The Woman in the Window (1944)

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*. The Woman in the Window is a movie that a lot of people have a soft spot in their hearts for, and I think this is the problem with it. It’s a little too likeable, and a little too soft.
*. It’s usually described as a noir, and when viewed in those terms you can see where it’s coming up short. Joan Bennett was not a great actress, though she looks good in sheer eveningwear. Here she’s cast in a sort of femme fatale-lite role: she’s the seductress who lures doddering Professor Wanley to his (imagined) destruction, but not a bad or even particularly dangerous person herself. Admit it: the first time you saw the movie you thought she was the one behind all of this somehow. It’s disappointing when we find out she isn’t.
*. Then there’s Edward G. Robinson, who is a great actor but who underplays his part. Perhaps that’s how he was instructed to play it, but Wanley is too composed, resigned, and seemingly unperturbed by what’s going on to involve us very much. He accommodates himself immediately to his situation and deals with the subsequent hurdles (how to get rid of the body, how to get rid of the blackmailer) in a low-key, matter-of-fact way. We should feel more sympathy for him as the noose begins to tighten, but it’s hard when he seems so personally disengaged.
*. Another strike against it is the odd structure. The first half is an interesting take on the police procedural, with Wanley having an insider’s perspective on the investigation of the crime that he has committed. What was the first movie to do this, by the way? I’m curious.

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*. But then the focus of the movie changes and we basically forget all about Raymond Massey’s character and what the police are doing, which has the effect of frustrating the suspense that was slowly building. Instead, we shift to the blackmail plot and yank Bennett’s Alice Reed back into the film.
*. Then of course there is the matter of the ending. Instead of the raw bleakness and ambiguity of noir there is a safe moral lesson, one prepared for by the discussion among the gents at the club in the intro: Nobody is so smart or so respectable that they cannot fall from the sacred (family) to profane love.
*. Back in the ’40s everyone (at least in these films) pronounced “homicide” as home-icide. Today it seems to be always pronounced homm-icide. I wonder when the shift occurred, and why.
*. Just what does Claude Mazard do anyway? He is referred to at one point as a “promoter.” I guess we’re just supposed to see him as a titan of finance or captain of industry. Or perhaps the vagueness is deliberate.

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*. I do enjoy the noir lighting, and in particular how it highlights how light is often as important as shadow in such films. Light can be used as a metaphor (dark secrets being exposed to the light) or as an interesting way of enriching a particular composition. How unnerving is the way the light falls on the dead Mazard’s open eyes in the back of the car, for example?
*. While it’s certainly enjoyable, I still find this movie to be too flimsy an affair to be really great. But Lang and the same leads would be back the next year in a stronger outing, with the minor classic Scarlet Street.

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