The Woman in the Window Review
It happens to most of us at some point in our lives. Middle-aged and paunchy, we pack the wife and kids off for some much needed alone time. After meeting the guys outside a social club, we all notice the striking painting of a beautiful woman in a storefront display. Over a few drinks, everyone fantasizes about this "woman in the window," and, just as we leave the club, who happens to materialize but the very woman who's depicted in the painting. We go out for a drink, just the two of us, and she offers an invitation for a late-night look at some of the sketches for the painting back at her place. There, we're enjoying a nice glass of champagne when some maniac storms into her apartment demanding to know who the stranger is. He tackles us violently, until we're forced to stab him in the back with a pair of scissors, inconveniently leaving a corpse in need of disposal.
Okay, me neither. But that's exactly what happens to assistant professor of psychology Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) in Fritz Lang's film noir classic The Woman in the Window. This unlikely sequence of events might be a tip-off that something strange is afoot, or it could just be Hollywood straining the audience's believability quotient. Is the convenient, apparition-like appearance of Joan Bennett's title character to be believed as fateful coincidence or is it simply too good to be true? Since The Woman in the Window is the work of legendary director Fritz Lang and writer/producer Nunnally Johnson, I'd advise a little leeway and trust that we're in the capable hands of people who know what they're doing.
The 1944 film was made in the middle of the Austrian director's impressively prolific tenure in Hollywood. If there's any one director most responsible for what was later designated as film noir, it must be Fritz Lang. Beginning with his work in Germany, including M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Lang served as the transitional point man from German Expressionism to film noir. In America, the eye-patched auteur cranked out film after film that has later been categorized under the noir label, including The Woman in the Window. Making the Gotham-set suspense thriller was a pleasant enough experience that Lang re-teamed the film's stars Robinson, Bennett, and Dan Duryea (as well as ace cinematographer Milton Krasner) for the following year's Scarlet Street, a superior and nastier look at many of the same themes of guilt and fate found in the earlier film.
In The Woman in the Window, as opposed to Scarlet Street, Robinson's character isn't a chump so much as a bored man suffering a mid-life crisis. His dalliance with Bennett's Alice Reed ultimately looks much more like a cautionary warning to men facing similar qualms about their lives vis-à-vis aging than a fantasy come true. Robinson's Wanley has a seemingly stable marriage, two young children and a prominent position as a Ph.D.-holding college professor, yet fate throws him a nasty curveball and his lust metastasizes into homicide. The message is clear: be happy with what you have.
Lang loves to play with lust and fate in his films. Both of the movies starring Robinson position the protagonist as an unsatisfied married man who yearns to explore the much younger Joan Bennett and is punished in the process. Likewise, Glenn Ford in Human Desire (and, less so, The Big Heat) fancies Gloria Grahame to the point of her downfall. Raymond Burr's aggressive flirtation with Anne Baxter in The Blue Gardenia brings upon his death, and Robert Ryan's pursuit of the married Barbara Stanwyck is neatly dismissed with a reconciliation between husband and wife in Clash by Night. Clearly, Lang enjoyed throwing a monkey wrench into the adulterous male fantasy.
By peering into the unhappy soul of the married man and examining the after-effects of one night's transgressions, The Woman in the Window excels as a dark-tinted portrayal of guilt and how to get it. Even though Wanley and Reed's relationship is strictly conspiratorially platonic, it's obvious that the male fantasy's end game lurks barely outside the margins of his mind. "This is what might happen should you cheat on your wife and family," Lang's film seems to caution. And Wanley feels an obvious guilt, but for what exactly? He committed no crime initially, killing only in self-defense, yet he decided to essentially act as if he had. Guilt does strange things to men. Wanley is guilty not so much for the stabbing by scissors as his state-of-mind at the time. A late-night rendezvous at an attractively available woman's home has only one intention. Wanley wasn't there to talk politics with Alice Reed. His desires were carnal and his night was thwarted only by the crazed man now deceased, not Wanley's absent wife and children. That's the source of his guilt.
It's certainly no accident that Richard Wanley is a psychology professor with Freud's name prominently lurking on his blackboard. Everything serves a purpose and Wanley's own actions and apparent cries for help in the presence of his D.A. friend, played by Raymond Massey, are surely intentional. Repeat viewers will better understand Wanley's seemingly self-implicating comments in the presence of the D.A. than first-time watchers. Ideally, the professor should be intimately aware of the psychological giveaways found in Freudian slips, and he therefore seems to subconsciously want to be caught as a way to assuage his guilt. Yet, both the D.A. and the police inspector casually dismiss Wanley's parapraxic comments even as they continue to add up. And why would Wanley be tagging along on to a murder scene anyway? Thankfully, it all gets explained in the end, via a change of course best left unspoiled and sure to prove disappointing for many viewers.
Fox, through its recent acquisition of distribution rights to MGM's library, has finally released The Woman in the Window on DVD in a barebones affair as part of the first wave of a "Film Noir" bannered series. Unlike Fox's own film noir series, these titles, also including Kansas City Confidential, A Bullet for Joey, and The Stranger, are completely devoid of extra features, despite being priced higher. Dishing out an extra five dollars while losing a commentary and liner notes seems a little like a slap in the face from Fox, but film noir fans probably enjoy a little masochism now and then anyway.
The transfer at least looks quite good. It's a little softer than many of the Fox Film Noir titles (which obviously have been in the Fox vaults whereas Lang's film was originally distributed by RKO; it's the re-release opening we see on the disc, with Independent Releasing Organization, later sold to United Artists, credited instead of the classic RKO "transmitter" logo), but there is minimal damage and little to complain about. The mono audio track is clear, without any noticeable problems or significant fluctuations. English and Spanish subtitles (both yellow) and dubs in both Spanish and French are also present.
Even if the complete lack of supplemental material is disappointing, Fox's initiative in putting out some neglected titles in the MGM back catalog, especially a quality version of one of Fritz Lang's better American films, should be met with open arms. The use of cover art in the style of a vintage poster, with a sleek banner advertising the noir line, is another nice touch. (Note to Fox: a larger picture of Joan Bennett probably wouldn't have hurt sales.) A booklet or a trailer, anything to add some value to the high price tag, should have been included, but it's really about the quality of the film. In that regard, it's just nice to have The Woman in the Window on the shelf.