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The Woman in the Window (1944) Blu Ray (Eureka!)

A painting leads to murder

This film noir thriller, adapted from a novel by J.H. Wallis, features Edward G. Robinson as a psychology professor named Richard Wanley, who becomes obsessed with a painting of a beautiful woman that he sees in a shop window. One night, he has dinner with two of his friends: a DA named Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) and a doctor named Michael Barkstane (Edmund Breon). After they leave, he decides to walk out and gaze at his favourite painting once more. All of a sudden, he sees that the window reflects the face of a woman who looks exactly like the one in the portrait. Her name is Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) and she seems very keen to have his company for the rest of the evening.

After some time looking over artworks and drinking champagne in her apartment, they are suddenly visited by a burly man (played by Arthur Loft) who becomes angry that Alice has other male company that evening. This leads to Richard getting into a brawl with him on the sofa. In the heat of the moment, Alice passes Richard some scissors and he stabs his assailant in the back with them a number of times, thus killing him.

In the aftermath, he has second thoughts about confessing to the police (and potentially getting the chair for murder) and decides to enlist Alice’s help in cleaning up the crime scene and disposing of the body out in the countryside. As is always the case, however, things don’t exactly go as smoothly as planned.

Watch a trailer:

Top-drawer Lang, albeit with a contentious ending

The Woman in the Window is one of Fritz Lang’s best American films and certainly one of his most unpretentiously entertaining. Once it sets up its suspenseful scenario, it develops and maintains it in an excruciatingly tense and tightly-constructed manner. Well, it does so at least up until that contentious ending which was imposed in order to comply with the Motion Picture Production Code. Even this issue, however, doesn’t entirely nullify the impact of the whole.

At the film’s heart are three engaging and fascinating character dynamics which interlock throughout the story. Firstly, there’s the undeniable sexual frisson between the ageing, witty Richard and the younger, almost surreally irresistible Alice. Secondly, there’s the game of cat-and-mouse which ensures between best friends Richard and Frank when the latter is assigned to investigate the case, resulting in a few inevitable “too close for comfort” moments. There’s also a third which comes into play later on between Alice and an incredibly sharp, ruthless blackmailer named Heidt (Dan Duryea).

The Woman in the Window (1944)

Lang’s direction is as stylish and graceful as ever, with highlights including Joan Bennett’s magical introduction (via a reflection) and an atmospheric extended body disposal sequence during a rain-swept night which is peppered with numerous nail-biting run-ins with police officers and the like. There are also some really neat small details here and there, a classic example being the various clocks which repeatedly pop up in the background to remind the viewer of the time of day. However, much of the tension comes from performances and dialogue, the best being between Edward G. Robinson’s Richard and Raymond Massey’s Frank as the former bluffs and double-bluffs alike in his endeavours to evade detection by the latter.

The cast is superb, with Edward G. Robinson making for an amiable but (especially for the era) unusually unglamorous central protagonist. Joan Bennett possesses an intoxicating mixture of vulnerability and sultry seductiveness which could conceivably lead just about any heterosexual male from the straight-and-narrow path. The third highlight here in terms of casting is Dan Duryea, who makes for a truly skin-crawling, snidely menacing villain. All three of them would work with director Fritz Lang again on the following year’s Scarlet Street, a film that many critics regard as being even better.

Now… onto the elephant of the room which is, of course, that aforementioned ending. It feels anticlimactic when The Woman in the Window is taken as a straight thriller. On the other hand, since the film’s overall atmosphere exudes a certain deliberate air of the unreal, it arguably still works in its own peculiar way. You decide.

Runtime: 99 mins

Dir: Fritz Lang

Script: Nunnally Johnson, from a novel by J.H. Wallis

Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Raymond Massey, Edmund Breon, Dan Duryea, Arthur Loft

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

While the picture generally looks good here, there are some noticeable visual defects and fluctuations. Things fare considerably better, however, in the audio department. The music score sounds warm and vibrant.

Extras

Audio Commentary

This commentary track was supplied by Imogen Sara Smith, author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City. She reveals that The Woman in the Window is considered to be part of the so-called of “first wave” of film noir and was released in the same year as two other particularly notable genre entries: Double Indemnity and Laura. It also belongs to a distinct subgenre known as “portrait noir”, again alongside Laura.

Director Fritz Lang and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson frequently clashed during production. Nunnally’s original screenplay lightened the tone in comparison with the book. However, he felt that Lang lacked the necessary sense of humour to convey this properly. They also clashed in relation to the Production Code-appeasing ending.

Imogen also talks extensively about the respective careers of actors Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Raymond Massey and Dan Duryea, as well as that of Lang.

Framed

An excellent 22-minute video essay by filmmaker and critic David Cairns. Using numerous video clips from The Woman in the Window and several of Lang’s other films, he takes a look at the director’s recurring themes of destiny and sinister forces pulling the strings. He also examines his directorial technique (he treated actors like puppets: for instance, he snapped his fingers to get them to turn their heads) as well as looking at the onscreen personas of the main actors.

The extras are rounded out by a trailer and a collector’s booklet.

Overall:

However you feel about The Woman in the Window’s ending, it’s hard to deny that it’s a landmark in film noir history. The restoration is somewhat inconsistent in the visual department but David Cairns’s superb video essay adds a lot of value to the overall package.

Movie: ☆☆☆☆1/2

Video: ☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆1/2

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