F ritz Lang, director of the silent science-fiction epic, Metropolis, made a plethora of film noirs after coming to the U.S. to avoid the Nazi uprising. These sinister crime dramas are the offspring of his first sound/penultimate German film and masterpiece, M. They certainly bear the mark of that progenitor, though they never outmatch it. Nevertheless, these films are wholly enjoyable, sumptuous exercises in dark, expressionist filmmaking and narratives of psychological fragility.
In Woman in the Window, frequent noir lead and masterclass actor Edward G. Robinson plays the timid psychology professor, Richard Wanley. His loving family goes on vacation at the beginning of the film and, whilst alone, he frequently stops to admire the portrait of a beautiful woman in the window of an apparently empty store. After a night of drinking, Wanley once again views the portrait, but this time sees the woman’s head floating as a reflection on the glass as she stands behind him. Incredulous and enchanted, he accompanies the woman, Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) on a night out which nearly culminates in a dangerous liaison. Wanley seems to be under some kind of spell. Claude Mazard (Arthur Loft), the owner of the apartment and Alice’s lover, enters unexpectedly and leaps at Wanley, who ends up violently stabbing the brute with a pair of scissors in the ensuing struggle. Despite having a strong case for self defense, Wanley and Alice resort to criminal measures to conceal his death rather than draw attention to Wanley’s scandalous presence— a threat to his reputation and family life.
The aforementioned shot of Joan Bennett’s head floating in the window stands out as one of the most stylized images of the film. The visceral strangeness and sense of disembodiment provides a truly unsettling aura around Alice from then on, equally supplemented by Bennett’s spectral and uncanny performance. Her co-star, Edward G. Robinson, becomes somewhat diminished in her presence due to his straight-man obligations. That’s also true of his pairings with other main characters. Dan Duryea plays the serpentine mobster and blackmailer who crosses paths with Wanley and Reed with perfectly calculated sliminess. Raymond Massey plays Wanley’s friend and a district attorney as brilliant and aloof but warm. While Robinson is known for his more subtle and restrained acting style (exquisitely showcased in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity), he acts almost resigned and a bit spacey for most of the film, though not in a way that comes across as a lackluster performance. In fact, his acting choices make a lot more sense after watching the film in its entirety. This is just to say that he seemingly relinquishes his natural charisma by playing the character plainly and rather weak-willed, giving his co-stars the stage.
Lang’s trademark directorial touch is also strangely subdued. While a few locations get the smoky, shadowy treatment characteristic of his work, most of the film contains pretty conventional lighting and there’s a noticeable lack of stylized compositions or camera movement. A nod to production designer Duncan Cramer is in order, though. The lavish design of the apartment draws fascination from an beauty standpoint and makes use of mirrors, unconventional fixtures, and deadly looking objects. .
All in all, The Woman In the Windowsucceeds with a capable cast, obligatory suspense, and a dash of the bizarre, though as an entry in Lang filmography and noir history, it’s not the strongest. However, Lang is an auteur worthy of having his entire body of work examined. So for cinephiles, it’s worth a look and the BluRay is recommended. | Nic Champion
This release is contains a commentary by film scholar Imogene Smith. Her insights are thorough and aided by extreme familiarity with the genre.