Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Woman in the Window (1944)

By Spencer Selby

For an entry on Noir of the Week Steve has graciously suggested my piece on The Woman in the Window, one of 25 interpretive essays which appear in my book Dark City: The Film Noir.Those essays were the earliest parts of the 1984 book, having been written in the late 70s, when I was living in Iowa City, Iowa. This was before video, of course, so I didn't have copies of movies to consult or view repeatedly. All I had was the memory of one concentrated viewing fresh in my head. Given that and the fact that I was an inexperienced unpublished writer, I think most of those essays hold up pretty well.

In the Dark City filmography section I describe The Woman in the Window as "the first of a pair of important middle-class nightmares by Fritz Lang." The second film is Scarlet Street, which somewhat overshadows its older sister because it is more hardcore and one of the great noir masterworks. But The Woman in the Window shines with its own kind of clarity and one might argue that it had a stronger influence on noirs to come than Scarlet Street. At any rate, after Lang's pair of nightmares the line between good and evil in the best American crime films would never be the same. What had been for the most part a clear choice was transformed into a fatal threshold that anyone with repressed or normal desires could cross.

Woman in the Window
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Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Raymond Massey, Dan Duryea, Edmund Breon
Directed by: Fritz Lang

Editor's note: Some spoilers follow

Professor Richard Wanley is a middle-aged instructor of psychology at a small urban college. While his family is a way on vacation, Wanley spends much of his time socializing at a men's club with his two good friends, District Attorney Frank Lalor and Dr. Barkstone. On his way to the club, Wanley stops to admire the portrait of a beautiful woman in a shop window. His two friends spot his gaze and joke about their mutual appreciation for the portrait. At the club, the three men joke about the woman in the window and the lure of amorous adventures which she seems to represent. Wanley admits his yearning for the excitement and freedom of youth, but agrees with the others that he would be well-advised to stay in his place. After a quiet night of reading, Wanley leaves the club and stops again to admire the portrait. He sees the reflection of a beautiful woman in the window and turns around to find himself face to face with the girl who posed for the painting. Her name is Ann Reed, and after introducing herself, she tactfully invites Wanley to her apartment. Unable to decline the offer, Wanley spends a gay evening drinking and talking with the beautiful stranger. Suddenly, the girl's jealous lover appears out of nowhere and attacks Wanley. Before the professor knows it, he has killed the man in self-defense. He starts to phone the police but stops himself at the last moment, realizing that his respectable life will be shattered even if he is found innocent. Wanley plans with Reed to dispose of the body. He tries to cover up all the evidence but gets careless and leaves a mass of clues before dumping the body in the country. The next day Lalor tells Wanley about a prominent financier that is missing, and Wanley deduces that this must be his victim. When the body is found by a Boy Scout, Lalor heads the murder investigation and keeps Wanley up to date on all the developments. Wanley's paranoia grows by the day and he nearly gives himself away to Lalor several times. The clever D.A. deduces most of the circumstances of the killing from the evidence but can't find the woman he knows must be involved. Wanley accompanies Lalor on the investigation one day an thinks he's lost when a woman is produced. He avoids meeting her by feigning sickness but later finds out that she was not Ann Reed. Lalor tells Wanley that the key witness is the victim's bodyguard, who must have tailed him the night of the killing. The man has disappeared because he is wanted in connection with another crime, and Lalor is content to wait until the police track him down. The bodyguard, whose name is Heidt, shows up at Ann Reed's and promptly blackmails her. Reed tries to deny knowing the financier, but Heidt is too clever for her. Reed contacts Wanley, who decides that they must kill Heidt because he will never leave them alone if they pay. Wanley gives Reed some poison. She tries to put it into Heidt's drink, but he catches her. Heidt takes all her money and promises to return for more. Reed calls Wanley and tells him of her failure. Wanley has been deteriorating from the strain and his spirit is crushed by the news. As he prepares to commit suicide, the film abruptly cuts to a gun battle near Reed's apartment. The police have spotted Heidt, who starts shooting when they try to stop him. Heidt is killed in the ensuing fight, and the police conclude that he must have been the financier's murderer. Reed then happens by and sees Heidt lying dead in the street. She tries to phone Wanley to give him the good news, but there is no answer. Wanley sits in his chair dying as the phone rings in his ear. A man taps Wanley on the shoulder and he wakes up. Wanley then realizes that it has all been a dream and that he never left the club that first night. With a feeling of great relief, Wanley leaves the club and stops to admire the portrait. But when a woman comes up to him and asks for a light, Wanley runs away in fear.

