Fritz Lang Season – The Woman In The Window (1944)
It somehow seems apt to post this on one of the gloomiest periods of the year, at least psychiatrically speaking. Yes fellow wage slaves it’s the first week back at soul-crushing work after a fortnight’s festive break, a Sisyphean return to the relentless grind or pure survival. In fact that disquiet with routine, of a staid and predictable life is one of the burnishing elements in this rather timid film noir, Edward G. Robinson’s suburban academic waving his family off for a weekend break before submitting to a feline seduction from the amber eyed Joan Bennett in Fritz Lang’s voyeuristic The Woman In The Window. Already we’re back in familiar territory industry wise, Hollywood engaging its franchise production line to consistently expel identical product, it was ever thus right back to the primitive era of the one and two-reelers, where the same situations and plots were recycled to evolve the then gestating star system. The practice was arguably in its most efficient generation during the 1940’s when a successful package of stars and directors were deployed ad-nausem to keep the tills twanging, as the winning formula of The Woman In The Window was replicated with Robinson and Bennett in a second Lang picture Scarlet Street a mere twelve months after they struck a chord with audiences and critics alike. One day I promise we’ll get round to tackling that Menagerie favorite just as soon as the BFI put a screening up (I wonder if they take requests?) but for now lets take a quick look at another dark tale of brooding sexual obsession.
Noir had unconsciously been established as a film style for six or seven years by the mid-forties, a blood trail streaking back to the pioneering RKO picture Stranger On The Third Floor. Curiously though many of its early practitioners claim ignorance of any specific, adopted style, as producers, writers and directors organically made a series of films across the studio back-lots independent of each other. It was only when the films were seen together alongside such wicked stepchildren such as Double Indemnity and After Dark My Sweet that the Cinémathèque Française crew, starved of American product during the occupation began to catch-up with what they’d been missing. These lucky bastards would sit through three or four pictures a day and were amazed to detect a consistent theme and style across a broad flank of American studio fare, hence the French term ‘noir’ to signify these urban set nightmares of sexual obsession, capitalist greed and fractured personalities framed in the nexus of an existential, doomed fate. The Woman In The Window reads as some fossil of the police procedurals of CSI or the slowly thawing sub-genre of Scandinavian noir which lacerate contemporary screens, screenwriter Nunnally Johnson studiously takes us through the preparation, planning and decant of a dead body thus making us accomplices in the crime at hand, after Robinson’s bookish mouse finds his roar and kills the slimy Dan Duryea who plans to blackmail him for his indiscrete dalliances. Unusually Bennett plays it straight as a sympathetic moll caught up in events beyond her control, she’s not the black hearted manipulative harpy that normally set the hourglass figure of the traditional femme fatale. The film abounds in small, discrete but crucial subtleties, Robinson as an academic and intellectual doesn’t fall in helpless love with this woman but the image of her, it is a portrait of her in a shop window that ignites his initial path from domestic oblivion, setting his amour on an artificial pedestal which is impossible to grasp and can never be breached.
The film was all forged on the RKO back-lot and consequently has that slightly stage bound, artificial aura, technically this was just before faster film stocks, convenient portable camera dollys and portable energy packs that were developed during the war made location shooting much more convenient and financially viable. Moving out from the studios to the real streets of L.A. and New York would eventually provide these urban sourced films with a deeper erisimilitude, a darker sense of brooding authenticity, but the artificial constraints of the mid-1940’s could still generate a claustrophobic chain of association – say shooting through bars to signal imprisonment for example – to mirror the characters internal mental maelstroms. The Woman In The Window feathers its nest of intrigue as the claws of guilt slowly tighten, Robinson’s character is under a constant nauseous anticipation of discovery, his corrosive sin drip-fed with constant reminders of the case at his club, on the radio, by bystanders on the street – quite simply its enough to send you mad. His rather pathetic fate is another noir wielded twist of the knife, before a final coda which, well, you couldn’t possibly get away with today without severe ridicule. Overall the piece feels a little sleight, a magicians less practiced or spectacular trick, more of a placeholder with a few enjoyable scenes that doesn’t necessarily coagulate too much more than the sum of its genre efficient parts. That said within the canon is does retain a particularly Langian sense of an ominous fading nightmare – or perhaps a warning, a precognition – that once awoken dissolves from the memory.
I’m getting my noir on in 2015 if you’ll excuse the expression, for Christmas I treated myself to this lovely boxed set and more importantly this key reference book, widely considered as the core film scholarly publication on this most bruising of genres. The book is split like a hulking goons lip between the two cycles of the genre, from the aforementioned 1940 Stranger On The Third Floor to 1964’s The Naked Kiss in the first instance, from 1984’s Against All Odds to 2010’s Zodiac in the case of neo-noir – over 550 entries in total. I’ve already begun trawling through some of the supporting contextual articles which are terrific primers on that particularly American conflagration of expressionist technicians, pulp fiction, the toxic tendrils of the Second World War and a disquieting urban malaise that all pupated the movement, a hexing brew that we will tail all the way back to pre-war Germany for arguably the first masterpiece of sound cinema in our next dossier from Lang;