We feel conflicted about the 1944 thriller, The Woman in the Window.
In many ways, it’s a perfect noir-ish film, with slow-burning tension and surprising plot twists. This movie isn’t going to end the way you might expect, which is both a strength and a weakness.
Edward G. Robinson plays a (married) criminology professor who bristles against Boredom and Middle Age. When his wife and children leave on vacation, he becomes involved with model/femme fatale Joan Bennett after admiring her portrait displayed in a window.
Bennett invites him to her apartment to, ahem, view more sketches. Unhappily for them both, they are unexpectedly interrupted and attacked by Bennett’s jealous lover, and Robinson ends up killing the man in self-defence.
Naturally, the police are not notified due to Robinson’s marriage and career; instead, he decides to dispose of the body himself. But he’s surprisingly clumsy about it – he leaves evidence practically everywhere – and the rest of the movie circles around him like a noose, as police get ever closer to Solving The Crime.
But what’s this now? The dead man’s bodyguard (Dan Duryea) visits Bennett’s apartment with demands for Lots o’ Dough, and a delusional Robinson is convinced he can outmaneuver him. But Duryea, despite his genial demeanour, ain’t no dummy, and it may be he who brings down Robinson before the police do.
Robinson is trapped, and he finally realizes it. He’s so weary of outsmarting everyone (cough cough), he takes an overdose of medicine – only to wake up later and realize the whole thing was Just A Dream.
This is where we feel conflicted. The “Just A Dream” ending is kind of a rip-off, especially since everything preceding it has been a Study in Tension.
Look at Robinson’s close friend, district attorney Raymond Massey. Massey’s character is a compulsive blabbermouth; he gleefully tells Robinson the clues the police have uncovered, who the main suspect is, etc. We, the audience, are grateful for Massey’s lack of discretion, because we’re dying to know what the police Know.
So we want the ending to be Realistic.
Alas, Robinson and Bennett have endeared us to their characters, and maybe we don’t want them to suffer a realistic ending. Maybe we want a Magic Formula to solve the situation.
So we want the ending to be Unrealistic.
However, the fairy-tale ending is unfair the the film as a whole, and around we go again.
Yes, filmmakers had to balance the story with what was permissible under the Motion Picture Production Code, but this ending isn’t the Code’s fault. The Code was a challenge to filmmakers to make better films, so that outcomes feel organic. In this case, dismissing everything as a dream is something of a letdown.
(Although, a person can view the film as “the representation of a troubled subconscious”, an idea with merit, as proposed by this thought-provoking review in The Chicago Reader.)
Yet, the underlying theme in this movie remains intact, the ending notwithstanding: Robinson’s character kills a man in self-defence and believes he won’t be Caught.
He thinks he should get away with murder.
The Woman in the Window was nominated for an Oscar (Best Musical Score), and it’s considered to be an early example of what would later be called film noir.
You almost couldn’t ask for a better cast. Robinson is superb as a man who realizes he’s not as smart as he thought; Bennett gives us an untrustworthy woman who survives by her wits; and Duryea is perfect as the smarmy blackmailer. Lang would reunite these three actors in his next film noir, Scarlett Street (1945).
Also: We can’t overlook the understated Massey who seems, at times, to suspect Robinson, but allows himself to be blinded by their friendship.
Now that we’ve spoiled the ending, you may not be inclined to watch The Woman in the Window, but we hope you do. Knowing the outcome doesn’t take away all of the enjoyment.
This post is part of A Midsummer Dream Blogathon, hosted by PEPS.
The Woman in the Window starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Raymond Massey. Directed by Fritz Lang. Written by Nunnally Johnson. International Pictures, 1944, B&W, 107 mins.