Monday, January 11, 2010

#100: The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang, 1944)

Released: November 3, 1944

Director: Fritz Lang; Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson based on a story by J.H. Wallis; Cinematography: Milton R. Krasner; Music: Arthur Lange; Producer: Nunnally Johnson; Studio: RKO

Cast: Edward G. Robinson (Professor Richard Wanley), Joan Bennett (Alice Reed), Raymond Massey (District Attorney Frank Lalor), Edmund Breon (Dr. Michael Barkstane), Dan Duryea (Heidt/Tim, the Doorman), Thomas E. Jackson (Inspector Jackson), Dorothy Peterson (Mrs. Wanley), Arthur Loft (Claude Mazard/Frank Howard/Charlie the Hatcheck Man)

“I don't want to make trouble for anybody. I can, of course, but I don't want to…”

I don’t believe there could be a more fitting way to open a Top 100 noir countdown than with a movie from the master himself, Fritz Lang. Of all the names one could propose as being the preeminent director of the genre (or style, depending on your definition, but we won’t really get into that), Lang would have to be on any reasonable shortlist. If he’s not the greatest, he’s at least near the top. And so we begin this countdown with a Lang noir that most observers actually rate much higher than me. As a mystery, The Woman in the Window exceeds nearly any other movie in all of film noir – that is, until the conclusion that explains why such a well-made and well-acted film checks in at #100 on this countdown rather than in a much higher position.

It is impossible to discuss the plot of this movie, or analyze it at all, without giving away major spoilers. I will try not to obviously give away everything, but I’m at least giving fair warning right now that it’s possible. The focus here is Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson), a middle-aged man, bored with life, whose only excitement seems to come from the philosophical discussions he engages in with friends his swanky social club. When Wanley becomes enamored with a painting of a young girl in a nearby storefront, they chide him about his new fascination with a young lady. Later that night, when Wanley stops to view the painting again, he suddenly sees the woman herself (Joan Bennett) reflected in the storefront glass. Stunned, the married Wanley buys the beautiful girl a drink and then goes back to her apartment. Suddenly, Wanley finds himself in a dire situation, when Alice’s boyfriend storms the apartment and Wanley must kill hims in self defense. Scrambling, they resolve to dump the body, but things do not go smoothly and clues are left behind in the confusion. As the police begin to piece together the clues, Wanley and Alice also must deal with extortion demands from the dead man’s bodyguard (Dan Duryea) who threatens to go the police unless he is paid off.

It is a wonderful set up for a movie that plays like an edge-of-your-seat thriller in parts. Wanley’s exertions to hide the body, and witnessing the clues that he inadvertently leaves for future investigators in the process, lay the groundwork for a fall from grace for the mild-mannered doctor. The paranoia experienced by Wanley as he watches firsthand the murder investigation unfold, is gripping, on par with anything that Alfred Hithcock did. The problem, again, is in the conclusion. Everything is moving inexorably toward Wanley reaching a breaking point, leaving everyone wondering how he will find a way out, and then… the letdown. Lang himself later tried to justify the dream scenario, arguing that the movie was truly about psychology, not necessarily evil. Is that a feasible argument? Perhaps, but it still doesn’t erase the feeling of witnessing a complete copout to end the film.

The story and most of the cast is similar to the far superior Scarlet Street, which Lang released a year later. Perhaps that is why I feel so strongly about the deficiencies of this film – when you compare it to Scarlet Street, it becomes obvious that the happy ending is indefensible. Still, this is a film that deserves a place in a countdown like this because it is such a great ride up until the conclusion. With Fritz Lang, Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea, all of the ingredients are there for an all-time classic. And they managed to take the first steps in that direction, but ultimately produced a compromised near-masterwork.


  1. Wow! So it begins...

    I don't believe I've seen this (though I seem to have a massive bank of film noir memories built up from when I was a kid watching Sunday afternoon television)

    I look forward to the steady revelation of unknown gems and classics.

