Tuesday, February 15, 2011

 

Warned against the siren call of adventure


By Edward Copeland
Many years ago, I saw Scarlet Street, the great noir collaboration of Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett with director Fritz Lang. I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to see the same team's earlier entry in the genre, The Woman in the Window, but for some reason I never got around to it. With film noir being the theme for this year's For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon being hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren, I thought now would be the ideal time to finally catch up with it. Before I discuss my thoughts on The Woman in the Window, I would like to give you some background about this year's blogathon. The blogathon this year benefits The Film Noir Foundation. This year, the fundraiser will be working to save a specific film. As Marilyn Ferdinand wrote when announcing this year's blogathon: "In 1950, United Artists released a searing drama called The Sound of Fury, aka Try and Get Me. The film recounts the same story Fritz Lang told in Fury (1936) and was directed by Cy Endfield, who would run afoul of the Hollywood blacklist. Its star, Lloyd Bridges, never had a better role, and Eddie told me that when Jeff and Beau Bridges finally saw the film, they were blown away by his performance. A nitrate print of the film will be restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, using a reference print from Martin Scorsese’s personal collection to guide them and fill in any blanks. Paramount Pictures, which now owns the film, has agreed to help fund the restoration, but FNF is going to have to come up with significant funds to get the job done. That’s where we come in." To donate, click here. Now, let's talk The Woman in the Window. Be warned: There will be SPOILERS.


Usually, you can tell when your reaction to a film will end up being negative early on. It's not something that hits you suddenly. That's why it's a surprise when a film such as The Woman in the Window, which pleased me for most of its length, manages to ruin itself and leave a sour taste in my mouth with a bad ending. If it had ended just a few moments earlier, the way it looked as if it were going to, I'd have loved it. Then they had to do that ending...more on that later. Director Fritz Lang opens the 1944 film outside the walls of Gotham College, before taking us outside a classroom where the course being taught is Some Psychological Aspects of Homicide and the professor lecturing the class is Richard Wanley, Ph.D. (Edward G. Robinson), who spends the summer teaching at the Manhattan college. When we first meet Professor Wanley, he's explaining to the class that while the Ten Commandments may say "Thou shall not kill," it's not as cut and dried as that according to the law. Killing in self-defense is viewed quite differently than a murder for gain, he tells the students. Are we hearing some foreshadowing of events that could be coming down the road for Professor Wanley? Wanley lives as a solid family man and shares a tender goodbye with his wife and two children at the train station before going to meet his friends District Attorney Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) and Dr. Michael Barkstane (Edmund Breon) for some drinks.

As the trio walk to the hotel where Wanley will reside for the summer, Wanley finds himself captivated by a portrait of a woman in the window of a building. His companions comment that they also have been struck by this vision of beauty before. Once seated in the hotel's lounge, noting that the professor still seems preoccupied by the woman in the painting, the two men jokingly congratulate Wanley on his "summer of bachelorhood," but Wanley laughs them off, saying that they are just three old crocks and lamenting "this stodginess" he feels. His days of adventure have passed, he tells them. "Life ends at 40," the professor declares. The three friends continue to discuss their youthful exuberance and to speculate about the woman and carousing in general and where that can lead. Lalor reminds the doctor and the professor that sometimes trouble can start from the littlest things. Wanley tells them they needn't worry about him. "The flesh is still strong, but the spirit grows weaker by the hour," he tells them. His friends decide that it's safe to leave Wanley alone in the big bad city and bid him goodnight.

After his buddies have left, Wanley isn't quite ready to turn in yet, so he grabs a book of the shelf of the lounge, has the steward Collins (Frank Dawson) bring him a cup of tea and tells him to make sure to tell him when it's 10:30. Apparently, either the reading isn't enough to hold Richard's attention or he still can't get that portrait off his mind, because Professor Wanley grabs his coat and steps out into the brisk night air to stroll back to that building with that painting in the window. Wanley's a little tipsy, but he goes inside and gapes at the framed beauty, but then he gets a start — in the top left hand corner of the painting he sees a reflection of the woman's face. Wanley regains his bearings and realizes it isn't his imagination — she's standing there by him. She apologizes for startling him and introduces herself as Alice Reed (Joan Bennett). Richard asks if that's really her in the painting and she admits that it is and that sometimes she comes by, just to see what people's reactions will be. She tells him it is usually one of two: a kind of solemn stare for the painting or a long, low whistle. Richard asks which look he had. "I'm not sure," Alice replies, "but I suspect that in another moment or two you might have given a long, low, solemn whistle." She then invites him out for a drink and, despite all that Wanley said before about life ending at 40 and his weakening spirit, the professor takes Alice up on her offer despite his class the next morning and being well on his way to inebriation.

