WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (Fritz Lang, 1944)

Richard Wanley, assistant professor of psychology at Gotham College, worries that middle-age has dimmed his “spirit of adventure.” His wife and children out of town, he embarks on a platonic dalliance with a mysterious young woman whose portrait is displayed in the window of the shop next door to his men’s club. He thus becomes involved in the killing death of her jealous lover, who attacks him in her apartment, and which he goes to great lengths to cover up. It turns out that the victim is a high-profile fiancier who has been carrying out his clandestine affair under an alias—and a sleaze, quick to blackmail, has been paid to routinely follow him.
     Nunnally Johnson (The Grapes of Wrath, 1940; Roxie Hart, 1942) contributes an exceptionally fine script based on J.H. Wallis’s 1942 novel Once Off Guard, from which Fritz Lang directs brilliantly, creating a beautifully paced melodrama full of wicked, dreadful suspense. Much as we hope that Tom Joad and Roxie will prevail in their run-ins with the law, we root for Dick Wanley to get away with not-quite-murder. Intriguingly, the film opens with Wanley lecturing his class about legal gradations of killing: second degree versus first degree murder; murder versus self-defense, manslaughter—although what this has to do with psychology, even criminal psychology, is never made clear.
     Those bemoaning a “tacked-on ending” miss the presentation of a dream from the get-go. The woman in the portrait, Alice Reed, is introduced as a reflection in the dark of night, which a point-of-view shot, keyed to Richard’s wish fulfillment, delivers to still ambiguous substance. An overload of mirrors, including one that reflects the back of Richard’s head, makes a through-the-looking-glass suggestion; inside Alice’s apartment, Richard is subtly lit in the foreground of a shot while Alice herself is subtly darkened in the background. Clocks may seem to insist on the reality of time—but, in context, they are headed at the club for the moment when Richard has already asked to be told that it’s a certain time so that he can go home.
     Excellently acted by Edward G. Robinson, this is among Lang’s very best American films—a tale of equal ambivalence about growing old and imagining oneself a bit younger. The little jabs of the scissors, handed to him by Alice while he is tussling on the floor with the intruder, by which Richard will take the man’s life, are both funny and sad, lethal and impotent: a reflection of the professor’s low social status vis-à-vis someone he would wish to kill under any circumstances.

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