2016 Film Essays

Of Love and Other Demons: ‘The Woman in the Window’ (Fritz Lang, 1944)

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The Woman in the Window begins with three middle aged men smoking, drinking and laughing. Summer holidays have begun, and their families have gone off to the country, leaving them restless and alone. As they imagine the reckless years of their youth before marriage and career, they fantasize about the portrait of a beautiful woman sitting in a shop window outside of their club. As the men head home for the night, Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) decides to have just one more drink, only to find himself dining with the beautiful and mysterious Alice (Joan Bennett), the titular woman in the window.

Unlike Fritz Lang’s greatest works where humanity’s poison has long seeped into the collective bloodstream, it seems contained, more or less, in The Woman in the Window. The early promise of an accidental murder (and a not-so-clever cover up) gives way to a middling narrative trajectory. In many ways, the film feels like Lang’s most adolescent project, rendering an intelligent professor a bumbling mess and reducing a bombshell femme fatale to a dream. The plot focuses too much on words and conversations that lack the bite of films like The Big Heat and Scarlet Street, veering far into Kafka-esque territory without embracing chaos or confusion.

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While in some ways the narrative represents an improbable fever dream, it doesn’t seem resoundingly critical of anything but moral dalliances. Wanley only comes across as competent and intelligent in an early scene where he teaches criminology in a lecture hall, and his descent into a pitiful old man looking for adventure never quite sells. Unlike Robinson’s performance in Scarlet Street, where he played the role of the desperate older man like a hungry wolf, his performance here seems to channel a teenage boy ashamed to have stolen five dollars from his mother’s purse. The film has an unusually conservative vibe for a film noir, maintaining that the status quo may be boring but criminality has nothing to offer — not even carnal thrills. 

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The film’s major problem is that it lacks carnality as the pleasures of the flesh remain intangible, lost in a sea of conversations. The suspense of the accidental murder, and the immediate aftermath of the coverup, are entrancing, carefully crafted and cut to the ever quickening beat of heightened anxiety. In that sequence, the passion for wrongdoing peeks into view but doesn’t quite hold on as Richard’s ego becomes deflated too quickly: he never gets a full opportunity to revel in the aftermath of a beautiful encounter or accidental murder. From the onset, the prediction that men of a certain age should not search for adventure is fulfilled, and there flies most of the drama. The final death knell comes in the film’s final moments — when the curtain has been pulled away — to reveal that Richard was dreaming the whole time! Sure, this hyper-real dream could be read as a cautionary tale, but the moment feels deflated rather than imbued with a sense of relief. While Lang may be one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, The Woman in the Window does not live up to his potential.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.

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