Really, up until this point (and even after what comes next), The Woman in the Window doesn't really follow the broad definition of what you think of when you think of the typical film noir, especially in comparison to what this team would produce the following year with Scarlet Street. Bennett's Alice Reed doesn't remotely resemble the femme fatale archetype of noir you'd expect her to be or come close to matching the cruelty her Kitty March is capable of in Scarlet Street the following year. Similarly, Robinson's Professor Wanley in no way resembles a dupe or a mark as his bank cashier Chris Cross will be in the 1945 film. Interestingly enough, Robinson did co-star in a true 1944 noir — as the good guy, the insurance investigator unraveling the scheme of his co-worker, the ambitious Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) and Barbara Stanwyck's wicked Phyllis Dietrichson in Billy Wilder's masterpiece Double Indemnity. Back where I left off in The Woman in the Window, Richard and Alice share some late-night drinks and discuss her posing for that painting that so entranced Wanley. Alice asks if he'd like to come back to her apartment to see some other sketches that have been made of her and though the faithful husband in the professor pleads reluctance, Richard decides to make the jaunt anyway.

Despite Richard's insistence that it's late and he's drank too much already, he gives in to Alice's offer and consumes more alcohol as they sit on her couch and look over her sketches. Once Alice has removed her covering, you can see her sheer black dress and it's almost see-through. Even though both Richard and Alice have gone far past the point of being tipsy by now, the two still maintain a chaste relationship. Alice might not have seduction on her mind, but with the outfit she has on, she wouldn't have to do much to make it happen. As Richard tries to open another bottle of booze, he cuts his hand. He asks for a pair of scissors to help get the cork out, which Alice brings him. Perhaps Alice flirts a little, but the married professor continues to be on his best behavior. Of course, the possibility of Richard breaking his marital vows could have been on the horizon: Alice seems to genuinely like him and it's obvious that Richard finds Alice terribly attractive. However, neither will ever know if a romantic dalliance loomed in their future because on the street below, a cab stops in front of Alice's building in the pouring rain and a man (Arthur Loft) gets out and vaults up the steps and into her apartment. When he finds Richard there, the man explodes, yelling at Alice something to the effect that she promised he was the only one. Alice screams, "Frank!" before the man then viciously smacks her, sending Alice to the floor. Frank then throws the bottle against the wall before turning his rage on Richard. He climbs on top of the professor on the couch and begins to choke the life out of him. Alice manages to get back on her feet and Richard reaches his hand out to her and she hands the scissors to him and he stabs Frank several times in the back until he's dead. The professor's first instinct is to call the police, since it obviously was an act of self-defense. He questions Alice about Frank, and she says his last name is Morgan, he lives out of town and she sees him occasionally when he comes to New York. Richard starts to call the police, but then he puts down the phone and pauses.


Wanley asks out loud, "Do we have the nerve?" The question, seemingly asked to the ether, puzzles the distraught woman at first. Wanley asks if Alice thinks anyone would have seen him coming to her apartment or had she mentioned Frank to anyone and Alice answers no. Richard says that even though it clearly was an act of self defense and that they haven't done anything wrong with each other, it could look back to his wife when she reads about it. Perhaps they should just make Frank disappear. Richard searches through Frank's pocket for identification and they both discover that he'd been lying to Alice: His real name was Claude Mazard. They also find a pocketwatch with his initials "CM." Richard decides that he'll go get his car and then sneak his body out and dump it somewhere on the side of the road. Alice wants to go, but Richard says they shouldn't be seen together and they can't just leave the body there unattended. Since they've just met, she's afraid that he'll abandon her to take the fall. Richard decides to leave her his vest as proof that he's coming back. Alice agrees. Richard doesn't notice, but in his clothing is a pen bearing his initials "RW" and Alice sets that aside separately, just to be safe. Richard washes the scissors and tells her to try to get the apartment back in order while he goes to retrieve his car from the parking garage, reassuring her that it will be OK. At the parking garage, the attendant notes that the professor is getting his car at an awfully late hour and Richard offers a half-assed excuse that seems to satisfy the man who tells him that he needs to get his brakes checked — they appear to be running loose. Wanley assures him that he will. Surprisingly, this bit, which would seem to be a setup for something that will pay off later, never gets referred to again in the film.

