Thursday, June 28, 2012

Woman in the Window (1944) -- Fritz Lang

 A chance meeting soon puts professor Wanley in hot water.
This tight film noir with a twist provides Edward G. Robinson one of his best roles as an assistant psychology professor who unwittingly finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. With his family out of town and too much time on his hands, Richard Wanley (Robinson) begins what he assumes is an innocent flirtation with a beautiful woman, Alice Reed (Joan Bennett), whom he meets on the street. He had been admiring her portrait in a gallery window next to his club when she happens by. Smitten, he accepts her invitation for a drink, but things turn sour later at her apartment when another man shows up. Irate that his girl is with another man, the character attacks Robinson, beginning a tangled mess that only gets more complicated when the man's unsavory bodyguard (Dan Duryea) turns up with blackmail on his mind. 

What follows next has been much debated, and divides classic film fans into two camps: those that love the film and those that find the ending disappointing, if not anathema to noir. I'm with the former group, love Robinson's performance, and consider Lang's work here one of his best American efforts. In any case, The Woman in the Window makes a great contrast to Lang's next film, the much darker Scarlett Street, which also starred Robinson, Bennett, and Duryea.

If you haven't seen Woman in the Window, you might want to stop reading here because a giant spoiler follows.

Wanley kills his attacker with scissors. It is clearly self-defense, but afraid that his reputation will be ruined, he and Bennett try to cover it up, stashing the body in some woods. The police soon find it, and Wanley grows increasingly nervous as they appear to close in. At the same time, the blackmailer threatens to reveal the whole thing. He'd tailed his boss to Alice's apartment in the past and assumes that she knows something about his death. Wanley and the girl botch an attempt to poison the scoundrel, and Wanley, seeing no other way out and unable to cope with the consequences of his actions, drinks the poison himself. The twist, of course, is that it's all been a dream, as Wanley awakes safe and sound at his club. 

There are those that say that detractors of the film should not have been upset by the surprise ending, arguing that Lang scattered plenty of clues throughout about what was in store for the viewer. I'm not so sure. For me, any clues only became apparent upon repeated viewings, and even then, it's a stretch to claim some of these "clues" were intentional.  The surprise was a true surprise for me, but that did not lower my enjoyment in any way. In any case, this post is about the clues Lang did or didn't leave.

1.  The most solid clue comes near the start, when the professor's two friends, the DA (Raymond Massey) and doctor Barkstane ( Edmund Breon) catch him looking at the portrait. Wanley is a stiff shirt of a man, some might say boring, and they kid him, knowing his wife is out of town. They tell him they saw her first and that she is their "Dream Girl."
The lovely Joan Bennett as the Woman in the Window. 

2. The fact that Alice first appears on the street when she does is too remarkable a coincidence. Wanley, still feeling a slight buzz from several drinks at the club, stands looking wistfully at her portrait. Suddenly, a woman's face is reflected in the glass. He turns and a few brief bars of dream-like music overscores the scene as he first makes eye contact with the woman. 

3. Throughout the film, the DA is way too free with information as to how the investigation is going. Almost immediately he miraculously knows precisely how the murder was committed, and shares his theory with his friends as they dine at the club. This serves to ratchet up Wanley's nervousness, but it's not typical police procedure to talk about a crime so openly.

4. Following this, Wanley inexplicably continues to put himself under suspicion. A guilty man might trip up occasionally, but in general would be more discrete. When he visits the place where he disposed of the body with the DA (something a guilty man would not have done), he begins to take the lead through the woods, though presumably he had never been there before. The DA teases him about being a suspect. There are other such inexplicable items: in a conversation with his friends earlier he wondered why the missing man was murdered before the DA said he was.

5. Wanley acts out of character for much of the film. He's presented as a mild-manner man, a solid citizen, hardly one to turn to attempted murder to deal with a blackmailer. As the action unfolds, the viewer can't help but wonder a little why he is so nonchalant about this decision.

Professor Wanley gets some bad news 

Whichever side of the fence one comes down on as far the ending, the film has a lot going for it. Robinson is wonderful as the poor man who finds himself over his head. It's completely believable that he'd be attracted to Bennett. She looks great here, especially in the gown she wears when trying to entice Duryea to down the poisoned cocktail. Few actors played a better slime ball than Duryea, and he's terrifically threatening to the innocent Bennett.

Lang was an accomplished director of noir. In addition to this and  Scarlett Street (1945), his Clash by Night (1952) and The Big Heat (1953) are fine American films of the genre. M (1931) and Metropolis (1927) are the best of his German output.


  1. Personally, I love the film and the twist ending. I think it highlights that even in the most "typical" among us, there lurk murky depths and dreams. It works.

  2. Yes, CW, I agree. The ending is quite satisfying and hints at what might lie within any of us under certain circumstances. Lang liked to examine the dark side. Here he does so in a more palatable way than some of his other films.

  3. I can't believe I've never even HEARD of this movie!! Can't wait to see it!