This whole crime movie a day writing project started about a month ago with Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat. Today we look at another one of the German maestro’s celebrated noirs: 1944’s The Woman in the Window. This one lacks much of the visual expressionism Lang would experiment with later in his noirs, favoring a more naturalistic approach, but features the sardonic look at the fine line between respectability and crime he would thematically explore many times after this. The plot is pretty straightforward as well, but it’s elevated by some top notch performances from Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea, who plays a gleefully slimy extortionist.
Professor Richard Wanley (Robinson) sees his wife and two children off on vacation and heads out for a night on the town with his boys. On his way to the gentleman’s club for cigars and scotch, he stops to admire a painting of a gorgeous woman in a window. After a few drinks, he leaves, stopping at the window to gaze at the painting again. He gets all goofy about it. As he’s drooling, Alice Reed (Bennett) appears like some kind of apparition. At first Richard thinks he’s drunk (little guy only had a couple drinks!), but sure enough, Alice is the woman in the painting (that’s in the window, hence the film’s title).
Despite telling himself he needs to go home and prepare for a lecture, he goes out with Alice, eventually winding up at her apartment. They’re having a good time until her sugar daddy Claude Mazard (Arthur Loft) shows up unexpectedly. Him and Richard fight, but by fight I mean Claude just kinda falls on Richard, who can’t get out from under the brute. Seeing little Eddie G. Robinson squirm makes me sad. While he’s struggling, Alice hands him scissors, and he stabs Claude to death.
There’s no blood or anything, but for some reason stabbings on film are always the worst. Even though you see absolutely nothing of Richard stabbing this huge guy, I still cringed. I’ll take a gunshot over a stabby scene any time.
So rather than go to the police and tarnish his reputation. Richard covers up the killing and ditches Claude’s body in a ditch in the woods somewhere. Along the way he leaves tire tracks, cuts himself on barbed wire, and manages to stick his hand in some poison ivy. Real slick, Richard. It turns out Claude was some kinda hotshot stock broker, so his disappearance quickly sets off all kinds of alarms. And the universe is really shitting on poor old Richard because the chief investigator is one of his good friends from the club. AND to make matters even worse, this scumbag named Heidt (Duryea) is trying to blackmail Alice over the murder. He knows Claude was there that night. So Richard sees no choice but to dispose of him as well.
This movie is basically showing how a nice old family man becomes a murderer. Terrific stuff, really. Plus, Eddie G. Robinson was born to play this kinda role. He’s sympathetic and naive and despite killing a guy then covering up the murder, then scheming on killing another guy, ya can’t help but root for him. Him and Joan Bennett have tremendous chemistry. Eddie G. was one of those actors who made anyone he shared a scene with instantly better, y’know? Dan Duryea as the blackmailing opportunist is wonderfully wicked. He’s clever too, there’s no way Alice and Richard can outsmart him. But this being the unforgiving world of film noir, he can’t escape a bullet-ridden fate.
Originally Lang wanted Richard to commit suicide at the end, but the studio wouldn’t allow it. So there’s an ultra-happy ending tacked on (much like the one I loathed in Siodmak’s The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry). It’s a total sugar coated bore, but Lang throws in some cute shit to make the audience scratch their head. His next film, Scarlet Street, features the same main cast and a similar plot, but an ending that leaves no room for hope.
Although there’s nothing really flashy on the visual side, there’s some great use of dark and shadows when Richard is disposing of the body. There’s some incredibly tense moments too – particularly one bit at a tool booth that head me wincing. So while The Woman in the Window isn’t a flashy noir, it does contain the cynical worldview of the genre. And like many noir before and after, Lang shows the dangers of straying from the straight and narrow.