Director: Fritz Lang
Writer: Nunnally Johnson; based on Once Off Guard by J. H. Wallis
Cinematographer: Milton R. Krasner
Producer: Nunnally Johnson
by Jon Cvack
Fritz Lang is one of only a handful of filmmakers that have been able to evolve into two distinct forms of filmmaking - the silent picture and film noir. The only other three I think match the astounding progress is Kubrick, Agnes Varda, and John Frankenheimer moving from black and white to color; and Ozu and Chaplin for leaping from silent to sound. However, even all these filmmakers more or less made the same types of films. Lang went from telling action-adventure pieces, then turning entirely to noir; creating some of the genre’s finest titles.*
Woman in the Window focuses on Edward G. Robinson as the conservative and uptight psychology professor Richard Wanley recently sends his wife and child on vacation for a few weeks; meeting his friends at the club that very night. While he enjoys a cigar and whiskey, he rarely exceeds two drinks and is typically out by eleven. Finishing up one evening, Richard leaves the bar, and comes across an oil painting of a beautiful woman in a window storefront, staring at it longingly. The next day he returns to the club, staying late for another drink. He returns to the painting and the subject then appears in the glass; as though coming to life. A woman introduces herself as Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) as though out of a fantasy or some wild dream; inviting him back to her place for a drink for reasons unknown which Richard fails to rationally consider.
The hours pass by until Richard realizes it’s 1am and Alice seems uninterested in having Richard leave anytime soon. There’s then a knock at the door and a recent paramour Claude Mazard (Arthur Loft) enters to find them together and strikes Alice in a jealous rage. Claude then attacks Richard who grabs a pair of scissors, stabs Claude in the back and kills him. Alice begs Richard to help her cover up the body which he agrees to do.
It’s this scene that shows Lang’s complete mastery of cinema; of which, if even done today, would garner celebration. In a long wide take, Alice turns on the lights one by one, revealing the room and its geography; preparing the viewer for where each player is within the space, even when shot close.
Before Claude arrives, Alice convinces Richard to have another drink; handing him another bottle of champagne which he tries to pop, then cutting his finger on the edge of the wire. He then asks for a pair of scissors which Alice hands over. We now know the placement of the scissors for when Wanley needs to kill Claude; nodding to the audience while also adding a nice irony in that if Wanley didn’t agree to stay for another drink he would have not just left without killing a man, but probably wouldn’t have been able to kill the man at all.
As Richard is about to call the cops, he puts down the phone and asks Alice what she knows about Claude, which is very little. She reveals that he’s just some random man that she met on the train. She doesn’t know anymore about him. Wanley offers to get his car in order to transfer the body. Alice accuses him of fleecing her; demanding he leave his vest before leaving.
He heads back home to grab his car as a heavy rain pours down. He returns to Alice’s, grabs the body and heads off to the middle of a national park; tosses a dime to the crossing guard while cruising by the entrance, having to stop and reverse, then hand the guard a dollar bill after the guard nearly catches sight of Claude. It’s up there with the best of any thriller, as we wonder not whether he’ll immediately see the guard again so much as serve as the first unexpected element to contest his account. He then parks and drags the body off the road, hiding it below a barbed wire fence and cutting his hand.
The next night he returns to the club and we’re introduced to his friend Frank Lalor and district attorney Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) who has just learned that a big time businessman, Claude Mazard, has gone missing and suspected to be murdered. Richard mistakenly asks why Frank would assume that a missing man was killed. Neither of Robert’s club buddies make much of the comment, but Robert’s paranoia and interest grow. The police later discover the body and Frank invites Robert to come along on an investigation to the crime scene. Torn between guilt and excitement, Robert agrees and they return to the side of the highway where Robert cut his hand while dumping the body.
Meanwhile, a crooked cop, Heidt (Dan Duryea), gets whiff of the case, piecing together the details, providing a brilliant use of blocking and dialogue. He enters Alice’s apartment and heads straight for the couch, perusing the cushions, and removing - or likely pretending to remove - a piece of hair from the seat cushion; moving over to the end table where he lifts up a glass cigarette holder that was picked up by Richard during the murder; the camera pulls out, revealing Alice’s apartment once again and Heidt moves to the other side to the vanity where he comments, “Not a finger mark anywhere. Not even where you’d think they’d be naturally," as he grabs a bottle of perfume. He then opens a drawer and finds a pair of scissors, holding them up and catching the light’s glare.
Again he moves on to another side of the room to her dresser, looking in her underwear and stocking drawer, landing on a glove where he finds a pen inside which contains the initials R.W., demanding to know who the person is. Alice looks down and finds a newspaper with Richard’s face on the cover, agreeing to help Heidt with whatever he wants, leading him to grab the newspaper and fold it up, gleaming at his own success. The police have a $10,000 reward for information on the murder, but Heidt says, “Doesn’t see it that way” (a beautifully cryptic statement). He wants $5,000 from Alice instead, believing that Alice must have received cash from Claude, and vows to rat her out to the police.
Alice catches whiff of the illogic. She asks why he wouldn’t just go to the police and get the ten thousand dollars. Heidt reveals that he knows that she was involved with the murder, and so either she pays him, or he tells the police what he knows. The best part is that the scene ends without answering the question. Again, why would he not just ask for $10,000 from Alice? She immediately realizes that even if she somehow escapes the police, there’s no incentive to ever keep Heidt from blackmailing her when she couldn't pay off the next demand; it creates a great sense of what all noirs explore - inevitable demise.
Continue to Part 2...
BELOW: Found this colorized scene of Robinson's initial meeting the femme fatale Joan Bennett
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