Wednesday, April 4, 2012
The Woman in the Window
Fritz Lang's 1944 noir The Woman in the Window is in many ways a meta-noir that examines the tragic allure that draws so many doomed noir heroes into situations that are bound to end up in murder and worse. The aging professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) is a pretty unlikely noir hero, and he seems to know it. He's settled into routine and domesticity, and even when his wife and children go away on vacation, leaving him on his own, he doesn't have anything planned beyond drinking quietly at his club, reading and smoking cigars. Naturally, he's going to be shaken out of this routine in a rather startling way, and in true noir fashion his downfall is practically preordained from the moment he sees a painting of a lovely, elegant woman in a gallery window adjacent to his club. He and his friends cheerfully discuss the woman in the painting, their infatuation with her virtually the only outlet for the sexual feelings of these thoroughly domesticated middle-aged men.
Wanley's conversation with his friends at the beginning of the film lays on the foreshadowing pretty thick, with his friends warning him that they're now too old for adventures, while Wanley insists that he has no interest in anything but going to bed early. He even tempts fate by saying that, should he encounter the beautiful woman from the portrait in the window, he'd walk right by, not even letting her sway him from his quiet, eventless night. It's of course immediately obvious what destiny has in store for Wanley, so it's no surprise when he walks outside, peering at the portrait one last time before he goes home, only to have the woman herself appear, reflected in the window. Lang telegraphs what's going to happen long before it does; even the framing and composition of the shot as Wanley looks in the window seems to be primed for the woman's inevitable appearance. Her face floats in the reflection in the glass, hovering in the blackness right next to her painted doppelganger, two alluring images superimposed. She briefly exists only as this hazy, wavering ghost image, her reality uncertain, before Lang's camera turns, with Wanley's gaze, towards the flesh-and-blood woman.
This woman, Alice Reed (Joan Bennett), leads Wanley, in total innocence, into a shadowy nightmare of murder, suspense and intrigue. The pair spends an innocent, pleasant night together, their flirtations barely edging past politeness — Wanley is married and scrupulous — when suddenly one of Alice's lovers bursts in, immediately flies into a rage, and begins strangling the shocked professor. Of course, it's the other man who ends up dead, and Wanley and Alice must dispose of the body, covering up their crime before morning comes. Lang draws out the process of cleaning up after this accidental murder, not skimping on any details, emphasizing what a difficult, physical, tense procedure it is. Every moment is loaded with the possibility of getting caught: lugging the body, wrapped in a sheet, out to the car in the rain, then driving out to the country to dump the corpse in the woods. The empty, rainy nighttime streets are eerily quiet and empty but seem loaded with danger, like a taxi dropping off a passenger just as Wanley is about to carry the body outside, or all the cops who suddenly pop out of nowhere, threatening to pull the professor over and discover his sinister cargo. One cop actually does pull him over, before Wanley has picked up the body, and sneers suspiciously at the professor's ethnic origins, in a sequence that surely must have resonated with the immigrant Lang: "Wanley, huh, what's that, Polish?" "No," Wanley replies, "it's American."
This attention to detail enhances the film's nightmarish atmosphere. Wanley is a man who's totally unprepared for this kind of intrigue, and Lang rigorously emphasizes each step of the process, as well as calling attention to all the little details of the evidence trail that Wanley leaves behind. After the murder and cover-up, the film becomes an interesting kind of forensic mystery in which the hero is the killer, watching his friend, district attorney Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey), piece together the clues and form a startlingly accurate picture of the crime. Throughout the film, Wanley's conversations with his friends, especially Lalor, keep him updated on the inexorable progress of the police, who uncover more and more evidence, all of which would point directly to Wanley if they ever got on his track. Moreover, these conversations work on a meta level to signal future plot points in an almost playful way: when his doctor prescribes Wanley medicine for nerves but warns him not to take too much, Wanley exclaims, almost excited, "poison!" It's as though he can't wait to see who will inevitably be getting poisoned via this new plot device, and neither can the audience.
This meta playfulness is carried over into the series of ironic twists that constitute the finale, with the last of these twists purportedly forced on Lang by a studio displeased with the director's original tragic ending. The studio-favored ending might seem like a cop-out if it weren't also so consonant with the film's theme of a man chasing his modest fantasies into danger and ruin. The film is a dreamlike journey through the dark side of the American city — in that respect, it would make an ideal double feature with Martin Scorsese's later After Hours — only to pull back at the last moment into safety, security, and a lack of risk. The urban environment and young women like the lovely Alice embody excitement and danger, contrasted against the stability and the safety, but also the boredom, of the nuclear family. At a key moment towards the end of the film, Wanley receives a phone call from Alice about another problem with their plans, and Lang shoots him sitting in an armchair with photos of his wife and two children prominently placed on a table beside him, reminders of everything he stands to lose, but also everything he was running away from into this dark fantasy.
The Woman in the Window is beautifully shot, bathed in shadows, with exceptional performances and witty dialogue. Robinson and Bennett make a great central couple, with Robinson playing a restrained, sophisticated man slowly being overtaken by fear, while Bennett radiates femme fatale glamour. Also notable is Dan Duryea as a sleazy blackmailer who seems to be constantly talking out of the side of his mouth. Lang shoots with precision and formal rigor, his camera constantly tracking either in or out of a scene, as though continually alternating between psychological intimacy and the forensic observation of distance. At one point, he shoots Wanley and Alice walking alongside an iron railing, the metal bars falling across their figures like prison cell doors, a familiar noir visual shorthand for a trap closing in, that's nevertheless effective nearly every time it's used. This is a potent noir that writes the subconscious psychological desires of the protagonist onto the dark, lonely city streets, suggesting that one's fondest fantasies can also be — and often are — traps. The shy, sly smile of a woman in a painting can be an invitation to adventure and romance, but also an invitation to be swallowed whole by the city's deep pools of darkness.