Richard returns with his car and parks outside Alice's apartment building, the same spot where the cab stopped to let Frank/Claude Mazard off to the place where he'd meet his fate. Careful to make certain no one sees him, Richard makes the return trip to the steps where a nervous Alice awaits. Richard and Alice prepare the dead man for the journey to his almost final resting place, but first Alice looks out the door and spots another resident coming home. She smiles at him and he smiles back. Once he's safely in his place, the two lug Claude down and toss him into the back of Richard's car as if he's a drunk. Alice says she guesses that this is the last they'll see of one another and Richard says for safety sake, he sees no other choice. She returns his vest (though she kept the pen) and says goodbye. As Wanley drives slowly and carefully on the wet streets he hasn't gone very far when he hears sirens and a cop pulls him over. The professor figures that it's all over, but the cop has just stopped him for driving without his lights on. Wanley shows him two pieces of ID and says he thought the attendant turned them on and apologizes and the officer lets him move on. Once he's cleared the city proper, he finds a wooded area on the side of the road and stops. Mazard's eyes are still open, giving the corpse a creepy look and as Richard drags him out to dump him, it reminded me of the similar scene in Blood Simple, only Claude doesn't come back.

The next night, Richard gets together again with Dr. Barkstane and D.A. Lalor for dinner and drinks. The previous night's actions, not to mention lack of sleep, weigh heavily on Wanley's mind and the total tonnage only increases when Lalor receives an urgent call and returns to the table with the news that a well-known industrialist who had been scheduled to arrive in New York more than 36 hours ago is missing — and his name was Claude Mazard. As is their usual game, the doctor begins speculating and Richard slips and asks Lalor how Mazard was murdered. "I didn't say he was murdered," Lalor replies. Wanley emits a nervous laugh and says he just assumed that is what Lalor meant. Lang directs The Woman in the Window with great efficiency, getting the story going quickly and effectively, leaving little fat on the cinematic bone. Now that the essential action has taken place, it shifts gears from the usual noir pattern. Bennett's Alice stays on the sidelines for a little while Wanley, who does teach on the psychological aspects of homicide, gets invited by his friend the district attorney to tag along on various aspects of the investigation, as when Lalor receives the news that a Boy Scout has stumbled upon Mazard's corpse. This is the part of the film where subtle humor also plays a larger role, as with the aforementioned Boy Scout, who seems to be appearing on a very early newscast and, since this is 1944, how many would have even seen it?

"If I get the reward, I'll send my young brother to a good college and I'll go to Harvard."


Richard, already a bundle of nerves in his room, also hears a commercial for an antacid that reminds listeners that, "Overindulgence in food and drink can affect a person's whole outlook on life." He doesn't know how well he will sleep: He'd already accepted Lalor's offer earlier in the evening to go inspect the scene where they found Mazard's body. When they arrive, another officer notices Richard scratching at his arm and says that it looks like he might have contracted poison ivy. Lalor introduces Wanley to Inspector Jackson (Thomas E. Jackson) of the homicide bureau. Without even thinking, Wanley starts leading the men to where the body was found. They stop him and ask where he was going and how he knew which direction to go. Richard really doesn't have a good answer for that, but Lalor laughs, reassuring his friend that, "We rarely arrest people just for knowing where a body was." Jackson also warns him to be careful because the place is full of poison ivy. They also mention that they know the murder took place elsewhere because of the signs of footprints with less weight coming and going. They also note blood on the barbed-wire fence which doesn't match Mazard so it most likely belongs to the killer. Richard finds himself feeling sicker to his stomach and tells Lalor that he's going to wait in the car. "If you simply confess professor, we could wrap this up by noon," Jackson says jokingly. "Afraid you'll have to work for this one," Richard laughs nervously. "There ya go. Never any consideration for cops," the inspector sighs. Richard climbs in the back of the car and watches nervously, hoping they can't connect that blood to his cut or his poison ivy to that source.

