Appellate Judge Tom Becker used to watch a woman in a window, but then she sicced the law on him.
It was the look in her eyes that made him think of murder.
Fritz Lang made some of the most potent films in the canon of noir: The Big Heat, Scarlet Street, and the pre-noir masterpiece, M. Now, MGM gives us 1944's The Woman in the Window. Is this a noir classic or just an antiquated melodrama?
Facts of the Case
After seeing his family off on a trip, psychology professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson, Double Indemnity) goes to meet friends at his gentleman's club. In the window of the club is a portrait of a beautiful, seductive woman. Wanley gazes at it admiringly, then goes in to spend an evening with his friends, a doctor and a district attorney (Raymond Massey, Abe Lincoln in Illinois). Later, on leaving the club, Wanley meets the woman in the picture, Alice Reed (Joan Bennett, Dark Shadows). She invites him for a drink, then back to her apartment to look at more sketches. Impulsively, he accepts. A man bursts in to her apartment, accuses the woman of seeing other men and slaps her, and attacks Wanley. They struggle, the woman hands Wanley scissors, and he stabs the man, killing him. Suddenly, Wanley's innocent adventure has taken a dark and dangerous turn. Going to the police will mean scandal and possibly jail for Wanley and The Woman in the Window . Can they conceal the killing and get back on with their lives?
Had Ernst Lubitsch directed The Woman in the Window, it might have been a black screwball satire about innocent, middle-class wish fulfillment gone awry. Robinson's attempts to conceal the killing are almost comically inept, and his efforts to engage his friend, the DA, in a little cat-and-mouse are like a running gag. But this is not Lubitsch-land; we're in the unforgiving world of Fritz Lang, where both good and evil are part of a merciless power structure, where reward is merely the absence of punishment, and where the most innocuous actions can forever change one's destiny and seal one's fate.
Wanley's plan for the evening was to go home early and get to sleep (he had a lecture the next day). This changes when he meets Alice. It is, of course, a moral middle-aged man's fantasy, spending "quality" time with the unobtainable object of his desire. He enjoys her beauty (her real self and the drawings of her), and she is apparently impressed with his intellect and gentleness, offering him drinks, in no hurry to see him go, but also not out to seduce him. She is always the woman in the window, nearby but distant, and Lang often shoots her through windows or half-opened doorways or in mirrors, maintaining that sense of distance and objectification.
Unfortunately, after the killing, Wanley's moral code goes out the window. In the beginning of the film, Wanley is lecturing about killing: "The man who kills in self-defense must not be judged by the same standard applied to the man who kills for gain." Wanley kills in self-defense, but then sets his own standards, and this moral arrogance, more than the killing itself, is what leads to his downfall. While his friend the DA works to solve the case, Wanley offers enough evidence to incriminate himself; yet no one seriously considers the prospect of this meek little professor as a killer, just as no one would imagine this quite ordinary man spending time with the beautiful Alice Reed. When late in the film, a new character shows up to cause problems for Wanley and Alice, Wanley's solution takes him farther off the path of righteousness.
Lang's storytelling is almost didactic. He does not finesse plot details. Characters move when the camera doesn't, creating and filling distances. Watch the scene in Alice's apartment after the killing. Wanley enters the frame and never moves. Alice starts out in a corner, next to a chest, and slowly inches around it, trying to justify the plot not to call the police. She gets within inches of Wanley, moving like an elegant spider, then grabs his lapels. It is the first time they have made physical contact, and their damning union is born.
Robinson is excellent as the professor and Bennett intriguing as the nominal femme fatale…only she defies our expectations of that character. She is sexually magnetic, but not to Robinson, and she seems to respect him more for that. She has only disdain for the man who was keeping her—after he is killed, both she and Robinson refer to the corpse as "it" or "that." In later scenes with another character, she does she act the femme fatale, and we know it's an act of self-preservation. We are never quite sure where her loyalties are, or how far she will go to protect herself.
MGM has hardly given this seminal film the royal treatment. The transfer is decent and fairly sharp for a film over 60 years old. There are three Dolby Mono tracks (English, French, and Spanish), and they are clear and well-balanced (though the Spanish track seems to have some changes in the score). Unfortunately, there is not one extra on this disc, not even a trailer. Warner is putting out far less prestigious noir titles with improved transfers, commentary tracks, trailers, and featurettes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Apparently, Lang's moral ambiguity was too ambiguous for Joe Breen's Production Code Administration. How else to explain the tacked-on ending? While in retrospect it might explain some of the more fanciful conventions of the plot, as well as the POV shift two-thirds of the way through, to me it felt like a cheat.
Suspenseful, intelligent, and well-crafted, this is a film well worth seeing. The lack of extras is the only thing holding back an unqualified recommendation.
Guilt? Innocence? Who can say? OK, I can: the film is free to go, but MGM is sanctioned for putting out a bare-bones edition of this classic.
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