Only after the film is over does the viewer realize that importance of that first conversation between Wanley and his two middle-aged friends. Wanley's dream is the direct result of their discussion regarding the dangers and risks of succumbing to temptation. Reed may not be a full-fledged femme fatale, but to Wanley she is still a symbol of his forbidden desire. Once he has accepted her invitation, Wanley's fate is sealed. He is doomed to confront the deep-seated evil supposedly locked within everyone. This is a gradual process which begins with the most justifiable homicide possible. It really does seem like the financier intends to kill Wanley, whose fatal retaliation deserves to be characterized as pure self-defense. From that point on, every decision Wanley makes is both understandable and exposes more evil. He doesn't want his respectable life to be destroyed, so he decides not to phone the police. This decision is significant because Wanley has switched from protecting the existence of his life to protecting the circumstances of that life. Such a switch is crucial morally because it sets Wanley on a path from which there is no escape. It means that he is willing to become a criminal in order to protect his reputation and position. Reed goes along with him for the same reasons and perpetuate the shared guilt which she initiated when she helped him kill the financier. Wanley sets about trying to conceal the evidence, and this forces him to act just like a premeditated criminal. When he learns from Lalor how much evidence he left behind, Wanley becomes desperate and paranoid, but he just has to sweat it out.

Heidt's appearance is the the final link in the alarming chain of events which foster Wanley's decent. Heidt is the type of two-bit extortionist who never stops blackmailing his victims until he has gotten all of their money. Wanley knows this, and his analysis of the situation is based upon that knowledge. He reasons that if they agree to pay Heidt, their lives will be destroyed as surely as if they are caught by the police. This is why they must kill him.

One can now see how the need for self-protection can be taken to the point of desperation which results in premeditated murder. It is again emphasized that Wanley and Reed share the guilt. He makes the actual decision to murder Heidt, and she agrees to carry it out. When her attempt fails, Wanley can no longer go on. A probable combination of fear and extreme guilt results in his suicide.

The dream's ironic climax puts a final decisive accent on the all-important fate theme. The inevitability of Wanley's doom is cleverly underscored through a parallel sequence which emphasizes the simultaneity of his suicide and the circumstances which would have freed him from danger. Viewed in retrospect, Wanley's attempt to protect his life appears to have been hopeless from the start; his doom apparently produced a series of circumstances which gradually revealed the potential evil within him, and which necessarily led to the eventual self-destruction. This inevitable doom is the whole point of the dream, which is the narrative working out of the fears that control Wanley's existence. When his family leaves on vacation, the reserved professor is suddenly free to pursue the suppressed desires that he constantly harbors. The dream is the reason why he is afraid to pursue those desires. It is a warning of the possible results of giving in to the temptation represented by Reed.

The psychological key to the whole film is Wanley's true feelings about the type of liaison he dreams of having with Reed. His Victorian outlook renders him incapable of seeing the encounter as a relatively minor temptation for the fear of releasing the evil forces of the id imprisoned with him. His respectable bourgeois life is based upon suppression of those fears by demonstrating how it only takes a series of unlucky circumstances to turn anyone into a murder. Those circumstances must occur when Wanley gives in to Reed's temptation because he sees this minor evil as inseparable from the greater potential evil within him. His inevitable fate is actually the working out of the guilt that he has regarding this liaison. If he could believe that there was nothing wrong with it, that it was perfectly civilized and moral, no fateful circumstances would occur. Instead, he is doomed by his bourgeois Puritanism to assume that any urge he has from the narrow moral boundaries of his life must be the evil rumblings of his id.

