Dir. Fritz Lang
Starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Raymond Massey, Dan Duryea
What we got here is one of the early Film Noirs to hit (along with MALTESE FALCON, DOUBLE INDEMNITY, and LAURA, to name a few) before the term had even been coined, directed by one of cinema’s all time great masters (Fritz “M” Lang) and starring one of the most iconic actors of the era, Edward G “SOYLENT GREEN” Robinson. That’s a lot of pressure to live up to, and it’s not quite the classic that it ought to have been, but it’s still a damn good reminder of just how good these early film noirs were, before they had exactly solidified into a genre.
Robinson plays Richard Wanley, bespectacled professor of criminal psychology who has just sent his family away on vacation and is, in some small way, lamenting his highly domestic life with his friends over literally dozens of cigars and old fashions. Besotted by a painted image of a beautiful woman in a store window, he ignores the advice of his friends that “adventure doesn’t suit old men” when he unexpectedly meets the young woman in person. One thing leads to another, a wealthy interloper gets murdered with a pair of scissors, and suddenly the professor and his young consort Alice Reed(Joan Bennett) are trying to fend off the police and a mysterious blackmailer before the murder can be pinned on them.
It’s a simple setup, but with a few twists I really appreciated. For one, the whole murder thing was really a misunderstanding. This guy bursts in on Wanley and Reed and Wanley stabs him in clear self-defense. They could have just gone to the police and been done with it, but they’re afraid of the embarrassment of being caught together (they’ve just been sitting on the couch, of course, because this is 1944) and decide to try and hide the body instead. So as the whole thing spins out of control, there’s an unspoken desperation over the fact that now they’ll definitely look guilty even though they’re not.
Another great twist is that one of Wanely’s drinking buddies is none other than the DA who’s investigating the case (Raymond Massey). He happily babbles on about the fabulous new forensic techniques the police have been using, and even takes his friend on a tour of the crime scene itself to show just how much evidence they can glean from a few small details. So you’ve got several great scenes of Robinson trying not to look overwhelmingly sick as he gingerly pries for more details. They keep joking how Wanley perfectly fits the profile of the killer, and it’s hard to tell if they’re trying to make him crack or just unaware of his sudden, profuse sweating.
I also love the relationship between Wanley and Reed. Bennett is, of course, utterly delectable as the femme fatale here, but unlike many actresses who came after her in this mold she has a great sweetness and decency to her. It’s 1944 so they can’t come out and say she’s a prostitute, but come on, you can put two and two together. Even so, duplicity isn’t in her nature, and she and Wanely have a genuinely sweet rapport. It’s interesting because of course we know that Wanley’s a married man, but he seems like he’s definitely toying with the idea of cheating on his wife with this young woman before everything goes wrong. It’s probably the production code that stops him more than the requires of the narrative, but it makes for a surprising dynamic. These two were drawn together by sex which never materializes, but they’re bound together by their unfortunate predicament -- and yet, they end up being very loyal and supportive of each other anyway. The tentative way they grow to trust each other and care for each other in an (apparently) purely platonic way is one of the film’s real graces. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a film relationship quite like it.
You're god damn right I would.
But the cops aren’t their only problem. The final piece of the puzzle is the mysterious blackmailer, played by Western staple Dan Duryea. Duryea’s a low-life thug, but a devilishly smart one. He’s physically intimidating and prone to violence, but sharp enough to easily dismantle any attempts to trick him. The way he bemusedly walks around Reed’s apartment, demolishing every argument she makes piece by piece while simultaneously searching the area for material to use against her is genuinely chilling. Duryea’s not an actor I ever noticed in anything else (he’s in SCARLET STREET, CRISS CROSS, and the 65’ FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX too, but I can’t say I remember him in any of those) but he’s dynamite here. He so easily outmatches Reed in every way that he almost has a Hannibal Lecter quality to him, manipulating her for his own amusement as much as for monetary gain. The way he allows Reed to think she’s got the drop on him, only to suddenly turn things around on her, is simply dripping with grinning sadism. It’s pretty awesome.
Not everything is quite as effective as Duryea’ performance, however. Fritz Lang --arguably the biggest luminary here-- is kind of coasting on this one, making a straightforward but not especially stylish picture mostly set in unimaginatively photographed apartment rooms. It’s not bad work by any means, and he and editor Gene Fowler Jr (who also worked with Sam Fuller and John Cassavetes and directed I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF) do successfully cultivate an atmosphere of crushing paranoia, where every side glance seems like it might have sinister implications. But I feel like he could have tried a little harder to make it as visually striking as his earlier work.
Still, it’s not lack of style which has kept this one from being regarded quite as highly as the legendary company it keeps -- it’s the ending. Lang and writer Nunnally Johnson (THE DIRTY DOZEN, a ton of other legendary scripts) obviously set up the perfect tragic ending, tease you with it, pull the trigger, give you reason to believe they’re going to resolve things, and then fucking have the balls to go all the way with it. It’s a perfect ending. And then out of the blue they rescind it and turn the whole thing into a joke. I’m going to spoil it for you, because better you find out from me and go into this thing knowing what to expect. Basically, after the film ends exactly the way it needs to end, they suddenly reveal it was all a dream. The whole movie. He fell asleep after his friends left, and dreamed the whole god damn thing, even the multiple scenes which he is not present for. He leaves the club to find that, WIZARD OF OZ-style, the characters in his dream were all faces he’d seen on the street. And when approached by a young woman a la the start of his dream, he bolts off accompanied by cheerfully whimsical musical cues assuring us that he’s learned his lesson about not being adventurous at his age.
What a fucking tease. Obviously a concession to the production code to offset any ruffled feathers over the danced-around but still somewhat scandalous sexual nature of the film, but still. It’s so maddeningly counter to all the film’s obvious good instincts that you almost have to wonder if it was Lang’s “fuck you” to the production code, intentionally terrible and obviously tacked on just to demonstrate how their Puritan oppressiveness was stifling great art. Other than that, though, you’ve got a real good one here. Lang, Robinson, and most of the cast would reunite a year later for the probably slightly better SCARLET STREET, but WOMAN IN THE WINDOW stands out as a unique and formative film noir which lacks the rigid genre structures of later entries and thus is full of sublime surprises.