Fritz Lang | 1hr 40min
Between Professor Richard Wanley and the portrait that he fixates on, a shop window draws a thin, transparent barrier. He is as close to this artwork as he is distant from the fantasy woman it is depicting, though it is upon that glass pane where they are united in the ethereal reflection of Alice Reed – the model whose likeness has been so attractively rendered in paint. She arrives in Richard’s life like a ghost, and he too subsequently crosses into hers, intersecting worlds through psychological dreams of seduction, murder, and subterfuge.
Many noirs inspired by The Woman in the Window took note of its grim, shadowy detachment from reality and built out similarly imaginative underworlds, though Fritz Lang’s approach is quite unique in literalising his protagonist’s expressionistic nightmares. Here, the twist of the story taking place inside his mind is saved for the end in a Wizard of Oz-style reveal, bringing to light the inspiration for many of Richard’s dream characters. It doesn’t quite land with the same impact as Victor Fleming’s Technicolor fantasy, but it isn’t the shoddy, tacked-on resolution so many criticise it of being either. Instead, it is the pay-off to one long series of imagined, improbable situations, subconsciously warning our impressionable professor of the dangers that come with falling into foreign temptations.
All through the large, airy apartment that Alice invites Richard back to after their chance encounter, Lang lays out walls of mirrors that might visually suggest a deceptiveness at play, or at least a detachment from the world we are familiar with. His compositions are vividly blocked, building out the motif of reflections which first brought this femme fatale into his life and largely defines her expansive living space. Perhaps there is also a feeling of guilt and claustrophobia wrapped up in this imagery though, forcing Richard to reconsider this route he is travelling down towards infidelity. Fortunately, he is interrupted before he gets a chance to cheat. Unfortunately, it is by Alice’s own wealthy, jealous lover, Claude Mazard, who promptly attacks Richard and is killed by a pair of scissors to the back.
After hiding the dead body in a nature reserve and mutually deciding to cut off all contact, problems start to stack up. Richard’s friend Frank is the lead investigator on the case, and the naïve professor evidently isn’t used to lying given his tendency to let on more about the murder than he should know. Meanwhile, Mazard’s bodyguard is on his and Alice’s tail, intent on blackmailing them. Nunnally Johnson’s script is tightly plotted in its foreshadowing, sowing the seeds of Richard’s potent sleeping pills and initialled pen early on before later turning them into key narrative devices via attempted murders and loose pieces of evidence.
If The Woman in the Window is going to suffer in comparison to any other film noir, then it is the delightfully macabre film noir Double Indemnity also released in 1944, which bears a good number of similarities. Edward G. Robinson stars in both as good-natured men, but where he plays the lawful investigator in Billy Wilder’s film, here he puts a lighter spin on the Fred MacMurray role of a man caught up in the murder of his lover’s partner. We don’t have any qualms about getting behind this nervous, jumpy figure, though at a certain point even he takes a dark turn when he decides to dig himself even deeper into this mess.
Save for a few scenes, it is his perspective we are stuck with through most of The Woman in the Window, and Lang is careful with his camerawork to ground us in his uneasy experience. After dumping Mazard’s body, Richard is moodily framed behind his car’s rain-glazed window, doused in the scene’s gloomy ambience. The camera’s deep focus lens is used effectively too, keeping us at a tense distance from the investigation when Richard desperately peers out of a car at the police bringing in Alice for questioning.
Whether as windows or mirrors, Lang keeps weaving in these glass barriers as motifs of duplicity and disconnection, quietly feeding our doubt over Richard’s self-awareness. This nervous mistrust is the dark, beating heart of film noir, distilled here by one of its leading figures into a literal dream that glides by on hazy long dissolves and a score of tense, whiny strings. Like Richard, we may slip out of its hypnotic spell as smoothly as we fell under it, but its disquieting psychological impact is one that continues to linger long after it is over.
The Woman in the Window is not currently available to stream in Australia.