Apparently there really is no limit to the greatness of Fritz Lang. It’s true. Every time you watch or re-watch (even if it’s for the tenth time) one of his films, it is still amazing how beautifully they are filmed, and how impressive Lang is as a director. “The Woman in the Window” (1944) is a special little film noir, filled with everything that fans of the genre hove come to treasure, and it is yet another in a long line of examples that exemplify Lang’s brilliance. Based on the novel “Once Off Guard” by J.H. Wallis, this film tells the story of Professor Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) who happens to be an expert in criminology. He is also a dignified man- a pillar of the community, and a testament to the “honest men” of the world. After sending his wife and two small children out of town, Wanley heads to his club to have dinner and drinks with a couple of friends including district attorney Lalor (Raymond Massey). Just before entering the club, a picture of a young attractive woman hanging in the window next door catches his eye, his attention, and his imagination. This prompts a conversation over dinner and drinks about the duality of man, and his desires for adventure, especially when involving a young, beautiful woman.
After leaving the club Wanley happens to meet Alice (Joan Bennett), who is the woman from the picture in the window. Against his better judgment, he goes to spend the evening with her talking about life and art. While drinking together back at her apartment, another older man (Arthur Loft) comes barging in, and attempts to kill Wanley in a jealous rage. Alice hands Wanley a pair of sciccors and he stabs the much larger man to death. Instead of calling the police, Alice and Wanley choose to hide their crime in order to protect themselves, and to hopefully avoid prison. Being a criminologist, one would think that Wanley would know how to hide a murder, but as it turns out, it is much easier to talk about a crime than to cover one up. Things really get complicated as Wanley’s as his old pal Lalor quickly becomes hot on his trail, constantly giving updates as to all the mistakes that Wanley and Alice made. Simutaneously, Alice is being hounded by a con-man (Dan Duryea) who knows about (or at least suspects) the crime, and has decided to blackmail Alice.
So often “The Woman in the Window” and Lang’s next feature “Scarlet Street” (1945) are remembered together for their simalarities. After all, they are both directed by Lang, both films star Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea, and Milton R. Krasner provided his impeccable cinematography to both films. Even with all of these similarities however, it’s what sets them apart from each other that makes each special in their individual way. While both Robinson and Duryea play similar characters in both films, Joan Bennett is exceedingly different. All three actors are marvelous in each film, but it is Bennett that pulls it all together. In “The Woman in the Window” she is mysterious, humanistic and unpredicatable. In “Scarlet Street” she is a femme fatale, and therefore follows a somewhat predicatable (albeit marvelous) path. “The Woman in the Window” allows her to share an emotional depth from within her character, and her realistic portrayal feels more genuine, or at the very least, more relateable.
There are some negative opinions floating around about the influence of the Hays Code on “The Woman in the Window”. Obviously you can see the big hands of the production code guiding certain parts of this film, but perhaps this is one of those times where a forced change in story helps set the picture apart from all the similar films that had come, and were going to come. “The Woman in the Window” is unique and interesting. It frustrates its audience, but keep them involved, sitting on the edge of their seats, hoping, praying these misguided, unsuspecting criminals find some way out of this suspenseful mess that only true masters of the genre (like Fritz Lang) could create for his characters.