Friday, August 8, 2014

THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW

Fritz Lang, 1944
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea

Richard Wanley, a professor of criminology, fantasizes about a painting of a beautiful woman that hangs outside a department store in New York. After his wife and children leave on vacation, he meets the real-life model, Alice, completely by chance one night, and buys her a drink. When they go back to her apartment, their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of her enraged lover, who attacks Alice and then Wanley. Wanley kills the man in self-defense and, instead of calling the police, he and Alice conspire to hide the body. Unfortunately Wanley leaves behind a number of clues and the body is quickly found. Though the police are still far from his trail, he’s invited into the investigation as a consultant and becomes increasingly paranoid. Meanwhile, someone begins blackmailing Alice, which threatens to reveal their secret.

Based on J.H. Wallis’ novel, Once Off Guard, Woman in the Window is equal parts film noir and psychological melodrama that some will find delightful and others frustrating. It makes an ideal double feature with director Fritz Lang’s similarly-themed follow up, Scarlet Street, which also stars Edward G. Robinson (Double Indemnity), Joan Bennett (Dark Shadows), and Dan Duryea (Ministry of Fear). Bennett and Duryea were two of Lang’s regular actors during this period and all three deliver solid performances. They are joined by Raymond Massey (Arsenic and Old Lace) as the D.A. and Edmund Breon (Gaslight) as Wanley’s friend, a professional criminologist. Writer Nunnally Johnson was known for his John Ford scripts and The Grapes of Wrath, but he and Lang created an inventive work of guilt, paranoia, and transgression. Though it is less surreal, it treads similar ground to Ministry of Fear, Lang’s earlier war-themed thriller with a particular sort of nightmare logic and a film noir tone. Woman in the Window is perhaps lighter fare, but captures the same sense of urban paranoia.

Nightmares, fantasy, and guilt play a major role here, as the crux of the film’s action revolves around Wanley and his friends daydreaming about the titular woman in the window, a contrast to their staid, middle-class lives. Wanley is clearly punished for following his fantasies down the rabbit hole. One of the film’s more subversive points is that his fantasy is not having sex with a beautiful, young woman, but committing a murder in which she is complicit and going on a nocturnal adventure of crime and transgression with her.

The conclusion, which is the culmination of this adventure, requires some repeat viewings and a little contemplation. SPOILERS AHEAD. Wanley, driven to desperation, kills himself. Then he awakens, safely at the gentlemen’s club, and is relieved to find that the whole thing was just a dream. While that will likely enrage modern viewers, it’s actually quite a clever trick that Lang plays on his audience. It also served the purpose of subverting the Production Code, which insisted that Wanley could not commit suicide and must be punished for his crimes. Instead of tacking on a happy ending (as with Ministry of Fear), Lang ends the film quite subversively. Wanley’s – and the audience’s – action are not suspect, but rather his fundamental fantasies and way of thinking and dreaming about life. Though Wanley appears to be a kind, mundane, mannered, and controlled man, he is a reflection of Lang’s basic protagonist: a regular, though not innocent man, a person easily pushed by life towards acts of criminality and violence.

Similarly, Bennett’s character is portrayed as a femme fatale, but she never fully develops towards this potential. She is a contradictory character: she has a questionable and obviously abusive boyfriend and she confesses to not knowing his real name. She doesn’t openly attempt to seduce or blackmail Wanley and appears to regard him with genuine friendship, though she convinced him to have a late night drink with her and talked him into coming back to her apartment. The murder both interrupts and replaces the sex act and they become partners in paranoia more than anything else. Lang was given some creative freedom, oddly enough, by actress Joan Bennett and her producer husband, Walter Wanger. The three briefly formed an independent production company, the Diana Company, where they made some impressive noir efforts together.

Woman in the Window is available on DVD and comes recommend, particularly for fans of film noir and director Fritz Lang. It is almost necessary to view it alongside Scarlet Street, as the two enrich each other. If you really hate twist endings (as I normally do), it might be best to go back and read the spoiler, though I watched the film without knowing anything about it. It was a jarring, if refreshing experience and speaks mainly to Lang’s desire for cinematic subversion and his delightful sense of humor, which was often lost in the darkness of his subject matter.

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