Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window is an often blistering film based on J.H. Wallis’ Once Off Guard. It was released in 1944 alongside other genre classics as Double Indemnity and Laura and it is often credited as being one of the first pictures to earn the “film noir” descriptor from French critics. It was produced and written by Nunnally Johnson.
At the foundation of The Woman in the Window is an exploration of temptation and justifiable homicide. It pertains to fate and moral choices, even if the ending does suggest its psychological underpinnings exist in theory rather than practice. It’s less treacherous as a result of the copout, but the application is still interesting.
Edward G. Robinson stars as Richard Wanley, a professor of criminology. He’s enjoying a few days of bachelorhood as his wife and kids go on a trip. Wanley goes to the club and visits with his friends, the district attorney Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) and the physician Dr. Michael Barkstane (Edmund Breon). A woman in a painting outside has caught his attention.
When the real woman from the painting introduces herself as Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) appears behind him, Richard knows he’s in trouble. He goes to her place for a drink and is attacked by her lover (Arthur Loft), a man she initially refers to as Frank Hard. Richard kills Frank in self-defence. He can’t call the police for his own reasons and a plot begins to conceal the killing.
There are complications, as there always are. A blackmailer, a slithering and pervy Dan Duryea, makes things very nasty for Alice. He wants $5,000 or he’s going to the cops. This puts Richard and Alice in a deeper hole, as their moral dithering leads to more slack in the chain. In doing this, the Johnson screenplay argues the reality of the slippery slope.
But then, Lang’s picture is all about those moral decisions. Wanley’s initial resolution is to take it easy and behave himself. He has no designs on making bad choices. He’s just going to have a few drinks and read a few books at the club. He’s going to have dinner with his pals. That’s it. When the babe shows up, it’s shot to hell.
Robinson is excellent as the man who knows he’s making the wrong decisions. Oh sure, nothing actually happens at Alice’s apartment. They have some champagne. They talk. Nothing happens. Nothing but murder. The arrival of Loft’s character is a flurry of action and disaster, with Alice passing Richard the scissors just in time.
Milton R. Krasner’s cinematography captures the interiors and rain-abused exteriors with a sense of devout realism. He picks up on the tension of dragging the corpse from house to car and from car to roadside with a view that volleys up and around to make sure nobody’s coming. And he excels at the easy job of lensing Bennett, who looks as divine and dangerous as possible.
Bennett’s lure is biblical, so it stands to reason that Richard reads from “Song of Songs” before floating into her web. Whereas the Wisdom book is about the musical exchange of sensual love between two, The Woman in the Window has more to do with forbidden fruit and the inadvertent if surreal outcome of decadent desire.
Lang seems to have more in mind, but his picture loses a step in the last few minutes. The Production Code is to blame, with its insistence on dumping the intended ending as too downcast. Lang has to salvage his characters and he does so in rather prescribed fashion. This undermines the events and renders them a mere exercise.
But the exercise is still sustaining, especially as it’s brought to life by skilled performances and a brilliant look. And it never hurts to have Bennett in a see-through blouse, a sure sign of forbidden fruits as clear as a mare among Pharaoh’s chariot horses.