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Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window (1944) is a riveting melodrama that's only improved with age. Edward G. Robinson delivers a memorable performance as an everyday Joe who suddenly finds himself entangled in a murder, but Lang's sense of adventure is the real draw. One shot in particular a single-take transitional moment near the end of the film simply has to be seen to be believed. Look for Robinson leaning forward in a leather chair during what appears to be the picture's tragic climax, then watch what happens next....and good luck determining how Lang did it.
SYNOPSIS: Edward G. Robinson is Richard Wanley, a middle-aged college professor who goes out for a few drinks when his wife and child are away on vacation. Afterwards, Wanley is admiring a painting in a store window when he notices that the beautiful model who posed for the portrait (JoanBennett) is standing next to him. Wanley accepts an apparently innocent invitation to the woman's apartment, but unexpectedly winds up killing her abusive boyfriend. Horrified by his actions, Wanley then makes the mistake of disposing of the body, and is drawn into an increasingly nightmarish world of lies, deceit, and, possibly, another murder.
Robinson, who would work again with Lang on Scarlet Street the next year, was more concerned with politics on the set than the actual filming of The Woman in the Window if we are to believe this entry in his autobiography, All My Yesterdays: "For R.K.O. I made a picture called Woman in the Window with Joan Bennett and Raymond Massey, directed by Fritz Lang, one of the greats in his declining period. Among the cast - guess their names - there was violent and accusatory anti-Communist talk. At first I defended my Russian War Relief friends, the believers in Uncle Joe, the defenders of Stalingrad, the strength and will of the Russian people. Then, having failed to convince anybody of anything, except that I was a Communist manque, I retreated to my dressing room and kept my mouth shut. I do not like keeping my mouth shut."
Fritz Lang, however, was much more talkative about the pre- and post-production on The Woman in the Window in his interview with Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg for The Celluloid Muse: Hollywood Directors Speak: "The script for my next film, The Woman in the Window, was written by Nunnally Johnson and based on a story by J.H. Wallis called Once off Guard. They changed the title because they thought the word "guard" sounded too much like "God"....I liked the script for The Woman in the Window very much. There was only one thing wrong with it: all the male parts in it were written for old men, not only Edward G. Robinson's and the man who kept Joan Bennett, but also the part ultimately played by Dan Duryea. I'd liked Duryea's handling of the scene with the scissors in The Ministry of Fear so much that I was able to persuade the studio to let me bring him in; that was the only way I could introduce someone relatively youthful into the male cast. Various things appealed to me in the story, but I took the liberty of changing the ending with such a corny old trick that it seemed almost new...Thus I was able to end the film with a laugh."
Lang, like so many other talented filmmakers who migrated to America from Europe in the 1930s, often chafed under the dictates of the Hollywood system. Bennett had seen the frustrations Lang experienced while working with the domineering producer, Darryl F. Zanuck, and thought it was an outright shame. "(Zanuck) treated him like just anything," she later said, "and he was much more than that." So Bennett, her semi-independent producer husband, Walter Wanger, and Lang joined forces to create the Diana company, which gave Lang the artistic freedom he so richly deserved, and eventually lead to the production of The Woman in the Window.
Wanger, it should be noted, was just as happy as Lang was with this new venture. He had grown tired of being a unit producer at Universal, and badly wanted to get back to creating the sort of first rate pictures he made earlier in his career. With a director like Lang behind the camera, and with his talented wife starring, he was finally able to do so...at least until Diana folded several years later.
Lang, as you might expect, was passionate about filmmaking, so it's not surprising that he would make a bold move to become more independent. "Motion pictures are and have been the content of my life, everything," he once said while discussing The Woman in the Window. "You conceive a picture, you write it yourself or help to write it; that is the initial creative process. Then comes the actual direction, in which my crew and I work for months, very seriously, doing the best we can; that is the second stage of creation. Finally comes the cutting process, in which I always have the main say; that's the third time you create something."
From there, however, Lang deftly segued to his utter contempt for critics, many of whom were unhappy with The Woman in the Window's surprise ending. "At last you give thefinished picture to the audience," he continued, "and along comes a reviewer who has to meet a morning edition dead-line. In addition, perhaps his wife is betraying him or maybe he has hemorrhoids or something. In any case, he cannot write an honest review, and, good or bad, favorable or unfavorable, I cannot accept it. That's why I don't give a damn about reviews."
Lang, when all was said and done, only gave a damn about the images and stories in his own mind. Neither critics nor controlling producers could sway him from his vision, and movie history is all the richer for it. Watch The Woman in the Window for an example of post-war filmmaking at its finest.
Director: Fritz Lang
Producer: Nunnally Johnson
Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson (based on the novel Once Off Guard by J.H. Wallis)
Editor: Marjorie Johnson, Gene Fowler, Jr.
Music: Arthur Lange
Art Design: Duncan Cramer
Set Design: Julia Heron
Special Effects: Vernon L. Walker
Costumes: Muriel King
Cast: Edward G. Robinson (Prof. Richard Wanley), Joan Bennett (Alice Reed), Raymond Massey (Frank Lalor), Edmund Breon (Dr. Michael Barkstone), Dan Duryea (Heidt/Doorman), Thomas Jackson (Inspector Jackson), Arthur Loft (Claude Mazard/Frank Howard), Dorothy Peterson (Mrs. Wanley), Frank Dawson (Collins), Carol Cameron (Elsie Wanley), Robert Blake (Dickie Wanley).
by Paul Tatara