For biggest and quickest mood turn-around, The Woman in the Window (1944) takes the lead. Professor Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) is a psychology professor entering middle age with some ambivalence. The flesh is willing, but the spirit is weak. He spends an evening with friends, District Attorney Lalor (Raymond Massey) and Dr. Barkstane (Edmund Breon), discussing the subject brought about when they all see and marvel at a beautiful portrait in the window of a young woman, Alice Reed (Joan Bennett), though they don’t know her name. Later that night, when the others leave for some other engagement, Wanley takes another look at the portrait and is surprised to find Alice staring back at him. She goes by the portrait some times to see the men’s reactions and she’s taken a shine to Wanley. They go back to her apartment to look over some sketches by the same artist when a jealous lover arrives, attacks Wanley, and finds himself on the sharp end of some scissors. What to do, what to do?
I expected a great deal from The Woman in the Window since it was directed by Fritz Lang, who had directed the terrific thriller M (1931), and written by veteran Nunnally Johnson. I think the problem lies more with the latter individual than the former. The movie is just so hokey. Doubtless, they tried and failed to get Spencer Tracy on board, because the main role sounds like something he was made for. “Aw, shucks, me?” Not until the very end do things start getting dark in that lovely way that M is all the way through. It’s precocious realism. And then, poof, that goes away. I don’t mourn the loss because, as I say, it didn’t dim until so late in the game that it did more harm than good. Make it mean throughout or not at all, that’s what I say.
And I can’t really say that Lang did much good in the direction, either. Granted, the quality of the film was one of the worst I’ve ever seen on a DVD, but that doesn’t hurt angles or editing. The scenes read like a beat sheet—He gives a lecture, he says goodbye to his family, he meets his friends, he meets the girl, he kills the guy, he gets the car, etc. Each is separated by a fading to and from black. Very old-timey, very weak. You say, “Hey, it’s 1944, of course it’s old-timey.” No, if the Fritz Lang of 1931 directed this movie, it wouldn’t look that way. Lang was out-doing Hitchcock in the 30’s, but by 1944, the roles reversed. I don’t know if it’s particularly fair to judge the man’s career trajectory considering I’ve now seen two of his movies, but that’s the impression I now have. There’s a 1945 film, Scarlet Street, that is something of a doppelganger for The Woman in the Window, same actors and director, so perhaps I’ll check that out and be better informed.
As for performance, I can only say the main actors did as well as they could with what they were provided. Dan Duryea as the thinnest heavy I’ve ever encountered was something considerably less than convincing. Robinson is interesting because I had heard him described as being type cast as a gangster and going against that type in Double Indemnity (1944). Now I’ve seen him as a gangster, he is clearly far better suited to it than to playing the sweetheart as he does in The Woman in the Window. His fear is so pantomimed, his ineffectualism too pathetically real to be boring and then annoying. But, again, I lay that at the feet of the writer who provides a lacking character. He has no drive, no animal inside. He waffles from calm (where he says stupid things to give himself away) to slightly alert (where he suggests doing something terrible) like a middle class version of The Stranger. I will say, though, that Joan Bennett is smoking hot.
I’d give it a miss if I were you. It’s on Netflix, so it’s possible that you may have looked into it. Well now you don’t have to. Or didn’t have to. Let’s face it, the only reason you’re reading this is because you already have. And since you haven’t, you probably haven’t read this. Now don’t I feel silly.