Joan Bennett, Edward G. Robinson
Joan Bennett, Edward G. Robinson

In the wee hours of this a.m., Turner Classic Movies showed a film that's been a lifelong favorite of mine. The term 'lifelong' is used casually: the movie was made the year I was born, a coincidence in which I take irrational satisfaction; I didn't actually see it till a rainy schoolday in the early Fifties when, playing hooky, I found it waiting for me in a local TV station's matinee slot. Somehow the favoriteness kicked in right away, perhaps because it was one of the first films I took to be adult. Subsequent reencounters with The Woman in the Window—including teaching it in a couple of film courses—have only deepened my pleasure in and affection for it. So I trot out the following program note, written for a Winter 1972 "Fritz Lang in America" film series for University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts. (WitW was the fifth film in the series; hence the terse references to other Lang movies my original readers had been watching week after week.) But I also urge you NOT TO READ these remarks unless and until you have seen the movie. It's a very special case, and SPOILER ALERT should be stamped on nearly every line. —RTJ (Nov. 8, 2010)

***

The Woman in the Window is one of Fritz Lang's subtlest films. It is an extremely dense film, although deceptively casual in initial approach. There is little of the overt Teutonic freakiness of the shadow worlds of Man Hunt and Hangmen Also Die!. Still, the world of The Woman in the Window is fraught with portents of instability, unreliable solidities, and fatally genuine illusions. In order to discuss them at all adequately, it is necessary to reveal more of the twists and turns of the narrative than is consistent with preserving the viewer's opportunity for surprise. And so, be warned: If you're reading along before the film, and if you'd just as soon remain unspoiled until Lang himself does it to you, cease and desist right now!

The chief problem with The Woman in the Window—more precisely, the chief problem for many people who have watched The Woman in the Window—is that Lang violates a supreme movie no-no. (And it was Lang who violated it—the novel ended otherwise and screenwriter-producer Nunnally Johnson resisted the director, although despite his double-barreled authority he eventually let Lang follow his own dictates.) He involves the viewer in a hellishly gripping suspense situation for an hour and a half, and then he springs the trap: "it didn't really happen," the protagonist only dreamed it, it was all "just a dream." Some—by no means all—viewers will automatically groan at this point, curse, rend and tear whatever or whoever is handy. Someone will mutter about "Hollywood endings." Paul Jensen, in his careless book The Cinema of Fritz Lang (Zwemmers–A.S. Barnes), speaks respectfully of the film up to this moment but then flatly avers that Lang had "painted himself into a corner" and had to use this desperate ploy to save his hero. Jensen never considers how the first 90 minutes of the film operate when retrospectively illuminated by the dream revelation. Neither does it occur to him that what a man dreams (is there any more intimate, more personal activity?) is as valid a way of characterizing him as what he says and does, where he goes, what situations he gets into. Nor does Jensen confront how essentially consistent with other Lang endings (Joe Wilson's miraculous—to the court—resurrection at the end of Fury, Eddie Taylor's "freedom" obtained only at the end of You Only Live Once, Alan Thorndike's and Dr. Svoboda's release into righteous barbarism in Man Hunt and Hangmen Also Die!) is the ending of The Woman in the Window, or—most obviously of all, I should think—the fact that Professor Wanley's awakening in no way denies the finality of his dream scenario's conclusions. The film does "happen" with absolute cinematic reality—which is, of course, profoundly illusory. Jensen utterly and absolutely rules out such speculations before they can be suggested. He declares the ending "a cheat" and insists it "just simplifies the situation into nothingness, and any conclusion that one might draw about seeming and reality would only be a rationalization." Any conclusion. But, far from a generalized invocation of "seeming and reality," Lang's film is relentlessly specific in its analysis of Professor Wanley's dream reality. Unlike, say, much of Orson Welles's The Trial, The Woman in the Window gives no sense of its director saying, "It's only a dream, so nothing matters and anything goes"; rather, virtually everything matters, doubly so because it's a dream.

Lang himself has noted the connection between this film and the classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which, for a time, he was to have directed: "It was really the work of three painters who wanted to make a kind of an expressionistic picture; the whole story had been written, and the only contribution I made was that I said to [producer Erich] Pommer, 'Look, if the expressionistic sets stand for the world of the insane, and you use them from the beginning, it doesn't mean anything. Why don't you, instead, make the Prologue and Epilogue of the picture normal?'.... Now what else is the ending of Caligari—where we meet the people we've seen in 'the dream'—but the ending of The Woman in the Window?" In fact the ending of Caligari is not unstylized at all; it is simply less extravagantly expressionistic than the main narrative, the segment ostensibly visualized by a madman. And the non-dream opening of The Woman in the Window is not without portent of what's to come.

