The Woman in the Window (1944)
The Woman in the Window (1944)

Genre: Film Noir Running Time: 1 hr. 47 min.

Release Date: November 3rd, 1944 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Fritz Lang Actors: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Raymond Massey, Edmund Breon, Dan Duryea, Arthur Loft, Thomas E. Jackson

 


 

A

t Gotham College in New York, Assistant Professor of Psychology Richard “Jack” Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) lectures at classes all day. In the afternoon, he drops off his wife and two kids at the State of Maine Express to depart on a vacation. As he walks through town on his way to a club to smoke and drink with District Attorney Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) and Dr. Barkstane (Edmund Breon), Jack notices a portrait of a beautiful woman in a shop window. It becomes the subject of his subsequent conversation with his middle-aged compatriots, who agree that at 40 years of age, they’ve succumbed to weak spirits and stodginess, like athletes out of condition. They wouldn’t even know what to do if they crossed paths with the real woman from the painting.

At 10:30 that evening, Jack drunkenly wanders back past the shop, where he coincidentally runs into Alice Reed (Joan Bennett), the young muse who posed for the likeness. After exchanging a few flirtatious comments, Alice convinces Jack not only to buy her dinner, but also to come back to her apartment to gander at some sketches – and drink champagne. Although warned about the siren call of adventure, Wanley is helpless against the seductress’ charms. But the two are disturbed by a surprise visit from Frank Howard (Arthur Loft), a towering man who knocks down Alice and attempts to strangle the professor, which ends in Frank’s death by a convenient pair of scissors. Although it’s a killing done in self-defense, Wanley becomes concerned about his career and family, while Alice thinks only of police disbelief and a prison sentence. And so they decide to dispose of the body in the country, hoping that no one will connect them to Frank’s disappearance.

“The trouble is, I have no idea what the police can do with clues.” Yet Robinson’s Wanley maintains his cool, even after getting pulled over by a patrolman for driving without lights on. As careful as the partners are, loose ends naturally arise, obscured identities prove significant, and even surprise witnesses are revealed. In classic film noir form, characters are forced to conduct activities they’d normally never undertake, commit additional crimes to thwart complications, and contend with law enforcement (and blackmail!) that is always close by. Rain and shadows and death and deception are all quite abundant as well, to complete the look.

For a unique perspective for unveiling clues and investigatory progress, Wanley’s District Attorney pal fills the audience in on detective thinking and theories. He even invites Wanley to tag along to the crime scene, where Inspector Jackson (Thomas E. Jackson) from the Homicide Bureau details the evidence and routines. To add a bit of humor and suspense, Richard frequently slips up with his own knowledge about the incident, though his friends and the police certainly don’t suspect an unassuming, harmlessly meddling teacher.

The film is one of the earlier examples of forensic science, with fingerprints, blood stains, tire tracks, shoeprints, torn fibers, a forgotten hat, and stray hairs constituting the means for suspicion – though such elements were not nearly as useful in the ‘40s as they are in the present day. And as far as the Hollywood Production Code was concerned, guilty consciences should be enough to undo criminal ventures (resulting in a contrived interference with a great story that, once again, ruins what could have been a grand piece of cinema). “The Woman in the Window” draws an interesting parallel to “Double Indemnity” from the same year, which involved a guilty man and a friendly investigator too close to the perpetrator to think of him as a suspect. The problem, however, is entirely with the conclusion (a completely unnecessary twist ending), which effectively works to destroy all of the supremacy of the crime drama factors previously established.

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10