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The Woman in the Window (1944)

by on 2012/03/13

“The flesh is still strong, but the spirit grows weaker by the hour.”

* * *

Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window is a promising early noir with a terrible finale. Terrible not for its lack of morality, nor the death of undeserving characters, but for…

…oh no, that would be telling. Suffice it to say, if you’re fine with a feature-length tease, and an entertaining turn by Edward G. Robinson (The Stranger), then you’re in for a mostly great time.

Robinson plays Gotham Collage lecturer Richard Wanley, and his opening speech on handling the criminal psyche sets the tone for what is to come. Entranced by Alice Reed (Joan Bennett), a woman he encounters through a street-side display, he follows her home and is quickly pulled into a whirlwind of escalating violence.

At his earliest convenience, he tries to return to normality. Unfortunately the work of his friend, the District Attorney (Raymond Massey of the noted Canadian Masseys), and an interfering thug (Dan Duryea of Criss Cross) trap him in a double-ended nightmare from which there appears little chance of him escaping. Even as the noose tightens, he makes mistakes, misspeaks, and falters, virtually sealing his fate.

It’s an interesting noir, not only because it gets the suspense elements right, but also because it does some unusual ones. The “femme fatale” is oddly sympathetic, as is the main protagonist. The palpable tension is exceptionally well wrought by a combination of characters we care about and believable complications. In Robinson’s case, his role here counterpoises the one in Double Indemnity. There he was a hard-nosed do-gooder. Here he’s more of a kindly bumbler.

However, I must admit I’d hoped for more from the director of Metropolis. I didn’t find quite as much visual flair as I expected, given his repertoire. Yes, it’s black and white stock, but so are many non-noirs. Rarely was I struck by the lighting or angles, except insofar as they didn’t distract me. Several standard tropes were absent — or at best they were merely suggested — perhaps a function of the yet-nascent form.

What pushed me into feeling betrayed was an ending both cheap and cliche. It’s been a few days since I saw the video, and I’ve thought about it a fair bit. I’ve got to be honest. While it makes a kind of narrative sense and is admittedly well crafted, it fails. Whatever Lang’s intention, it’s as ineffective itself as it is subversive to all he accomplished before.

As for The Woman in the Window, then? It pains me truly to say, just walk on by. And if that assessment seems hurtful or harsh, then I’ve simply been apropos of this promising disappointment.

* * *

Rated PG

99 minutes

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