The Woman in the Window can be seen as a profound and cynical attack upon its own generic underpinnings. The film's thematic drift constitutes a clever expose of the type of subjective thriller which was so successfully pioneered by Lang and Hitchcock. Such films always involve a normal protagonist being cast adrift in a chaotic world of danger and evil. The dream structure and fate them of The Woman in the Window serve as a penetrating analysis of that generic format. The psychological function which Wanley's dream performs is symbolic of mass functions that that all subjective thrillers perform. When the film is revealed as Wanley's nightmare, the viewer realizes that fate was really just a contrived manifestation of the protagonists' neurotic fears. One can no longer accept such fate as valid once the psychological function is understood. Wanley simply dreamed up the whole thing to justify his conservative fear of freedom. He responds to the dream as proof of his fears when it is really just a contrived manifestation of them.

The same type of circular reasoning traps the viewer of most subjective thrillers. Being afraid to experience real, adventurous freedom, the viewer does so vicariously in Hitchcock-type movies. These films always involve verification of the audience's neurotic fears, in the form of extreme danger and evil. The viewer comes out of the film with his urge for adventure and his neurotic fears satisfied. He will continue to be afraid of real freedom because his fears have been reinforced by the movie. This is a totally unreliable reinforcement, since these films are virtually contrived to capitalize upon such fears. The movie, like the dream, cannot be trusted because of the deceptive psychological function it performs. This is the subversive truth which is implied by Wanley's dream and which give The Woman in the Window some very meaningful structural irony.


  1. Thanks Spencer for this excellent essay. Your book has always been a favorite of mine.

    I also wanted to mention that the DVD Savant has a write up on the new DVD at his site... it looks like a keeper.

  2. Spencer, I'm very excited--as I am every time I approach a Fritz Lang film or Dan Duryea performance for the first time. The movie is available on Netflix as of the day after tomorrow, and I have it poised to go to the top of my queue.

    I'm also excited generally to discover the scope of your other identity as a noirologist, and to see your post here--I'm looking forward eagerly to reading your book in the near future.

  3. Thanks for the wonderful writeup. I've always thought this film was a bit of a copout with the dream ending and the number of times Robinson almost gives himself away, but as a tuneup to (what I believe is the much darker and superior) Scarlet Street, it's an important film in the overall legacy of noir.

  4. Another reason to watch this film: Joan Bennett's see-through blouse is something to behold. Not to be missed.

  5. I wholly concur about Joan's see-through blouse. Hard to believe such an item slipped through the censors; perhaps because it was toward the end of a long dreary catastrophic war and the powers that be figured the public was entitled to a little not-so-soft titillation. I understand in Germany at the time the pictures being made were chock full of full-frontal nudity, for the same reason. Thanks for posting this, Spencer. I much enjoyed your essay, helped me appreciate the movie even more. And, always, of course, enjoy your poetry. Best of luck in your continuing work!

  6. I'm curious, Spencer: Do you think the ending was tacked on because of the censors or do you feel that it's the best the filmmakers could do?

  7. I kind of saw it as an unraveling of a weak willed man. The film mocks the protagonist, albeit subtlely and ironically, for his inability to deal with the consequences of his desires. It sets the stage for Scarlet Street, where EGR is entirely emasculated, where as in this film his masculinity is like a white bedsheet hung upon a laundry line in the midday sun - translucent and subject to all the vicissitudes of the wind. His succumbing to crippling guilt only shows his lack of moral substance - if his bourgeois life really meant anything to him, he would have turned himself in (upholding the law of the bourgeois order) or had no guilt in erasing the traces of his deed (upholding his place within the bourgeois order). What the entire dream sequence of the movie does is confirm the convictions EGR has in the beginning conversation - that he cannot handle adventure, excitement, DESIRE on the same level as before because of his "age" - really: his waning spirit, his sapped soul, la poverezza dell'anima. EGR is simply a weak, old man and his body knows it will be undone by succumbing to youthful desire.