16/12/2012

The Woman In The Window (1944)


Like Otto Preminger's Laura, released the same year, Fritz Lang's Freudian noir dreamscape The Woman In The Window concerns a man bewitched by a painting of a beautiful woman and his fantasy of the subject coming to life. In this case, the dreamer is academic criminal psychologist Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson), who admires the portrait in a gallery window before attending a dinner with friends at his New York club. A resigned family man, Professor Wanley is bored with his lot and jokes about harbouring repressed desires for reckless adventure. Later that night, a girl claiming to have been the model for the picture appears out of the ether, introducing herself as Alice Reed and inviting Wanley for a drink. She's played by Joan Bennett so, naturally, he accepts. Afterwards the pair head to her apartment so that Wanley can inspect some further sketches of Alice by the artist, whereupon her jealous boyfriend (Arthur Loft) rushes in and attacks Wanley without warning. He grapples with the man and is finally forced to stab him to death with a pair of scissors. Alice and the Professor agree to dispose of the body in the woods upstate and then go their separate ways. However, as the dead man is Claude Mazard, a prominent Wall Street financier, the case is quickly picked up by the newspapers when his body is found. Worse, Wanley's friend Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) just so happens to be the District Attorney and the deceased's bodyguard Heidt (Dan Duryea) is a blackmailer on the lam with intimate knowledge of his employer's last movements...

An interesting if somehow not wholly satisfying noir, Lang's film is notable for its paranoia about the power of forensic science as a tool for homicide detection. Nunnally Johnson's screenplay from J.H. Wallis's source novel Once Off Guard (1942) emphatically insists on the reassuring certainty that it is simply impossible to get away with the perfect crime, let alone an unplanned, frantic stabbing, in a world where one's every movement  leaves behind a potential clue. This insistence on the unquestionable authority of empirical evidence places The Woman In The Window firmly in the tradition of rationalist, procedural crime fiction from Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Murders In The Rue Morge' (1841) to CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-) via Sherlock Holmes, although Lang as always focuses on the perpetrators rather than the sleuths. However, all this makes the film's too easy it-was-all-a-dream twist all the more surprising and something of a cop-out, although Sight & Sound critic Paul Mayerling recently used this ending to draw an interesting comparison between Lang's film and Stanley Kubrick's Arthur Schnitzler adaptation Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Both present a husband flirting with the idea of escaping from de-eroticised domesticity and carrying out his repressed extramarital fantasies, enduring some long dark nights of the soul in an unreal New York netherworld along the way. Ultimately, its hard not to read The Woman In The Window as a conservative cautionary fable, warning men off pursuing such transgressions against safe, bourgeois morality.


Lang would reunite Robinson, Bennett and Duryea in his next picture, Scarlet Street, a superior companion piece to The Woman In The Window in which Robinson gives one of his greatest performances as an aspiring painter, overlooked at work and hectored by his wife, who is led on by Bennett and swindled by Duryea until he can take no more and finally lashes out violently.

No comments:

Post a Comment