Fritz Lang (director)
99 min (length)
20 May 2019 (released)
24 May 2019
Made one year before the significantly better known film noir ‘Scarlett Street’, director Fritz Lang cast Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea in a dark tale of obsession and murder, albeit with a surprise twist at the end that no one saw coming… well, at least not upon the film’s original release in 1944.
It’s another very hot summer in New York and middle-aged psychology professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) sends his wife and kids on a holiday somewhere in the country, away from the stifling heat, before he meets some friends in his club. Just before he enters he notices an oil painting of a particularly glamorous looking woman displayed in a window next to the club. He’s not alone, for his colleague Dr. Barkstane (Edmund Breon) and mutual friend District Attorney Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) equally seem smitten by the portrait, or rather, by its subject. Film buffs may have noticed that in the same year, another film depicting one man’s obsession with a painting was released: ‘Laura’ starring Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews.
With Wanley, Barkstane and Lalor sitting in their usual corner in the club and indulging in various discussions and some tipple, time moves fast and Wanley, who fell asleep in the armchair, is woken up by an employee of the club who reminds him that it’s almost closing time (herein lies the first clue to the mystery… plus the fact that Wanley is a professor of psychology). Wanley takes his coat and leaves the club but can’t help stopping in front of the portrait once more, staring at the painted beauty displayed in the shop window. Suddenly another reflection appears in the window and it turns out to be the very woman from the portrait! She introduces herself as Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) and has femme fatale written all over her. After a brief and friendly conversation she invites Professor Wanley for a drink in her apartment, and if this feels somewhat illogical then Wanley’s acceptance lies in a personal reflection earlier on in the club, during which he observed (in an almost regretful manner) that now that he’s middle-aged, respectable and married with kids, his wild days are certainly over. Well then, perhaps for one night only he can re-live his former wild days?
Alice seems to live in a luxury apartment no one can afford unless one is rich or has a rich partner but for the moment the ‘perhaps’ or ‘is she really…?’ isn’t spoiling the mood. Just as things begin to get cosy, Alice’s insanely jealous and fabulously wealthy clandestine lover, middle-aged Frank Howard (Arthur Loft) enters and a fight between him and Wanley ensues which the latter would have lost were it not for Alice handing him a pair of scissors… and before you know it the night ends in murder. With Alice admitting that she’s not sure whether ‘Frank Howard’ was the victim’s real name (it wasn’t) and with Wanley understandably panicking, the pair initially aren’t sure whether to come clean and report everything to the police, or whether to dispose of the body. Wanley figures that since nobody knew that Frank Howard was connected to Alice as they’ve been careful not to be seen in public, no one will connect the murder to her, or indeed to Wanley! And so they roll the dead body into a rug and load him into Wanley’s car at the dead of night, with plans of disposing the body in the countryside. Unfortunately, both Alice and Wanley are total amateurs when it comes to cover up a murder and during his efforts in disposing of the victim Wanley makes several mistakes and leaves clues. Meanwhile, not having told Alice his name either during their brief rendezvous in her flat, she finds his pen with the initials RW on the floor and decides to hide it in one of her drawers.
Soon ‘Frank Howard’, who turns out to have been an influential person named Claude Mazard, is reported missing, with his body discovered in the woods a few days later by a young boy-scout. District Attorney Lalor is on the case and draws his own conclusions and theories, which he tends to discuss with Dr. Barkstane and Wanley in their club. Bizarrely, an increasingly unnerved Wanley always seems to know more about the murder than he ought to know, leading to some almost comical exchanges between him and Lalor. Just as bizarre is an infected cut on Wanley’s arm which he claims he got from opening a tin, though of course he cut himself on poison ivy while disposing of Mazard/Howard. As the walls begin to close in on Wanley and things can hardly get worse they do! Mazard’s shady ratfink of a bodyguard, Heidt (Dan Duryea in a part he usually played and repeated in ‘Scarlet Street’) senses that Mazard’s murder must somehow be connected to Alice and pays her a visit… which will have devastating consequences for her and ultimately also for Wanley…
Critics weren’t too happy about the film’s surprise ending which was not in keeping with the novel’s original ending (‘Once Off Guard’ by J. H. Wallis) but director Lang and scriptwriter Nunnally Johnson had no other choice than to alter the ending due to pressure from the prudish Production Code of the time.
Viewers will finally get the chance to make up their own mind over THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW and its conclusion. One thing’s for sure: the Blu-ray edition is worth every penny and also includes some interesting Special Features about the film’s background story plus the career of director Fritz Lang.