This week in The Best of Film Noir, we’re checking out The Woman In The Window, a great movie directed by Fritz Lang, starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Raymond Massey. What happens when a middle-aged college professor has an affair with a femme fatale? In The Woman In The Window it means a bloody mix of blackmail and murder…with a great twist at the end.
The Best of Film Noir – The Noir Hero
Let me just say, I love Edward G. Robinson. I’m sure a lot of younger people have never heard of him, but he was quite the actor in his day. He played in a lot of gangster flicks, but he had great range, as he shows in The Woman In The Window and his other film noir role, Scarlet Street (read my film noir post on Scarlet Street). Robinson plays psychology professor Richard Wanley, a man who visits a men’s club while his family is away on vacation. While there, he admires the portrait of a woman in the window. He then has a very interesting conversation with two friends about temptation, and the risks inherent in giving in to it (view the movie’s end with this in mind). When Wanley leaves, he meets the woman in the window, Alice Reed. From there, Wanley plunges into his own nightmare of temptation, seduction, and murder. I don’t want to spoil anything, but the psychological twists that happen to a psychology professor are ironic, to say the least.
As film noir expert Spencer Selby says (spoiler alert):
The film’s thematic drift constitutes a clever expose of the type of subjective thriller which was so successfully pioneered by Lang and Hitchcock. Such films always involve a normal protagonist being cast adrift in a chaotic world of danger and evil. The dream structure and fate of them in The Woman in the Window serve as a penetrating analysis of that generic format. The psychological function which Wanley’s dream performs is symbolic of mass functions that all subjective thrillers perform. When the film is revealed as Wanley’s nightmare, the viewer realizes that fate was really just a contrived manifestation of the protagonists’ neurotic fears. One can no longer accept such fate as valid once the psychological function is understood. Wanley simply dreamed up the whole thing to justify his conservative fear of freedom. He responds to the dream as proof of his fears when it is really just a contrived manifestation of them.
The Best of Film Noir – The Femme Fatale
Joan Bennett plays Alice Reed, the woman in the window. Bennett does an admirable job as the femme fatale. She is sexy, alluring, and complicit in the murder to come. Reed is perfectly willing to use her wiles to have Wanley cover up a crime, just as she was willing to seduce a conservative older man. Bennett may not be as evil as many femme fatales (Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth), but she’s not innocent either.
The Best of Film Noir – The Ending
As a writer, I have to wonder what would happen to the feel of the ending if scriptwriter Nunnally Johnson had been able to write the ending he wanted. Maybe he did. But the ending seems to have been worked to satisfy the Production Code’s sense of moral ethics, and it may be why many feel the ending is a cop-out. I tend to disagree, especially if you do think of the psychology of our protagonist. The ending also would explain Reed’s friendliness to Wanley. It could be that’s what Johnson intended. And it makes me wonder about the bad side of editing. How many writers have their manuscripts reworked to satisfy editors? Did it help the final product? Regardless, I do believe this is film noir worth watching.
The Best of Film Noir – Trivia And Goofs
Edward G. Robinson, Dan Duryea, and Joan Bennett would go on to play the three leads in Fritz Lang’s next film, Scarlet Street.
The Woman In The Window was based loosely on J.H. Wallis’ 1942 novel, Once Off Guard.
Aside from three of the lead actors from this film starring in Scarlet Street, the latter film has several linking themes with The Woman in the Window. A prime example is how Edward G. Robinson plays the same kind of character in both films, driven to murdering someone in both films.
When Claude Mazard hits Alice in the face, his hand clearly does not actually hit her, yet she reacts to it.
Thanks to IMDb for those!
So grab your popcorn and soda and settle in for a real film noir treat.
If you love film noir, you should read This Doesn’t Happen In The Movies, a Reader’s Favorite Finalist for mystery.
5 Star Review
There is little doubt that Renée Pawlish is a promising new voice to the comic murder/mystery genre. Quite noticeable…is Pawlish’s adept development of the plot coupled with her ability to contrive clear, concise and playful prose with almost perfect pacing.
Norman Goldman, Bookpleasures Publisher and Editor
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