Midway through his directing career, Fritz Lang is still going strong with The Woman in the Window (1944,) a nearly two-hour noir that speeds along as if it’s half the length. Not a horror film in any sense of the word, it nevertheless generates palpable suspense. With Lang directing and Joan Bennett (Dark Shadows) starring, I have no problem including it on a blog called “Classic Horrors Club.”
Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) is a mild-mannered professor who lectures about the psychological aspects of homicide. However, you don’t anticipate this qualifying him to know how to cover-up a murder when he accidentally becomes involved in one. With a lot of talk among his friends about middle age and how it’s best to steer clear of adventure, it’s like he secretly longs for the excitement when faced with it.
It's also like he either wants to be caught or is trying to defy authority because of the number of things he says and does that might incriminate him. He’s the last person expected to be involved, so regardless of the connection between blood on a barbed-wire fence and a cut on Wanley’s hand, his district attorney friend, Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) only laughs at the notion that he could have killed a man and hidden a body in the woods.
Wanley finds himself in his situation due to, of course, a woman. While staring at a compelling painting of one on the street late at night, Alice Reed’s (Bennett) reflection appears in the glass. She likes to watch men respond to the painting. Although he recently kissed his wife and two children goodbye as they left for vacation, it isn’t long before he’s joining Reed in her apartment for a nightcap.
That’s when a man bursts in and hits Reed, prompting Wanley to literally leap to her defense. While the two men tussle, Reed gently hands her hero a pair of scissors and he stabs the attacker in the back as if he’s Michael Myers. When they determine the man is dead, the game begins. Two people who barely know each other must trust each other to provide mutual secrecy and protection.
Being a noir, there are betrayals and other twists and turns, not the least of which is the identity of the dead man. Wanley’s other friend is Dr. Michael Barkstane (Edmund Breon,) who prescribes him sleeping powder, casually mentioning it could be poisonous in the wrong hands. If you miss that hint about what’s to come, the pharmacist also tells Wanley not to leave it where children could reach it.
The medicine plays a pivotal role in the climax and would provide a real downer of an ending if not for the SPOILER ALERT! Wizard of Oz ending we receive instead. You may love or hate this ending; it may make or break The Woman in the Window for you. Honestly, everything that comes before is so entertaining that I smiled. I’d normally think it was a cheap way to create a happy ending, but in the capable hands of Lang, it seems perfect.
Written by Nunnally Johnson
From the novel by J.H. Wallis
Directed by Fritz Lang
Starring Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, Raymond Massey, Edmund Breon, Dan Duryea
RT 107 min.
Released Nov. 3, 1944
Home Video Blu-ray (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
Rating 8 Frankenstein Monsters (out of 10)