At the beginning Lang is at some pains to establish Assistant Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) as one among many in the metropolis of New York. The character is identified for us by a class card at Gotham College, "Founded by the people of the city of New York," and we drift toward him casually but with vague purposiveness, craning down over his classroom as he lectures on the psychopathology of homicide, the horizontal shadows of a venetian blind lying over him. The craning descent will be repeated a few moments later after he has bidden farewell to his family at the railway station; at a crowded intersection people stream by and a bus wipes the screen with a "Welcome to New York." Lang's method is nowhere near as elaborate as Alfred Hitchcock's, for instance, in establishing Roger Thornhill's (Cary Grant) identity and milieu at the beginning of North by Northwest. Neither is his chaos-world quite the same; Hitchcock's protagonist is picked for involvement in a spy chase by freak accident, although the moral and psychic therapy of his ordeal proves very apt to his immature character. Lang suggests that what is true for Richard Wanley, what is poetically possible given the quirks of character in this quite unremarkable man (the quirks are also unremarkable, as will be seen), is in some form possible for anyone else in that classroom, anyone else in that street, or in Lang's audience. What befalls Wanley is not accidental.

It's a hot summer, and Wanley's wife and children are leaving town on holiday. The Wanleys express genuine concern and affection for one another. Mrs. Wanley urges Richard not to stay cooped up working all the time; as she says this, she is holding a magazine with the back cover turned our way. It displays a photograph of a properly attired man very conspicuously framed; her arm lies across the photograph, the first of many photographs, paintings, and films we shall see in the course of the movie. A student once remarked, "When I saw that magazine picture, I thought, 'She's taking him along.'"

After the family's departure, the first thing we see Wanley do is to look at another pictorial representation: the woman in the window. The introduction of this narrative element is, naturally, key. Wanley joins a long line of Lang dreamers who have looked in display windows and seen the reflection of their desires (Beckert in M, Joe and Katherine in Fury, Jerry in Man Hunt) or their fears (Joe's second, lone appearance before a storefront in Fury, Joan Taylor's discovery of a gun for Eddie in You Only Live Once). But of greater specific importance is the multiplicity of levels of reality indexed in the shot. The woman is not a woman but a painting—one man's vision of the woman, now being filtered through the sensibility of a second man; the painting is framed, and it is set apart by the further frame of the window. The window reflects Wanley when he looks into it and the offscreen reality of the street, and when he is viewed from the other side of the glass, the painting is reflected over him.

Unnoticed, his friends Lalor (Raymond Massey) and Barkstone (Edmond Breon) get out of a car and chuckle at his fascination. She is, they insist, "our dream girl ... we saw her first." Their playful rivalry continues after dinner at their private club, which is located adjacent to the art gallery. Wanley proposes to violate the traditions of summer bachelorhood by abstaining from visiting burlesque houses, for instance: "But if one of the young ladies wishes to come over here and perform about there, I'll be happy to watch." Lalor applauds his friend's wisdom, agrees that they're "three old crocks," avers it's a good thing they're beyond temptation. Wanley demurs: "I didn't say it was a good thing. I only know that I hate it!"

Lalor continues, the voice of reason, invoking his experiences in the district attorney's office seeing what happens when "one false step, one idle flirtation" leads a middle-aged man into a web of disaster. As he delivers himself of these cautionary remarks, he is photographed from a slightly low angle, so that he seems underwritten with authority. In fact he speaks in the neighborhood of a point Wanley was making to his class that very afternoon: that impulses are of crucial importance, that there are degrees of impulses, and that the legal categories of homicide, for instance, are "civilized recognition" of the distinctions. Something that was already on Wanley's mind is reinforced by Lalor's comments. The professor asks jokingly, "Do you think it's quite safe to leave me alone in this somewhat rebellious frame of mind?" But he lets his friends go off for their "dates" with Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth, speculating that even if "the spirit of adventure" were to rise up in the form of the woman in the window next door, all he'd do would be to "clutch my coat a little tighter, mutter something idiotic, and run." Then he turns to the club library, his own reflection moving to meet him in the glass of the bookcases. Taking down a specially illustrated volume of The Song of Songs Which Is Solomon's, he asks the steward to remind him when it's 10:30: "Sometimes I'm inclined to lose track of time."

