The Woman in the Window (1944)
*This review of The Woman in the Window contains a serious spoiler.*
Like the great Godfather I v. Godfather II debate, comparisons between Frtiz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945) drive a rift between cinephiles. Viewed sometimes as essentially the same film made twice over, an impassioned critic may spend many pub hours over pints defending one or the other as the superior movie.
While there are many surface similarities between the two films – chiefly a rinse-and-repeat of casting with Edward G. Robinson as our noir anti-hero, Joan Bennett as the femme fatale, and Dan Duryea as trickster imp – that’s about as far as the comparison really goes. The Woman in the Window certainly bears the hallmarks of a classic film noir (and the classic Langian hallmarks), but the earlier film merely tiptoes up to the brink of full noirish annihilation, an abyss that Scarlet Street wholeheartedly flings itself into.
Adapted from the novel Once Off Guard by J.H. Wallis by producer Nunnally Johnson, The Woman in the Window is the tale of late middle-age psychology professor Richard Wanley. After sending his wife and children off for a holiday, he spots a painting an alluring woman in a store window. The allure of that feminine illusions serves less to stir Wanley’s loins than to remind him that they don’t really stir like they used to, an idea parsed over at length in a philosophical conversation when he meets his pals District Attorney Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) and Dr. Michael Barkstane (Edmond Breon) at the club next door.
After that meeting (and after a bit of directorial trickery, but more on that later), Professor Wanely pauses before that painting again. The woman in the painting suddenly appears in the reflection from the window’s glass and for a brief moment Wanley eyes her as thirsty man might eye the mirage of a desert oasis. She is tantalizing but figmentary. Then he turns and she’s all too real. Against the sage advice so recently proffered by his friends, he joins her for a drink and then another at her apartment. When a jealous boyfriend barges in, a scuffle ensues and Wanely stabs the man with a pair of scissors. His fate is sealed.
It is Wanely’s initial decision that leads me to quibble with classifying The Woman in the Window as a classic film noir. It is certainly taut crime melodrama, with all the flourishes of noir (perhaps a mode Fritz Lang could not help by execute). But the film noir anti-hero is more typically drawn into his fate via an unrelenting vortex, a quicksand of coincidence, circumstance and confluence. Stabbing a man in self defense would seem to qualify, but why was Wanely in the woman’s apartment to begin with?
A year later in Scarlet Street, Chris Cross would make some poor decisions as well, in a last pitiful grasp to attain something he never had but desperately wanted. Professor Wanely, on the other hand, is indulging his ego, looking for a sort of last hurrah for a thing he once had but is slowly ebbing away from him with age. It is far less sympathetic – murder, cover-up, and blackmail as adventure. And when Wanely is confronted with a blackmailer, he slips rather effortlessly from murder as defense to pre-meditation.
Both Lang and Alfred Hitchcock were pioneers and masters of this sort of average man set adrift in a chaotic world. It is typically powerful and illuminating, a reflection of those niggling little fears that nag at the back of our minds deep in the night. However, in The Woman in the Window, it doesn’t hold up for me and this is, ironically, partially due to the strength of Edward G. Robinson’s performance. He is magnificent (as usual) but invests Wanely with a bit too much relish, a bit too much sport. Despite tense moments while moving the body, dumping the body, and visiting the crime scene with his D.A. friend, Wanely seems to be having fun.
And then there is the question of sex. One might say Joan Bennett is a femme fatale in The Woman in the Window, but she really isn’t. She is a momentary object of Wanely’s rather Victorian lust, but it remains an unconsummated desire. After the murder, Wanely gets off not on the girl but the thrill of the crime and the cover-up. The character of Alice fades into the background, just another sort of noir prop, like the rain soaked streets.
The Woman in the Window’s non-noir fate is sealed with the startling conclusion. Wanely, desperate after Alice fails to murder the blackmailer, commits suicide. Then he awakes. It was all a dream! Not only does Wanely escape punishment for his crimes, it turns out he didn’t even commit them. Wanely as stand-in for audience id remains the safest repository for our murderous fantasies – he had his adventure cake and got to eat it as well, without consequence.
Fritz Lang was not happy with that ending, or rather with the concept of the happy resolution. It is a measure of his skill as a director that this proposed “happy ending” becomes subversive. The infamous production code precluded a “crime does pay” sort of ending. Lang constructs an ending where Wanely does indeed get away with it and gets to live happily ever after, a wiser and satisfied man, and he does this with some directorial trickery that would make M.Night Shyamalan weep.
In the The Woman in the Window v. Scarlet Street debate, I’ll always fall on the side of Scartlet Street. But The Woman in the Window is the slicker and more “Hollywood” of the pair and is an important film in the Frtiz Lang cannon. It’s also just a really excellent movie that, if it doesn’t quite achieve classic film noir status, qualifies as a definite noir-ish classic.
Frtiz Lang on the Set of The Woman in the Window