A film noir, directed by the Expressionist movie director and auteur Fritz Lang (of Metropolis fame), adapted from a novel, with an ending rewritten to comply with the strict and moralistic Production Code of the period: 1944’s The Woman In The Window is an entertaining psychological thriller which helps set the template for a genre, and somehow succeeds despite having to try to fit within the strictures not only of the Hollywood system itself, but also having a notoriously difficult and temperamental director at the helm.
First published on New Year’s Day 1942, J.H. Wallis’ Once Off Guard told a tale of illicit desire, emotional infidelity, killing, cover-ups, blackmail, and suicide. Such a mixture of dark elements is a surprising choice for the subject of a movie from an era when the notorious Hays Code posed a rigid set of rules as just to what subjects could or couldn’t be shown on the cinema screen; a lot of the potential issues in this case are circumvented by using the power of suggestion, hinting at just what’s going on beneath the surface, without explicitly having it on show.
For example, the novel’s suggestion that the female lead is a prostitute is dropped altogether, as are any suggestions of the male lead’s main motivation in engaging with her having been driven by reading ancient Grecian erotic poetry – that would be far too licentious. Instead, we have a far more innocent-seeming fascination with the subject of a painting, and a man who gets inadvertently drawn into a tangled web of lies, death and an ever-tightening net as the Police start to home in on him as the culprit in what seems to be an apparent murder.
Edward G. Robinson is Professor Richard Wanley, a psychology professor who we see at the start of the film giving students a lecture on the varying levels of morality which should be applied to the act of one person killing another. In what is a setup for the story we’re about to see unfold, he argues that we shouldn’t judge somebody who acts in self-defence in the same way as a premeditated murder. It’s unsubtle, but at least focuses us on an underlying theme which runs through the very core of the piece.
READ MORE: Secret People – Review
With Wanley’s wife and children out of town, he becomes singularly captivated by a portrait of a beautiful woman in the window of a store. One evening, while he is entranced by the painting, the subject herself – Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) – turns up, and Wanley finds himself firstly going for a drink with her, and then returning to her apartment. Although there isn’t any actual adultery to be seen, there’s clearly a strong undercurrent of this throughout, and we see a man who’s acting against his better judgment, ending up saying ‘yes’ when he really should know better. And that ultimately becomes his downfall.
The evening takes a dark turn when the jealous lover of Alice turns up, and ends up attacking Wanley, who defends himself with a pair of scissors. However, the man (Arthur Loft) actually ends up dead rather than just incapacitated, and leads Wanley into an intellectual exercise and practical demonstration of the point which he was making during his earlier lecture. Even though he knows he was acting purely in self-defence, he realises that his precious reputation will be ruined if the Police get involved, as questions will be asked as to what a married man was doing alone in the apartment of another woman, late at night.
What started out as a case of ‘while the cat’s away’ ends up as a game of cat and mouse, as Wanley prepares to dump the body. However, elements conspire against him at almost every turn, and he ends up making a series of rudimentary mistakes, all of which start to point the finger in his direction. An extra complication comes in the form of a blackmailer (Dan Duryea), who starts turning the screw on the pair, and tries to extort money from them for his silence. For Wanley, it all becomes a desperate race against time and the odds in order to try and save himself, or else consider making a desperate choice as an exit strategy.
To modern eyes, some of the elements in The Woman In The Window may come across as seeming cliched, particularly the film’s climax. However, it’s worth bearing in mind here that at the time the film was made, most of these hadn’t yet been used enough or been around so long as to have the opportunity to turn into cliches yet. If there’s any criticism to be raised, it’s that the rather languid pace lacks momentum or frisson at times, and the performances are rather muted or restrained – this helps to take some of the much-needed urgency from the situation. Despite that, there’s still ample drama, and tense moments in abundance.
READ MORE: Dead in a Week (Or Your Money Back)
The Woman In The Window could even be seen as having been a trial run for the following year’s Scarlet Street, reuniting Lang with Robinson, Bennett and Duryea in a feature which revisited many of the same themes. It’s also a significant film as it’s one of a group of features which were released in France in 1946 when the term ‘film noir‘ was first coined by the French critic Nino Frank, decades before it was more widely adopted; it can truly be said to have been part of the vanguard which defined the genre.
Eureka Entertainment has brought The Woman In The Window to Blu-ray in the UK for the first time, and they’ve done a creditable job in putting together a decent presentation. Although not being overrun with extras, what they’ve put on the disc are not only appropriate but fascinating – a short video essay by critic David Cairns, and an audio commentary by the movie historian Imogen Sara Smith. For anyone who appreciates film noir in its purest form, The Woman In The Window is well worth checking out.
The Woman in the Window is available now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.