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The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang, 1945)


    When it comes to tying in the inherent social critiques of the film noir to nail-biting tension, no one can surpass master director Fritz Lang. His expertly controlled masterpiece The Woman in the Window finds him in peak form. Like Langís other 1945 film, Scarlet Street, Window features Edward G. Robinson in the lead role as a man whose flirtation with a woman leads into an inescapable world of crime. As in Scarlet Street, Dan Duryea and Joan Bennett co-star as the criminal elements. What distinguishes Langís films from their contemporaries are their surprising narrative economy, expressive visuals, and consistently scathing indictment of the very values that most wartime cinema held most dear. 

    Playing a psychology professor who is given a newfound freedom after sending his family away on holiday, Robinson is given an opportunity to craft a portrait of a middle-aged everyman that contains a surprising amount of ambiguity. His persona immediately inspires empathy because of its sad familiarity, but as Lang probes into his moral makeup, moments that make the audience recoil crop up more frequently. The murder and blackmail plot that entraps the Professor is a familiar one, and his reactions are typically misjudged ones. As the situation he finds himself in grows increasingly worse, and his proximity to the long arm of the law grows closer, the anxiety level that Lang induces ratchets up a few notches. Even though dozens of films tread similar ground, rare is the movie as streamlined in intent as this one. Every element of the design, from the use of shadows and rain at the most inopportune times in the plot to the proscenium arc that often frames the action, helps to heighten the viewerís identification with the situation at hand while subtly reminding the audience that they are viewing an abstraction of reality. 

    The very commonplace nature of the crime is what makes its telling ring true, both as social satire and reflection of the protagonistís values. The morbid details of genial gentlemanís club conversation filter into the plot. The crimes that crop up are perpetrated by the invisible service people and the object of the erotic fantasies that have toyed with the Professorís subconscious. The movie presents a noir nightmare, but itís one that might feel hilariously contrived if Lang didnít tighten the screws that bear down on the Professor so mercilessly. Just because it seems to bemuse Lang that the Professor would find himself trapped in a scenario so pulpy, doesnít prevent him from taking it seriously. The film presents a suspenseful situation at each turn. The resultant tone of The Woman in the Window is completely unremitting, until it hilariously does remit. The final sequence of the movie might at first glance seem to be a cop-out, but on closer inspection it reveals itself to be one of the most realized examples of the dour worldview that dominates Langís American films.




Jeremy Heilman