That, of course, is the end of waking reality and the beginning of dream. With a couple more brandies than usual under his belt, Wanley trips into the street and detours for another look at his dream lady. The reflection of her portrait washes over him again, and then he perceives a double lady, this time a real face reflected alongside the painting. The mystery woman herself (Joan Bennett) must come out when lonely, not to gaze on herself, but to see herself reflected in the faces of those who look on her. (Like Wanley, but literally, she lacks a self-image.) Far from being offended by his tribute ("Did I react properly—uh, normally?"), she is pleased, and puts his wish-fulfillment into his hands without his having to frame an invitation: "I'm not married, I have no designs on you, and one drink is all I care for." (One flashes, again, North by Northwest and Roger Thornhill's adolescent fantasy come true: a gorgeous blonde on the Twentieth Century is willing to pay five dollars to spend the night with him.)

Alice Reed, the lady in the portrait, leads Wanley further into a world of unreality. The camera seeks them out in a dark cocktail lounge and finds them between silvery, two-dimensional representations of flowers (on the table and on the walls behind them). From there they go to Alice's apartment, an environment dominated by more artificial vegetation (frosted trees on the glass panels round the door, voluptuous leaf designs on the lampshades—even the real flowers on the table are conspicuously stylized as the chosen, sexually expressive decor of a kept woman's apartment) and given in wall-sized mirrors. Objets d'art abound; Alice has brought Richard up to see sketches of her, and the self-amused once-over he gives a headless nude sculpture while waiting for her—he reflected in a mirror at the time—wonderfully indexes the gently sophisticated naughtiness of Alice's invitation and Richard's appreciation of it as a tribute to his genial decency. But outside this enclosed environment the world changes. A street that was dry when they arrived, an arid soundstage reality, is now washed with rain, and a hostile force intrudes: Alice's sugar daddy (Arthur Loft), who slaps her, attempts to strangle Richard when he leaps to her defense, and is stabbed to death by Richard with scissors Alice provides. To this has Wanley's one false step led.

This accounts for about one-fifth of the film. The remainder portrays the sympathetic assassins' attempts to dispose of the body and protect themselves from any association with the crime; the efforts of the police and the district attorney's office to "nail" the killer, with the hapless Wanley looking on; the appearance of the dead man's bodyguard (Dan Duryea), his attempts to blackmail Richard and Alice, their endeavor to murder him; and the ironic resolution of their difficulties—the initial killing is attributed to the bodyguard, who is himself shot down by police—even as Wanley commits suicide. All of which constitutes the dream; Wanley awakens and we are vouchsafed a tidy "explanation" that in fact implies only facets of the waking and dream realities of Richard Wanley.

Why does Richard Wanley have this dream? From that question must any responsible analysis of The Woman in the Window proceed. There appear to me to be two reasons, which may be—appropriately enough in the context of Lang—opposite faces of the same idea: the dream serves to instruct Wanley (he is now certain to do exactly what he told Barkstone he would do if confronted by "the spirit of adventure"—who turns out to be a lot tawdrier than his movie-star vision), and it offers him—and us—pleasure, subliminal gratification.

We have already noted how Alice Reed's initial approach to Wanley clearly serves as a wish-fulfillment fantasy. More interestingly, Wanley the dreamer awards himself an unlikely academic promotion from assistant professor of psychology to chairman of his department. He's an honest dreamer. We are aware of his quiet correction of the police officer who checks his identity and is satisfied of respectability: "A professor, huh?" "Assistant." Wanley is very conscious of his social and professional standing; it is to protect that standing that he fails to report the crime which is, after all, scarcely a heinous act but rather an act of self-defense against a man later described as "crazy." And as he promotes himself socioeconomically (much is made by the police of the clues indicating the killer to have been a man of "moderate circumstances"), so does he promote himself romantically. He has Lalor observe that the woman in the case clearly preferred him to Mazard (the Mabusian magnate of World Enterprises!), as proved by her connivance and silence in the killer's behalf. (Edward G. Robinson's registering of this speculation is a splendid moment.)

