July 8, 2020

The Woman in the Window (1944)
Grade: 68/100

Director: Fritz Lang
Stars: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea

What it's about. Edward G. Robinson plays a meek college professor whose wife and children are away on vacation for the summer. Robinson has a dull life that includes loitering at a staid gentlemen's club, where he meets his equally complacent, middle-aged friends. One of them is a district attorney (Raymond Massey).

Against his better judgment, Robinson is befriended by a beautiful woman (Joan Bennett). Invited to her apartment, he is forced to kill a jealous stranger in self defense. Anxious to avoid a scandal, Robinson covers up his crime by dumping the body in the woods. Of course, the body is soon found. Robinson is put through the wringer, receiving updates on the investigation's rapid progress from Massey. Duryea, one of the best villainous supporting actors of the 1940s, shows up as a blackmailer.

Nunnally Johnson produced the film in addition to writing the screenplay. The script is loaded with black humor, most of which comes at the expense of the much tormented Robinson. Robinson is so filled with guilt over his crime that he can't help but unconsciously incriminate himself. Luckily for him, Massey finds the very idea of Robinson being a killer involved in a love triangle completely ludicrous, just as Robinson believes it inconceivable that Bennett could love him for what he is.

How others will see it. Austrian-born director Fritz Lang will always be best known for his films made in Germany under the Weimar Republic, which include the classics Metropolis (1927) and M (1931).

More than a decade later, however, Lang's career had a second renaissance in Hollywood, where in two short years he made three of his better films: Ministry of Fear, The Woman in the Window, and Scarlet Screet. All were suspenseful exercises in 'film noir', and all featured creepy, scene-stealing Dan Duryea as a heavy.

Most acclaimed among these three is The Woman in the Window, which was the one to snag an Oscar nomination (for its score, by Hugo Friedhofer and Art Lange). The film was a commercial success as well, leading to the fortunate re-casting of the leads Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett in the following year's Scarlet Street.

The 'production code' ending of The Woman in the Window has been frequently criticized. As with Scarlet Street, a final plot twist seems to have been designed to enforce the expected ties between crime and punishment. However, the denouement does help to explain Bennett's friendliness towards Robinson, as well as why "man of industry" Arthur Loft would strangle an innocent stranger, and it would have been asking too much to expect the film to end on a fading close-up of Robinson's tombstone.

Today at imdb.com, The Woman in the Window has slightly fewer user votes (13K versus 14K) than Scarlet Street, and a slightly lower user rating (7.7 out of 10, versus 7.8). The user reviews are overwhelmingly positive, and rave about the vast talent (director, writer, cast) that went into the picture.

How I felt about it. Lang makes the point that it is easy for an 'innocent' man to become quickly entangled in a web of crime. Once Robinson makes the fateful decision not to call the police, he strays farther along the criminal path. We see just how desperate and cold-blooded he has become when he asks Bennett to poison Duryea.

I prefer both Scarlet Street and Ministry of Fear to The Woman in the Window. Bennett's character is too nice and loyal to qualify as a femme fatale, while Lang and Johnson frequently wink at the audience. There is a full-length parody of a radio commercial for an antacid, played while Robinson looks as if he could use one.

So, The Woman in the Window is a dark comedy, while Scarlet Street is mostly just dark. One is too light, the other too dark, but they are both good nonetheless.

A sly dig is also made at a certain Ivy league school. A nerdish boy scout ('Spanky' McFarland, from the "Our Gang" shorts) in a newsreel asserts, "If I get the reward, I will send my brother to a good college, and I will go to Harvard." Now there's an act of self-sacrifice.