The Woman In The Window: “A great Noir that puts one foot wrong”
Fritz Lang needs no introduction. For my money, he was a giant of cinema, on par with Alfred Hitchcock for that matter. And you needn’t look far for proof, the Weimar Republic era of Lang’s work is perhaps one of the finest runs in a director’s career, from Destiny to The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. The films Lang made when he fled to Hollywood don’t get the same love as those he made in the silent era. There are some that do: The Big Heat is a fantastic and bitter film noir that deserves its place among Lang’s best films. Unfortunately, the majority, like Western Union and American Guerrilla in the Philippines, have fallen into obscurity. I guess you could put The Woman in the Window in the same camp as The Big Heat. Believe it or not, The Woman in the Window was the part of the first wave of classic film noir along with Laura, The Maltese Falcon, and Double Indemnity. All four films were released in France in 1946 were the critics coined the name ‘film noir’ from this wave of brooding, darkly lit crime capers. The rest is history, The Woman in the Window helped birth one of the most distinguished of all American movie genres.
The Woman in the Window doesn’t break away from the conventions of film noir storytelling. Lang features a protagonist who is a well-established and cultured member of society rather than a mobster with a vengeance. Edward G. Robinson stars as Richard Wanley, a psychology professor who enjoys his job and loves his family. Needing a break from work, Wanley sends his wife and children off on a vacation so he can wind down. Suddenly, when walking down a street, an oil portrait of a beautiful femme fatale catches Richard’s eye in a storefront window. Coincidentally, Wanley bumps into the portrait’s subject, Alice Reed (Joan Bennett). They hit it off well, Reed invites Wanley back for some drinks at her apartment which he gladly accepts. What follows next is a classic case of Wanley being in the wrong place at the wrong time: an ex-lover of Reed’s storms into the apartment and strangles Richard out of rage. In self-defence, Wanley repeatedly stabs the lover and he forces himself to cover up the murder. How long can he hide away from this incident until the cops find out about his actions?
If you look back at Fritz Lang’s older work, you would know that he has a keen eye for the finer details of a story. In The Woman in the Window, Lang is firing on all cylinders in that regard. The camera lingers on images of Wanley’s family to reinforce what is at stake if Wanley is caught, he could lose his family in a matter of days. Additionally, Lang picks up on the sloppy disposal of the body, Wanley catches his wrist on a barbed-wire fence when he dumps the body outside a country road, also leaving muddy tire tracks behind for the police to pick up the trace. All the odds are stacked against Wanley as he hastens himself to get away from the crime.
That’s precisely one of the reasons why I love Lang, he never seems in a rush to reveal things in the plot, he knows how to pace the film well, and this grabs my attention no matter how talky the film may be. The Woman in the Window is dialogue-heavy, but I never found that to be a problem since I was always listening to what the developments were in the case. Edward G. Robinson was typecast a lot in tough-guy mobster roles, namely Little Caesar and Key Largo. In The Woman in the Window, Robinson is given much more room to breathe as the stuffy professor. When Wanley is talking about the case to his detective friends, he knows a little too much information, leading to his peers becoming suspicious of his behaviour. Furthermore, Wanley also tries to be more cautious when the surrounding evidence is pointing towards him. When Richard tries to explain a cut on his wrist that he got after dumping the body over a barbed-wire fence, he nervously claims that he got it after cutting himself with a tin opener, something that the police accept, but they grow more aware of Wanley’s timidity.
The side performances from Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea also deserves plaudits. Duryea especially plays a crooked con-man who comes late into the film, working for the murder victim before the events of the story. The screenwriter of The Woman in the Window, Nunnally Johnson, designs Duryea’s seedy character as someone who applies more pressure on an already tense situation. Just when you think things couldn’t get any more unbearable for Reed and Wanley, Duryea rears his head and demands cash from the pair so he can keep his lips sealed. Already this is a film noir that ticks all the boxes. The only problem The Woman in the Window has is an unnecessary twist ending that feels tacked on and resets all the fantastic world building and character Lang previously set up.
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The cop-out end was brought on by the Hays Production Code 1940s. The censors of the time were outraged about the original dark ending for The Woman in the Window. So, they came up with a new ending to “solve” the problem. Lang eventually agreed to film the twist ending, and suffice to say, it was a bad decision because the film uses the most common of twist endings; “it was all a bad dream”, where Wanley wakes up in his lounge chair and sees all his employees as the main characters in the nightmare. I could list why this causes significant damage to the story; it hits the reset button on all the great conflict that came before, it fails to tie up the theme of a respected man of society plummeting into despair in a satisfactory way, and screws-up the bleak tone Lang and his collaborators were aiming for in the first place. Look, I understand why people where upset with the dark nature of the film. However, I can’t see myself agreeing with the censors. From alcoholism to racism, the best film noir addresses the darkest sides of the human experience so that the audience is, at least, aware of these problems in society. As they say, “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it“.
Nevertheless, despite The Woman in the Window failing the landing, it’s an otherwise a gripping work, and worth adding to the Fritz Lang / Masters of Cinema collection. It’s a shame that the film’s ending played out the way it did, had Lang maintained the original ending, then I could argue we would have a fantastically brooding film noir that would be up there with The Big Heat or Scarlet Street in Lang’s best late career material. As for the version of the film we got, The Woman in the Window is still superbly paced and doesn’t feel like it’s dragging for too long – Lang kept me on my toes to what would become of Wanley, no matter how much dialogue Nunnally Johnson crams into the script. However, the film puts one foot wrong from becoming the cream of the crop. My recommendation is to watch this film until the final five minutes kicks in, that is the best solution for The Woman in the Window’s poor finish.