But if Wanley is the scenarist of his benisons, he is also the architect of his agony and despair. The man who, awake, loses track of time is extremely precise about it when dreaming, and he marshals his forces and creative skills in giving swift orders how to cover up the crime. Still, it is clear that much more of the time he enjoys frustration - not voluptuously, not indecently, but he has become inured to it in his waking life and has apparently accommodated even his dream style to the facts of life (or, of course, the nondescript struggle for decent survival in his waking life may reflect this basic predisposition; I am not much concerned about fixing the starting point of this chicken-and-egg process, nor, I think, is Lang: dreaming in this film is above all else a realm of personal aesthetics). The film is a study in frustration: the sadomasochistic imagination of Wanley the dream scenarist constantly outflanking and out-framing the responsible resources of Wanley the dream character. This is inextricably bound up in his instruction. The film's several instances of symbolic pain (pinching himself on the champagne wire, cutting his wrist on barbed wire, then letting that wound get infected with poison ivy!) recall Joe Wilson of Fury smelling himself burn, and in effect Wanley watches Wanley as Joe watched himself burned alive in a newsreel. But the pain is also pain devised by Wanley. There is even a joke on this: Wanley sits at his desk, a warlike statuette poised nearby as if about to spear that wounded wrist, while a radio announcer hymns the blessings of a product that will "remedy that tired feeling" that "can affect a person's whole outlook on life."

Wanley manifests a sense of inferiority that is worked out ambivalently in his dream. He is attacked and overpowered by the large Mazard, but manages to kill him anyway (Lang's direction and cutting of the action emphasizes both Wanley's deliberate reach for aid and Alice's proffer of the scissors). He defends Alice, forgives her failures time and again, but he dreams her getting pushed around by Mazard and by the bodyguard. We are shown at the end that the visual prototypes of Mazard and Heidt (a name for the bodyguard supplied by Jensen, although not given in the film at any time) exist at Wanley's club in the forms of Charlie the hat-check man and Ted the doorman (interestingly, Lang/Wanley cuts away from Wanley just as he calls for his hat and coat at the beginning of the dream, and no doorman is in evidence).

Now, this is a partial explanation, and its comic quality cajoles the dream resenters in the audience out of their ill humor. But, again, why were these persons selected by Wanley to play the snarling villains? Both men seem perfectly nice guys, but they are taller than Wanley, both wear uniforms, and both serve the function of servants. Lang has (and probably audiences have, too) a basic sympathy for chubby little guys, even when they do nasty things (Peter Lorre's Beckert, Gene Lockhart's Czaka, Robinson's Wanley and Christopher Cross in Scarlet Street), and his overpowering sense of angularity is beyond dispute, so—even discounting Freudian readings - height is scarcely a facetious consideration. Wanley is frequently menaced by uniformed figures (the policemen who tell him about his car lights, the toll collector who delays him looking for a lost dime, the motorcycle cop lurking near the traffic signal) and by other "public servants" and private ones, like the gossipy garage man who remembers when people get in at night, even elevator operators who kept interfering with Richard and Alice's hallway rendezvous. Indeed, that exchange between policeman and "professor" already quoted implies commingled disdain and obligatory respect on the cop's part.

But Charlie and Ted are scarcely the key antagonists in Wanley's waking life. The prime candidate would appear to be Richard's own best friend, District Attorney Frank Lalor, about whom Richard probably has not one conscious negative thought. All we see, really, is that Frank is—again—taller than Richard, that he (and Michael) has first facetious claim on their "dream girl," and that he does embody that stuffy sense of safety and propriety Richard certainly respects, believes in, even shares, but also ruefully resents. Frank's casually low-angle authority sitting in a club easy chair escalates into the towering, smoke-streaming beacon of justice leaning against the mantel above tiny Richard, and by extension into every God's-eye-view of Wanley that pins him down throughout the film. Although doubling of first names frequently occurs in life, it's a rarity in movies; doubly meaningful, then, that the pseudonym under which Claude Mazard is first introduced is Frank Howard. Mazard wears the same sort of straw boater first seen on Frank Lalor and subsequently worn by the blackmailer and by a man who interrupts that very interrupted corridor conversation between Richard and Alice (and also, if a still in Bogdanovich's Lang book is any authority, by a newsdealer in an apparently deleted scene wherein Wanley buys a paper to look for news that Mazard's corpse has been discovered).

