The Woman in the Window has an ending almost guaranteed to infuriate you the first time you see the movie, and, the second time, to leave you with an immensely satisfied smile.
"The man who kills in self defense, for instance, must not be judged by the same standards applied to a man who kills for gain." So says middle-aged and happily married Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson), professor of criminal psychology, to his class at Gotham College. Wanley is about to put his dictum to the test. When his wife and their two young children leave for a brief vacation, he dines at his club with two old friends, one a doctor and the other, Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey), the district attorney. Wanley bemoans his increasingly middle-aged life. "I hate this solidity," he says with a rueful smile, "this stodginess I'm beginning to feel. To me, it's the end of the brightness of life, the end of spirit and adventure." His two friends leave and he settles in, before returning to his empty home, with one last brandy and The Song of Songs. When he leaves the club late in the evening he stops, as he often has, and gazes at the portrait in the window of the gallery next door. The woman is lovely...beautiful, with a challenge in her eyes and a gaze that looks right at you. When a voice asks him for a light for her cigarette, the professor turns and is stunned to see that the voice belongs to the woman who posed for the portrait. Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) sometimes stops by the gallery to see the reaction of men when they look at her portrait. The two somehow wind up at a quiet bar, talk and then the professor escorts her to her apartment in a taxi. She invites him up and shows him sketches the artist made of her before painting her portrait. She seems genuinely friendly and honest and the professor apparently has no intention of becoming an adulterer. But when an angry man breaks into her apartment, slaps Alice Reed and attacks Professor Wanley, it's only a matter of seconds before the man is dead, stabbed by Wanley in the back with a pair of scissors handed him by Alice. Professor Wanley's life now begins to spin out of his control.
He decides to say nothing to the police. He leaves Alice and returns with his car. With her help he gets the body into the back seat and drives it to a deserted parkway, where he disposes of it in the underbrush. The man turns out to be a powerful businessman who had been seeing Alice regularly two or three times a week. The Professor's friend Lalor takes charge of the investigation and invites Wanley to accompany him, thinking the professor of criminology will be interested in how the case is slowly being built up to identify the murderer. Wanley keeps making little errors and mistakes...a ripped coat, a scratched wrist, a tire track in the mud, a slip of the tongue that seems to say Wanley knows more than he should. Lalor begins to look curiously at his old friend. And then the bodyguard (Dan Duryea) of the dead man turns up. He blackmails Alice, who must ask Wanley for help. This time Wanley reluctantly begins to think of murder.
The Woman in the Window is a fine noir. Some may think it's just the opening act for Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street, filmed the following year with the same three stars, Robinson, Bennett and Duryea. Scarlet Street is a classic, drenched in casual cruelty, loneliness and sadness. The Woman in the Window starts out as a classic noir. Professor Wanley is a man of good intentions whom we like and who finds himself moving in situations well beyond his capability. Joan Bennett's Alice Reed, however, is no Kitty March. Alice may be a kept woman, but she wants to do the right thing as long as she doesn't get in trouble. And she seems genuinely to like and even respect the Professor. Dan Duryea, of course, is a rotter, but he's at least straight forward here. He wants money; he doesn't seem to delight in hitting women. It makes for a movie which puts a premium on the skill of the actors to bring us along with them as events conspire against them. Few were better at this than Edward G. Robinson and, in my opinion, the under-appreciated Joan Bennett.
So we have a first class noir...and then Fritz Lang pulls the rug out from under us. To fully appreciate The Woman in the Window -- trust me -- you'll need to see it a second time. How about making that second time a double feature? Have some friends over and play Scarlet Street first, then The Woman in the Window. Keep them in that order. You'll have a great main course, and then a great desert.