Out now on Blu-ray as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema range is Fritz Lang’s seminal film noir The Woman in The Window, starring Edward G Robinson, Joan Bennett, Dan Duryea and Raymond Massey. Widely considered to be one of the first and finest examples of the genre, it was originally released in 1944, the year which also saw other classic early noirs such as Double Indemnity and Laura smoulder onto the screen.
Adapted from the novel Once Off Guard by J H Wallis, the film essays soon-to-become-classic noir plotting in which an ordinary man finds himself swept up in an overwhelming series of events after encountering a seductive femme fatale. The protagonist for this story is Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G Robinson), a psychology lecturer who bids goodbye to his wife and children as they head off on their summer holiday leaving him at home.
After dining at his club with friends, Wanley pauses to admire the portrait of a beautiful young woman in the window of the shop next door, and as if by magic the woman herself appears next to him. She is Alice Reed (Joan Bennett), an elegant and sensual woman who explains she lives nearby and often stops to watch people’s reaction to her portrait. She invites Wanley to join her ostensibly because she wishes to go out and no seemingly respectable woman would consider being seen drinking alone.
Alice then invites him to her apartment to look at other work by the portrait artist. It soon becomes clear that she is a “kept woman” and when her lover turns up he picks a fight with Wanley in a fit of jealous rage; in an act of self-defence, Wanley stabs him and inadvertently kills him, and as Wanley and Alice attempt to conceal the crime, events begin to spiral out of control…
Director Fritz Lang had already made a considerable name for himself in 1920s German cinema and is probably best-known nowadays for his 1927 science fiction feature Metropolis, but as the 1930s dawned his work began to veer toward intense psychological thrillers such as The Testament of Doctor Mabuse and M.
Having fled to the USA in 1934 after being all but conscripted by Goebbels to head the Nazi propaganda machine, once there Lang began working on a series of increasingly dark tense thrillers using techniques from silent expressionist cinema and was one of the founding directors of a genre which would become known as film noir. Over the next twenty years he directed twenty-three American features before returning to Germany in the 1950s where he completed a handful of features before failing eyesight ended his career.
Film Noir was a term coined by French film critics to describe a wide range of US films produced from the early 1940s onwards which shared similar themes and styles. These were characterised by intense fatalistic plots in an urban setting with a pessimistic tone, moody expressionistic lighting effects with much of the action taking place at night and, more often than not, the active presence of a femme fatale.
For his protagonist, Lang chose Edward G Robinson, an actor best-known for playing tough guys in gangster movies of the 1930s but who, by the 1940s, had softened to a more avuncular screen image. Notwithstanding this, his later characters still had a potentially ruthless edge to them, an aspect Robinson deploys with skill in this film.
For the woman in the window herself, Lang cast Joan Bennett, an actress of rare intelligence and refined beauty who was perhaps too sophisticated for the character Alice Reed but is still eminently watchable. The third act antagonist brought in by Lang over an hour into the film is played by the then-unknown Dan Duryea, who made such an impact that Lang hired him again the following year to star alongside Robinson and Bennett in another noir thriller Scarlet Street.
As a director Lang had much in common with Alfred Hitchcock in that both were notoriously dismissive of their actors regarding them merely as props to be (sometimes literally) manhandled around on set, both relying more on cinematic technique such as visual composition, lighting and sound to achieve his effects rather than relying on the actors’ performances; it was noted that Lang micro-directed Bennett in one of her later key scenes but this was mostly to do with her physical positioning and movement than her performance.
Despite the pessimistic tone of the film, due to the Production Code of the time, Lang and his screenwriter were compelled to change the original downbeat book ending to something a little more controversial which included a twist that seems to go against the grain of the film as a whole, but nevertheless The Woman in The Window is regarded as one of the great Hollywood films of the 1940s and one of the key early features in a genre that held sway throughout the 1950s and has been much-imitated ever since.
Eureka’s release comes with one of the best commentary tracks this reviewer has ever heard on a catalogue release; supplied by film historian Imogen Sara Smith, it is comprehensively informative without ever being dull, and there is also a short video essay by critic David Cairns created specifically for this release.