It's worth quoting an exchange between Lalor and Wanley which should certify the nature of the tension between them. Frank has playfully tormented Richard with his reluctance to say outright there was a barbed-wire fence where the body was found. In a typical Langian camera disposition, the taut two-shot of Richard and Frank is held for an instant after Richard's gaffe, then enlarged to include Dr. Barkstone who says reasonably, "Well, what other kind could a man more easily scratch his hand on?":

FRANK: It was a barbed-wire fence, of course. I was only trying to impress you fellows with my keenness. Can't a man get any credit around here at all?

RICHARD: Well, in that case, I'll give you an opportunity to impress the whole city. Does this suggest anything to you? [He displays his wounded wrist.]

FRANK: Yes. It suggests very strongly—that you're eaten up with envy. You see my name on the front page of every paper, so you make a desperate attempt to elbow your way into my case by insinuating that you're the guilty man. But it's no use, my boy; you've scratched yourself for nothing!

RICHARD (to Barkstone, with awkward good humor): Did you ever see such selfishness?

This dialogue is followed by Frank's offer to tell them more about the case—a revelation delayed, with exquisite protraction of torment, by several interruptions.

Wanley is the dreamer of the dream and hence gives of himself to all the characters, in some way. He is linked to Mazard in that he tantalizes himself with enjoyment of what Mazard has: a lush woman with no visible means of support in a Hollywood dream-factory suite. He is linked to Heidt not only in Heidt's being cast as the killer of Mazard but also in numerous dialogue references: Lalor several times remarks that Mazard's bodyguard is the one who's "hot," and Heidt himself is fond of saying he's "gettin' warm" on the trail of Wanley; once Lang cuts from a reference to Heidt as being "hot" to a shot of Wanley crouched before his blazing fireplace, burning the snagged coat. As already suggested, Heidt treats Alice as Wanley may wish to treat her at times, and unlike Richard he manages to dominate scenes even when sitting—virtually lying—down. It is Heidt who verbalizes Wanley's rather unclean role in the whole latter stage of the proceedings: "What kind of a guy is he, anyway, shovin' a nice kid like you out in front?" The "nice kid" is Alice, who similarly is joined to Wanley, not only as the culprits in the two fists of Frank Lalor, but also as a civilized persona who reacts with visible shock when Wanley coldbloodedly, almost self-hypnotically pronounces a sentence of death on Heidt, becoming a conscious rather than unconscious assassin. The shot of this is worth studying. Alice and Richard have been walking in the street, photographed through bars. As they step clear, Richard's purpose becomes clear (as Thorndike in Man Hunt is delivered out of his dark cave-womb into the bright consciousness of righteous murder), and he declares it. She freezes in mid-shot, he passing out the side without noticing her. Lang dissolves from this walking offscreen of Wanley's to his entering, at the same angle, the drugstore where he will obtain the gland concentrate. A gentle Mabuse, he will direct her attempted murder of the bodyguard from offscreen; and his circumscribed vision will lead to his own self-killing, as it prevented his seeing the woman that day out at the corpse site, as it prevented Eddie Taylor in You Only Live Once from knowing he really was pardoned.

The Woman in the Window isn't without flaw. Although the ploy is psychologically justifiable and Dan Duryea is certainly mesmerizing as the blackmailer (he had just been in Ministry of Fear for Lang and would join Robinson and Bennett in Scarlet Street next), the shift of dramatic focus from Wanley to Alice does diminish the picture's concentration (could any dreamer be bodily absent from his own fantasies that long?). But if it lacks the high intensity of the most exciting works by Lang, its skill and integrity are great and it stands up on many re-viewings. It has not deserved its neglect, and certainly it has not deserved the criminally stupid abuse visited on it by commentators like Paul M. Jensen.

***

CAST: Edward G. Robinson (Professor Richard Wanley), Joan Bennett (Alice Reed), Raymond Massey (District Attorney Frank Lalor), Edmond Breon (Dr. Michael Barkstone), Dan Duryea (the bodyguard), Arthur Loft (Frank Howard/Claude Mazard), Thomas E. Jackson (Inspector Jackson), Arthur Space (Captain Kennedy), Frank Dawson (Collins), Dorothy Peterson (Mrs. Wanley), Bobby (Robert) Blake, Carol Cameron (Wanley children).

CREDITS: Director: Fritz Lang. Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson, after the novel Once Off Guard by J.H. Wallis. Cinematographer: Milton Krasner. Art Director: Duncan Cramer; Set Decorator: Julia Heron. Music: Arthur Lange. Producer: Nunnally Johnson. An International Pictures release, 1944.

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Copyright © 1972 by Richard T. Jameson