Later that night, Lalor is late meeting Wanley and the doctor for their usual supper. Even though Wanley is itching (literally) for updates about the case, the doctor's natural curiosity runs just as hot and saves Richard from looking as if he's too inquisitive. Lalor repeats the story about the blood on the fence and Richard, choosing the path of hiding in plain sight, shows the cut on his hand. He tells them he got it opening a soda can. The doctor could care less about blood evidence, he wants to know about suspects. Lalor tells his friends that they are interested in finding a woman that Mazard would see when he came to New York. They don't really know much about her, but they know he'd see her every trip and have been speculating that perhaps they fought or there was a third party and that led to Mazard's death. Then Lalor changes his tune and tells them that was the leading theory earlier in the day, anyway. It seems that Mazard's company knew of his tendency to cat around, so they had someone trail him everywhere he went, but this man hasn't turned up, so they figure that either the spy also is lying dead somewhere or he's the one who killed Mazard for some reason. The news that Mazard had a constant tail does not please Richard.

As I said at the beginning, I had not seen The Woman in the Window prior until the time I watched it for this blogathon so when Alice suddenly calls Richard, with a decidedly different tone in Joan Bennett's voice, I thought that this would be when her character took a malevolent turn (She had kept that pen after all). Wanley isn't happy to hear from her, since he knows that the police are seeking her and he needs to keep himself as far from her as possible. He's also displeased that she knows who and where he is, which he never told her, because she got it out of the newspaper which carried a story about a new title he'd earned at the college. She tries to make small talk, but Richard wants to get her off the phone as soon as possible. The next time Richard sees Dr. Barkstane, he tells him that he's been having trouble sleeping and the doctor prescribes him something. When he goes to fill it at the drug store, the pharmacist says he only has it in stock in powder form, so be careful — too much and he'll go to sleep for good.

When Alice calls Richard again, the call isn't to congratulate him about his career, it's because she's in trouble. It seems she's started getting calls from that man who tailed Mazard for his company and he knows he went to Alice's apartment that night. He didn't mention anything about Richard, but he knows that he never saw him come out of Alice's apartment and now he wants money. She doesn't know want to do — she's frantic. Richard tries to calm her down and agrees to try to scrape together the cash, though he tells her blackmailers never stop with just one payment. Wanley arranges a place where he and Alice can meet without being spotted to discuss their plans. For such a studious family man, crime has come rather easily to Professor Richard Wanley, but for him it's a matter of self-preservation. He tells Alice, "There are only three ways to deal with a blackmailer. You can pay him and pay him and pay him until you're penniless. Or you can call the police yourself and let your secret be known to the world. Or you can kill him." Even Alice is taken aback at how calmly Richard suggests murder as a solution. He gives her the money, but tells her to only give him part, saying she couldn't come up with the full amount. Then, if she feels she can do it, he gives her part of the prescription he just filled and tells her how to poison him and to call him if that doesn't work.


For the first time in the film, we get a sequence that doesn't begin with Richard Wanley. In Alice's apartment, she awaits the arrival of the blackmailer, who was the man (Dan Duryea) who tailed Mazard and goes by the name of Heidt. Heidt tells her that he doesn't want to make trouble for anyone, but he will. With the arrival of Duryea, who also plays a key character in Scarlet Street, I figured that things would really be getting as good and complicated as they did in the team's followup film. Alice turns on the charm, fixing them drinks (she wastes no time — she stirs the drug in his drink before she finds out whether or not the plan works) and telling him that she doesn't know what happened to Mazard and she could only raise part of the cash, which she gives him. (Aside: Am I the only one who thinks that, from the right angles, Duryea bears a striking resemblance to Willem Dafoe?) Heidt tells Alice he needs the cash because the police will try to pin the murder on him and he plans to leave the country. Alice sidles up to the extortionist and suggests that she's in a similar position and perhaps they should run off together. Unfortunately, Alice's eagerness to get the night over with pushes her to go for the hard sell on the drink, offering to freshen his ice. Heidt turns and tells her to drink his, which she naturally refuses. He throws the glass down and asks her what kind of dope does she think he is and starts searching the apartment. He opens a drawer and finds Mazard's pocketwatch (which he takes with him) and asks if she's interested in changing her story now. He pushes her down on the bed and rifles through some books and finds the rest of the money. The phone rings and Heidt correctly deduces that it's her "partner" and tells Alice to tell him that he'll return tomorrow for another installment and then leaves, tipping his hat on the way out, a gesture, caught in reflection in the mirror over Alice's hearth. As you'd expect in this genre, Lang makes plentiful use of shadows, but he also seems particularly taken with mirrors and reflections. What his obsession with straw hats is, which many characters wear at different times, I have no idea.


