The Woman in the Window

Dir: Fritz Lang, 1944. Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea, Raymond Massey. Film Noir.
The Woman in the Window

Have you ever had a dream where you committed a horrible crime or just got into some really big trouble and then wake up and for a few moments actually think it really happened? That is a terrible feeling. My first impulse is to make a contingency plan for what I’m going to do next. There is nothing like the relief of realizing it was just a dream. Your sense of identity, your subconscious, and your grasp on reality are all kind of in flux in that momentary state. I find that fascinating—the way our minds play tricks on us.

I remember once seeing an episode of a crime show where real footage was shown of the interrogation of a 13-year old boy after his sister was found murdered. The boy learned of the murder from them. The detectives kept grilling him for hours. All they told him was that his teenage sister was found murdered and they knew he did it. They said they found the murder weapon—a knife with dried blood on it with his fingerprints all over it. At first he pleaded that he didn’t know what they were talking about. He pleaded his innocence loudly and repeatedly; the tears were streaming down his face. But after a few hours he started to question his own memory of things and he became much more subdued. Finally he confessed that he did murder his sister because of some latent resentment over something in their past. They had convinced him of something a few hours before he knew to be untrue and they got a confession out of him. He supplied them with details as to how he did it. As it turns out, the boy didn’t murder his sister and the detectives were sued by the boy’s parents who had no knowledge of what they had planned to say to him.

The Woman in the Window is, in a way, similar to the conceit behind that sociopathic experiment of those detectives. It’s a story about a homicide performed by an unwilling participant; a man from "respectable" society who, for one lapse in judgment, pays with everything he has. What actually transpires is not what it looks like and, by the end, it’s clear we have had an elaborate trick played on us. But the thinking behind the trick makes it that much easier to identify. (Sorry to be so cryptic, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise.)

Edward G. Robinson wasn’t exactly the romantic lead type which, in a way, made him perfect for a story like this. He is the kind of guy who probably always looked middle aged in his schlubby little man kind of way. He plays Professor Richard Wanley, a teacher at Gotham College. Richard sits at his comfortable faculty club safely ensconced in a world of books and leather chairs, enjoying a glass of brandy with his fellow middle aged academic cohorts, ruminating on the meaning of getting older. He is an ardent believer in acting his age and while his friends insist that he have some mild fun while his wife and kids are away for the summer he will have none of it. "The flesh is still strong but the spirit grows weaker by the hour," he says. But the painting of a beautiful woman in a nearby art gallery window mesmerizes him. He stares at it wondering about the model who posed for it until one night the flesh and blood version appears in the form of Joan Bennett. She has a dreamlike aura about her and her black gown glitters against her porcelain skin. She invites him out for a drink and he can’t help himself from taking her up on it. Soon they are having a wonderful evening together and he feels young again. She asks him up to her apartment for a drink and he doesn’t refuse. As they enjoy their (at this point still ambiguous) dalliance a jealous lover of hers barges in. He attacks Richard and Richard kills him. Now Richard finds himself having gone from a questionable, albeit lovely, evening with a beautiful woman to sitting in an apartment he has no business being in with a corpse at his feet.

Richard, in disbelief over what has happened, is forced to think like someone in his situation even though his situation is very real. Soon he is instructing his would-be paramour on how they will get rid of the corpse and how to cover the whole thing up. She does as he says but a busybody doorman played by the always deliciously repellent Dan Duryea knows what they did and seeks to collect on his valuable information. Soon Richard is running blind, trying to avoid more pitfalls surrounding this accidental homicide, and he can only run for so long as circumstances beyond his control begin to close in. It is, one could say, a nightmare situation.

The Woman in the Window is first rate noir and has an embarrassment of riches in front of and behind the camera with director Fritz Lang and actors Robinson, Bennett, and Duryea. In fact, this team proved so successful that a follow up with the same cast and director worked together the next year on the equally fantastic, if even darker, Scarlet Street. Character actors are usually the best thing about a movie and in The Woman in the Window there are three legendary ones. Bennett, with her sultry good looks and sardonic delivery, is the thinking man’s femme fatale. Duryea exudes sleazy charm, and Robinson has an authoritative heft that he brings to all of his roles. Some found the ending to be a cop-out but it only looks that way. The conclusion makes the film more relatable and, like the kid who just needed a little convincing that he had murdered his sister, that’s what makes it so chilling.


The Woman in the Window was nominated for an Oscar for Best Score - Drama or Comedy (Arthur Lange, Hugo W. Friedhofer).

Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 2, 2010 2:53pm
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