wanley’s fantasy is not so outrageous as to drop flags in front of us. After all, we share Wanley’s desires to some degree — we read and watch crime fiction for the thrill of imagining ourselves in dangerous, anti-social adventures.
Edward G. Robinson is terrific as the kindly Wanley, a switch from his extroverted Keyes in Double Indemnity which came out earlier in the year and apparently opened the Production Code doors to screen stories of sordid domestic murders. I suppose that The Woman in the Window’s story ‘cheat’ may have been invented as insurance, just in case of an industry backlash against sordid permissiveness.
Attired partly in a transparent gown that almost looks like lingerie, Joan Bennett is appropriately dreamy as Wanley’s unattainable sex object. For the next year’s Scarlet Street she’d drop the dream-girl allure for the more earthy, vulgar characterization of a siren called ‘lazy legs.’ Ms. Bennet would then portray a gallery of sophisticated, distinctive noir characters, in Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door…, Paul Henried’s Hollow Triumph, Jean Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach and Max Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment.
Dan Duryea solidified his perverse screen appeal as a crude slimeball in this picture. The blackmailer Heidt rifles through Alice’s lingerie drawers and hiding places as an indirect substitute for rape; we need little convincing that killing Heidt is a great idea. Unlike Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang does not mock us for finding vicarious thrills in the murders. He’s more interested in constructing a colder intellectual trap.
Lang’s letters and speeches about his American crime films show him increasingly interested in psychology. He dropped most of the mystical bearings of his silent classics, but retained the overall concept of fate at work. Modern viewers watching The Woman in the Window may not think Wanley guilty of anything more than staying late at a woman’s apartment and drinking champagne, but in Lang’s universe forbidden desires are as compromising as forbidden acts. A seemingly predetermined web draws Wanley toward shame, dishonor and death — the fatalistic noir trap at the center of this classic femme fatale tale.
Lang was never as flamboyant as Alfred Hitchcock was when playing tricks with technology, style and film form. But in The Woman in the Window he pulls off a clever transition that out-Hitches the Master of Suspense. It’s so well done that we cannot see exactly where the switcheroo takes place: you’ll understand when you see it. In interviews Lang talked about a breakaway wardrobe trick, but we don’t see the change take place. RKO’s crack optical department may have been involved, as the shot seems to be artificially darkened. Is there a dissolve somewhere in there, or a split screen? It’s well worth a closer look.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Woman in the Window is pretty much the same as the excellent 2007 MGM DVD, but at the higher resolution of HD. The clean images display a good contrast range and sharpness. I noticed only a scratch here and there, and a few splices that ‘ride’ a bit across cuts. The clean audio highlights Arthur Lange’s music score, especially the faint choral effect heard at the appearances of Ms. Bennett.
The opening and closing are in need of some minor restoration. Produced by International Picture and released by RKO in 1944, the film was reissued in 1953 by an outfit called Independent Releasing Corporation, apparently along with the 1946 RKO / International Orson Welles film The Stranger. To obliterate RKO’s logos, IRC apparently took it upon themselves to hack off the original first and last few seconds of both films, inserting their opening logo, and slapping on a generic ‘The End’ card. Fritz Lang’s final camera move on the portrait in the window isn’t yet completed when a hard cut to ‘The End’ interrupts the flow. This may be a relatively minor issue, but wouldn’t it seem a good idea to locate a nicely-preserved archive print and fix this?
With audio and picture so strong, Kino’s extras are icing on the cake. A fistful of trailers are provided, but the one for Woman in the Window is tracked with the opening audio of the feature, presumably because the real track has gone missing. It’s better than nothing, so I commend its inclusion. One possible reason to retain the old MGM DVD, is that it carries audio tracks in French and Spanish.
The real treat is an extremely informative and well-reasoned commentary by Imogen Sara Smith, the author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City. Ms. Smith’s track covers the show from all angles, and is smartly pitched not to bore viewers well read on noir and Fritz Lang. She makes the rounds of various critical approaches to the movie, and when presenting an unlikely theory doesn’t make a point of dismissing the author. She offers actor backstories I wasn’t aware of, especially about Raymond Massey — I had no idea that his divorce was the basis for the story of Adam’s Rib. Smith’s track is not good just because I agree with her — she weighs her arguments fairly, as points of view and not rote boilerplate. When she reacts to the latent sexism in the story, the filmmakers, the noir concept of the femme fatale and 1940s culture in general, it’s a set of reasoned observations, not a rant. The plug for her book is deserved.
I’m sometimes asked for recommendations for critical writing on specific directors. For a solid foundation in Alfred Hitchcock, I always recommend Robin Wood’s book from the 1960s. And although subsequent restorations have changed Fritz Lang’s films enough to harm a couple of Lotte Eisner’s arguments, she remains a must-read pioneer in studies of Fritz Lang. Her analysis of The Woman in the Window is one of the first film studies that intrigued me in college, when UCLA routinely screened for us perfect 35mm copies of great pictures like this one.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Woman in the Window
Supplements: Audio commentary by Imogen Sara Smith; trailer (no audio), other trailers
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 14, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson