Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson
Based on a Novel by: J.H. Wallis
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Raymond Massey, Dan Duryea, Edmund Breon
Running Time: 99 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Although Fritz Lang directed a number of ‘proto-noir’ films, most famously M and Fury, and he’s known as a noir director (in his US career at least), it wasn’t until 1944’s The Woman in the Window that he made his first ‘official’ film noir. I mean this in that the term wasn’t coined until 1946 by the French critic Nino Frank, who used it to categorise a wave of Hollywood titles released that year in France. Nestled in this wave, alongside films such as The Maltese Falcon, Laura and Double Indemnity, was The Woman in the Window. It’s recognised as a quintessential film-noir, as well as one of Lang’s best American films, so I was keen to review Eureka’s new Blu-Ray release.
Early into The Woman in the Window, we see professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) say goodbye to his wife and two children who are off on holiday while he stays at home to work. In the evening he meets with a couple of friends, including district attorney Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey), and they discuss the fun and mischief Wanley could get up to in the absence of his family. Wanley craves a bit of adventure, but bemoans the fact he’s now middle-aged and “the flesh is still strong, but the spirit grows weaker by the hour.”
Adventure soon comes his way though as he bumps into the woman whose portrait he’s fantasising over in a gallery window. She is the very attractive Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) who is drawn to the way he admires her picture. She invites him for a drink and later her apartment (to view some more sketches), which Wanley is initially hesitant to do but can’t resist. Once there, the real trouble begins though, as Reed’s ill-tempered boyfriend Frank (Arthur Loft) appears and attacks Wanley, forcing him to kill the man, assisted by Reed who passes him a pair of scissors to use as a weapon.
Wanley at first goes to call the police, but a fear of ruining his happy existence (or possibly a desire for further excitement) causes him to suggest Reed help him dispose of the body and any other evidence of wrongdoing. Due to the mysterious nature of Frank, who has been visiting Reed in private, and the non-existent connection between her and Wanley, they should get away with it. However, when they go through with the act, little by little the pair make mistakes, pointing towards their guilt. Not helping matters is the fact that the case becomes huge when it’s revealed Frank is actually a rich and powerful man called Claude Mazard and Wanley’s district attorney friend is attached to the case and drags him along as he investigates. Later things take an even more dangerous turn when Mazard’s former gangster bodyguard Heidt (Dan Duryea) shows up and proceeds to blackmail Reed.
The film is wonderfully structured and written, with a gripping story that cleverly unfolds at a fair pace once it gets going. Lang doesn’t rush through things though. He’s known for his attention to detail and revels in the procedural and forensic aspects of the film. Much time is spent disposing of the body rather than skimming over it for instance, and a scene where Heidt searches Reed’s apartment is also fetishistically and disturbingly thorough. Wanley seems to be as meticulous as Lang in plotting how to avoid capture, but unlike Lang, Wanley’s plans unwind as the film goes on.
Speaking of ‘as the film goes on’, the only problem I had with The Woman in the Window was its ending. * Spoilers ahead * The climax is devastating, but just when you think it’s all over we get an ‘it was all a dream’ ending that spoils what led up to it. It does make sense within the conversations taking place at the start of the film and is aided by a wonderful shot that takes us out of the dream, but ultimately it feels like a cop-out to please the censors and audience. I guess at the time in Hollywood you’d never get away with the suggested end to the film, but it still lets things down a little.
There’s much to commend elsewhere though. The cast, for instance, is excellent. The ever-reliable Bennett perfectly captures the ambiguous nature of her character. Edward G. Robinson was, and still is, best known for his tough-guy gangster persona in films such as Key Largo and Little Caesar, but here he moves very naturally into playing a mild-mannered intellectual. This is less surprising when you realise Robinson was like this in person, an art aficionado and speaker of several languages, but it’s still refreshing to see him expand his range on-screen.
Dan Duryea, on the other hand, is playing to type all the way. He became known for playing scumbags who treated women poorly, despite being a reportedly lovely man in real life and happily married to Helen Bryan for 35 years prior to her death. He got these roles because he was damn good at them though, and this is no different. He doesn’t appear in The Woman in the Window until quite late into the film, but his presence is incredibly memorable.
It’s not as stylised as some film noir, but Lang still does a good job of adding atmosphere to the visuals. He does this in a fairly classic way, with rain and moody shadowy photography, but with enough flair to never come across as looking bog-standard. There’s a good amount of fairly subtle camera movement too and great use of reflections.
Other films may have borrowed from it subsequently, but The Woman in the Window still holds up splendidly. Gripping from start to finish and written and directed with a keen eye for detail, it’s a wonderfully polished and thrilling production, only slightly marred by a cop-out ending.
The Woman in the Window is out on 20th May on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The transfer looks good, although there are occasionally light flecks and lines, as well as a little judder on occasion. It sounds decent though.
You get a few special features too:
– 1080p presentation on Blu-ray
– LPCM audio (original mono presentation)
– Optional English subtitles
– Brand new and exclusive video essay by critic David Cairns
– Feature Length Audio Commentary by Film Historian Imogen Sara Smith, author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City
– Original theatrical trailer
– PLUS: A Collector s booklet featuring new essays by film journalist and writer Amy Simmons; and film writer Samm Deighan; alongside rare archival imagery
The commentary is decent, with little downtime and a lot of insight into the film’s production. David Cairns’ essay is equally recommended, as is the booklet.