2 January 2000 | finemot
Film lovers get a window seat to great storytelling.
It's hard to tell which element of "The Woman in the Window" (1944) contributes most to its excellence: script, direction, casting, performances, lighting, cinematography, scoring. So, it's probably safe to say, "All of the above!" "TWITW" introduces us to Assoc. Prof. Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) of Gotham College, who has just seen his wife and two kids (young Robert Blake is "Dickie" Wanley) off for a two week summer vacation. Just prior to entering his men's club, he is captivated by the portrait of a beautiful woman in the display window of a neighboring storefront. His club member friends, District Attorney Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) and surgeon Dr. Barkstane (Edmond Breon) notice him staring at the portrait and indulge the temporary "bachelor professor" in some good-natured ribbing before the three enter the club for drinks and conversation. As the evenings winds down, the doctor having subscribed some medication for Prof. Wanley who has complained of fatigue, the colleagues leave. Prof. Wanley asks for a 10:30 PM call in the event that he dozes off while reading in his club chair. Upon leaving the club, Wanley again stops at the portrait; and standing behind him is the model, Alice Reed (Joan Bennett), who posed for the artist. She admits that she frequently comes to the spot to check out people's rections to the painting. The small talk leads the two to an innocent drink at a club followed by a visit to her sumptuous apartment, where she shows Wanley other sketches by the artist.
The intrusion of an insanely jealous lover leads to struggle, murder (in self-defense) and a quandary: How do two non-merderous strangers go about covering up a murder, disposing of a body (a large one), and manage to trust eachother in the process? The body turns out to be the type of man who warrants headlines. Wanley's friendship with the D.A. gets him invited on a "field trip" to the spot where the body was found. Here we meet the Chief Inspector, beautifully portrayed by Thomas E. Jackson). Through a series of delightfully handled mishaps, the gentle professor manages to exhibit elements about himself which would conspire to make him a prime suspect had the very prospect not been so ludicrous. A sleazy, but extremely clever blackmailer (Dan Duryea) is introduced. How he becomes involved, we'll leave unsaid, so as not to spoil some of the film's outstanding storytelling. The characters are three dimensional. Massey, as the D.A. is both a condescending stuffed-shirt and a caring friend. Jackson, as the Inspector is superbly understated, an affable exterior housing a brilliant mind for detection. Bennett and Duryea are both fine, although some of the dialog between them could easily have been cut to the improvement of the film overall. Robinson is excellent as the unassuming, bright but vulnerable professor. The Nunnally Johnson-Arthur Lange script is right-on, with the noted exceptions. Director Fritz Lang has created a taut, superb suspense tale. "The Woman in the Window" could easily have had either of two endings, one tragically ironic, one concocted to satisfy audiences in search of more delectably amusing resolution. I'll never tell. This film deserves any healthy debate about its ending every bit as much now, in the year 2000, as it did during its first release in 1944.