Criminology professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) is alone in New York City while his family is away. He’s just planning on relaxing, spending time at his gentlemen’s club and discussing the extinct risk taking these middle-aged men partake in.
While walking he’s struck by a portrait of a beautiful woman in a shop window. He ends up meeting the model Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) and against his better judgment accompanies her back to her apartment. There he’s confronted by her jealous lover, a scuffle ensues and Wanley kills him.
Wanley and Alice decide to dispose of his body and never contact each other again. As much as Richard tries to be careful he leaves many clues behind him, which starts leading the investigation right to his doorstep. Things turn even worse for Richard and Alice when Heidt (Dan Duryea) Mazard’s bodyguard blackmails them to keep him from going to the cops. It looks like a hopeless situation as the professor kicks himself for ever having been so smitten with that woman in the window.
Directed by Fritz Lang The Woman in the Window is one of the earliest ‘noir films’. It was one of the pack of films that really helped get the term coined. It has some of the components that one would find in a noir, but it also has vague shadows of others. They’re not as definitive as one would define them in a broad sense of the term. So I would say it’s a ‘noir’ in a very loose sense. But it’s still an entertaining film for the most part.
Lang keeps the tension up throughout as Robinson gets a front row seat to the police investigation and sees how all the silly blunders he made are adding up to more and more trouble for him. He’s sweating bullets and has very good reason to be.
He also has to worry about Bennett and whether he can trust her or not. Afterall, he doesn’t really know her. Will she be willing to sell him out to save her skin?
The real standouts are Bennett and Duryea. Bennett looks absolutely gorgeous and at the beginning I kept trying to get a handle on just what kind of character she is and how sincere she could be. This is a noir afterall.
Her scene with Duryea as he visits to shake her down for money is wonderful. Really I think it’s the best scene in the film watching them go back and forth trying to outsmart each other.
Duryea – I just love him whenever I see him. If I were to cast an ultimate movie with any actors in the history of films to be in it, Duryea would most likely pop up somewhere as the arrogant, smirking, smug, insincere jerk that he could always play brilliantly. Even with a big smile on his face you know he’s up to no good and at any moment could pounce on you, slap you across the face and demand some cash. He’s got to be one of the best weasels in movies.
This is nothing to take away from Robinson by the way. He’s also terrific. Here, he’s worlds away from the tough guy persona he was most famous for. Wanley is a soft, easily manipulated man who is fully willing to make the trade off of Alice’s demands in order to hold onto the happiness he’s receiving from her. He’s a pretty sad character.
The ending is the part that gets most discussed among film fans – which I’m not going to reveal. Throughout the movie I was anxiously waiting to see how Robinson was going to get out of this jam. It was looking pretty hopeless. Then that ending happens. I personally didn’t care for it and felt cheated.
I realize there were certain limitations due to the Hays Code at the time and that narrowed the choices films could end themselves on. Plus, the ending changes as to what the meaning of the story is really about and it is somewhat unique, but I still felt robbed after getting invested in the story. Had the movie ended a few minutes earlier I would have been more satisfied. And if you’ve seen the movie you know exactly what I’m talking about.
Even with the disappointing ending it doesn’t take away with what came before. It’s a compelling noir story, the actors are all awesome in it, there’s some beautiful cinematography and Lang’s direction kept me hooked in wanting to see where things were headed – but it ended on what I felt was a cop out and left me yelling, “Oh come on!”.
It’s not my favorite noir film, but it’s enjoyable for the most part. Lang would reteam his three actors in his next film Scarlett Street, which is one I plan to check out and hope it maintains it’s quality from beginning to the absolute end.