When Alice gets on the phone with Richard, she tells him she blew it, that Heidt plans to come back the next day for more money and he took Mazard's watch. Richard's look shows his devastation. The calm, rational man who plotted a blackmailer's murder has evaporated and he half-heartedly tells Alice to remain calm and he'll try to come up with something. After he hangs up, Richard goes to his bathroom, pours what remains of his prescription into a glass of water and drinks it. Lang films the fading away of Wanley in quite an interesting perspective. Unfortunately, if he'd waited a few minutes more, Alice would have called him back with some startling news. When Heidt left Alice's apartment, he stopped briefly for some reason and some cops recognized him and told him to stop. Heidt took off and the police opened fire and shot Heidt dead. When they searched his body, Inspector Jackson found Mazard's pocketwatch. Richard had killed himself and Heidt would have taken the fall for Mazard's death. What a great ending. Unfortunately, that's not the ending and that's when The Woman in the Window ruins itself in its final moments. As Richard continues to slip away from life, we hear a voice say, "Professor." Wanley wakes up and he's in the chair in the lounge of his hotel with the book in his lap. The steward Collins reminds Richard that he wanted to be told when it was 10:30. Yes, my friends, it was ALL a dream. The copout ending of all copout endings that stopped working after The Wizard of Oz. Wait, there's more. Richard, so disoriented from the dream, decides he needs to get some fresh air. He goes to get his coat and hat and the coatcheck man turns out to be Claude Mazard! When he steps outside, the doorman greets him pleasantly and it's Heidt! He strolls down and look once again at the portrait when a hooker asks him if he'd like a date and a scared Richard replies, "Not for a million bucks!" before taking off running. That's the end: a jokey, comic note, complete with a musical score to match. Those few moments wipe out all the film's effective moments of a different type of noir and tries to shoehorn it into a comedy about a man's midlife crisis with a conclusion that wipes out everything you've seen before just as they did decades down the round to explain away an entire season of TV's Dallas.

On a humorous level, I can see where The Woman in the Window's ending could have worked and, admittedly, the film contains some funny bits in it before the story wraps, but not enough to make the entire switch in tone work. The ending annoyed me so much, that it compelled me to re-watch Scarlet Street. I figured, "Why not do two pieces for the blogathon?" When I saw Scarlet Street again, I noticed that it was based on the same novel that Jean Renoir's 1931 film La Chienne was. Since I owned the Renoir film on DVD, I figured, why not re-visit it as well, so what started as watching one noir film for the first time has now turned into three pieces. Oh, well. It's for a good cause. If you can, donate.


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Comments:
Dan Duryea is so good in both these films! Really, I love both of these films. Don't think I could pick a favorite between the two of them.
 
Actually, the ending works in your description--but not having seen the film I'll have to take your word about its failure in the actual film.
 
If there had been some preparation for the tonal switch or if the entire film had played that way, the ending might have worked, but it was so sudden and out of place. You spent about 90 minutes of building suspense over how the professor will resolve his problem and get to the point where he chooses to end his life not knowing that at the same time he's lucking out and his blackmailer is taking the fall. It would have made for a really poignant ending. Instead, it turns out that everything after the first drinks with his friends was a dream and nothing that transpired in the film happened and they play the last few notes farcically, even with a comical score and a jokey ending. It just was a huge disappointment to me. In contrast, Scarlet Street, made by the same director and starring the same actors is a GREAT example of a film noir from beginning to end. Come back tomorrow when I discuss it.
 
I was also disappointed by the ending of this movie. I know I would have watched it several times again if it hadn't of left me so deflated and disappointed. However, I found it easier to stomach than Scarlet Street. That one was too bleak for me--even if it was a better flick.
 
I agree that the shift in tone is irritating, but the ending doesn't ruin it for me--the rest of the movie is too compelling and enjoyable.

The "all a dream" aspect in itself could have worked, I think. The plot is set in motion in a kind of dreamy way, what with that portrait more or less "coming to life" when Bennett appears. The lecture and Wanley's chat with his friends also sets up the idea that the professor might have an adultery and murder fantasy rolling around his subconscious, which sets up the "be careful what you wish for" premise, which almost demands some kind of "I've learned my lesson" (shades of "Oz" again) denouement.

But I agree that the wacky music and Robinson's comic exit line are just too much. Still, a lot of code-era movies have tacked-on endings in which all is well, or justice is served. Sometimes you just have to appreciate the first 85 or 115 minutes, and ignore the last 5.
 
Willem Dafoe is Dan Duryea in colour.
 
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