    I was about to embark on a shorter and far less thorough round-up of animated films (part countdown). Do you have any suggestions of less mainstream work?

  2. Even with the Silent poll going on at WitD, finishing up the movies from 2009, and the need to catch up on tons of stuff for the best of the 2000's, THIS is the list I'm looking forward to most.

    This is one I've read about before, but never seen. All Lang's are worthy of a viewing, so I'll add this to my newly created film noir queue and enjoy it when the viewing schedule opens up.

  3. Stephen - Happy New Year to you, sir! If you do an animation countdown, that is one that I would be very interested in myself, as my knowledge of animated films is very limited (very, very limited). It would probably be all new recommendations to me.

    Troy - Definitely a Lang to see, although obviously I don't feel it's quite top-flight Lang. Fortunately, it's one that has had a proper DVD release, so it is also pretty easy to get hold of and watch. Thanks for the compliments on the countdown -- hopefully it goes as well as the last one!

  4. Dave, as it is I'm a huge fan of this particular Lang film, which I agree should definitely have a place reserved on this definitive Top 100. Yes, most do believe SCARLET STREET to b esuperior, and of course I'm expecting that further up on the list. Robinson as Wanley is near-perfection and Joan Bennett's casting is superlative too. You've started off here with the proverbial bang!

  5. Dave,

    Agree with you on Lang being one of the preeminent film noir directors. I would expect to see his name pop up a few times on your list. The “indefensible ending” as you mention is a total cop-out, a let down and certainly knocks the film down a few notches. That said, the acting by Robinson, Bennett and Duryea is terrific, the story overall is imaginative and gripping. I like this film quite a bit, though “Scarlet Street” is far superior.

  6. I feel ashamed to say it, but to date, I've only seen one film noir. Though I guess that with this countdown of yours, it's a better time than ever to start watching more of them! I'll be following with attention.

  7. Dave, Welcome back to the saddle. I still haven't seen either Window or Scarlet Street, which given my admiration of Lang is inexplicable. I look forward to your comments on The Big Heat and While The City Sleeps later on in the countdown, if I'm not presuming too much.

  8. So here we go!

    I've seen this movie. It's good.

  9. Sam - Thanks for the compliments. I saw that you included this among your best of 1944 during the annual countdown, so I knew that you were a fan. It's definitely a well-made film, just the letdown at the end hurts it for me.

    QuebecGuy - You're in for a treat with a lot of the movies on the countdown. Definitely come along for the ride!

    Samuel - Both this one and Scarlet Street need to be seen, since you are a Lang fan. Even though Window came out earlier, I'd probably recommend watching Scarlet Street first just because of the small similarities. It's not the same plot line, but it still would be nice to get into the superior film "fresh." You're not being too presumptuous about more Langs -- he'll have quite a few appearances before everything is finished.

    Quirky Character - I agree, but there are superior Langs that will pop up as the countdown continues.

  10. John - Didn't mean to overlook your response! We seem to be on the same page with this one. It's all around well-made film, but I just felt a bit cheated when everything concluded. But with Lang, Robinson, Duryea and Bennett, it still needs to be seen.

  11. Dave, my exploration of animated films has begun with a short introduction. It won't be a countdown as such but a selection of those films I found the most interesting - the best but not ordered.

    I look forward to reading more of your thorough and thoroughly enjoyable countdown.

  12. A signature initiative Jamie.

    I am with you on The Woman in the Window, which to my mind is over-rated and decidedly inferior to Scarlet Street. Even without the cop-out ending, I find it hard to see it as other than a minor noir. Although Freudian symbolism abounds and the noir theme of lives destroyed by chance events and small decisions is deftly handled, the movie is slow and ponderous – like the middle-aged law professor protagonist. Definitely one of Lang’s lesser works.

  13. Oops! Sorry should read "A signature initiative Jamie."

  14. Tony - No worries, my friend! The Jamie threw me for a second, but the followup posts did make me chuckle (LOL). Yes, this one is not Lang's best, but there will be a number of other of his films to pop up in the countdown.