Monday, November 03, 2014

The Spell of the Woman in the Window

Richard (Edward G. Robinson): The flesh is still strong, but the spirit grows weaker by the hour. You know, even if the spirit of adventure should rise up before me and beckon, even in the form of that alluring young woman in the window next door, I'm afraid that all I'll do is clutch my coat a little tighter, mutter something idiotic and run like the devil.

Dr. Barkstane (Edmund Breon): Not before you got her number, I hope?

Richard: Probably.

A lot of movies are labeled film noir, but "The Woman in the Window," which debuted 70 years ago today, is a classic of the genre — purely film noir.

And, when I say it is "purely film noir," I mean that is really all that it is — no distracting subplots.

Fittingly, then, "The Woman in the Window" is credited, at least in part, with the first use of film noir as a description of that particular genre. It is my understanding that film noir was first applied to American movies in 1946 when several of the movies that are now recognized as the early ground–breakers — among them "The Maltese Falcon," "Double Indemnity," "Laura" and "The Woman in the Window" — were first released in France.

In many ways, it reminded me of "Double Indemnity," another film noir that was in the theaters only a couple of months earlier and featured Edward G. Robinson — but in a different kind of role. In "The Woman in the Window," he played the same kind of part Fred MacMurray played in "Double Indemnity." He, too, was involved with a seductress; he, too, killed a man who was connected to the woman.

MacMurray's character killed as part of a plot, though, whereas Robinson's character killed in self–defense. Or did he? Was he an unsuspecting pawn manipulated by the woman in the window?

Robinson's femme fatale was played by Joan Bennett. Before I saw "The Woman in the Window," I knew her only as Elizabeth Taylor's warm–hearted mother in "Father of the Bride." But that was a later phase of her career. It really was like watching a completely different actress in "The Woman in the Window" and "Scarlet Street," both of which were directed by Fritz Lang and starred Bennett, Robinson and Dan Duryea.

As I say, Robinson's character shared some similarities to the one played by MacMurray in "Double Indemnity," but there were some differences as well. MacMurray was in insurance; Robinson was a psychology professor. Well, I suppose there were some similarities there as well. I mean, an insurance salesman has to comprehend a certain amount about human psychology, right? Actually, I guess that is true of a successful salesman of any kind.

They both tried to dispose of the bodies of their victims, and the women with whom they were involved tried to help. Afterward, they both tried to nonchalantly learn details of investigations into the disappearances of their victims — in "Double Indemnity," MacMurray, as an insurance salesman, tried to learn about the investigation from the claims adjuster, played by Robinson.

In "The Woman in the Window," Robinson tried to find out what the police knew by prying details from the district attorney, played by Raymond Massey. And Robinson took some good–natured teasing from Massey — not unlike the joshing Robinson threw MacMurray's way — about really being guilty of the crime (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) that was much more on the mark than any of the characters knew.

Of course, the audience knew — and, in "The Woman in the Window," Robinson actually managed to make viewers sympathize with him. He was, after all, a lonely professor whose wife and children were on a vacation; it was purely a random thing that he found himself in the wrong place with the wrong person. He and Bennett met when he noticed a painting of her in a display window, and it turned out she was there to observe people's reactions to the painting.

They struck up a friendship and went back to Bennett's home, where her wealthy lover showed up and got into a fight with Robinson. In self–defense, Robinson stabbed him with a pair of scissors.

The rest of the story was about how Robinson and Bennett (Robinson mostly) disposed of the body and tried to keep from being discovered.

That led to a surprise ending of which the filmmakers were quite proud.

By and large, film noir can be a bit heavy–handed for my taste. For example, the first time we saw Robinson in this movie, he was lecturing his students about the legal degrees of homicide.

"The various legal categories such as first– and second–degree murder, the various degrees of homicide, manslaughter, are civilized recognitions of impulses of various degrees of culpability," Robinson told his students, neatly foreshadowing what was to come. "The man who kills in self–defense, for instance, must not be judged by the same standards applied to the man who kills for gain."

Did I say "foreshadowing?" It wasn't as subtle as that. How about "telegraphing?"

If there was a theme to the story, I suppose it was that conditions often resolve moral dilemmas, one way or the other. That certainly was true of Robinson and Bennett. Everything they did was dictated by things that, for the most part, appeared out of their control.

And if I have a blanket criticism of film noir, it is the general absence of subtlety. Maybe it is because the facts of the case are assumed to be known — or at least strongly suspected — by the audience, whether that much information actually has been communicated to the audience or not.

I'm not saying that was the case with "The Woman in the Window," only that it has been a problem with many of the film noirs I have seen in my life.

"The Woman in the Window" was a pretty good movie. It's a shame that many of the entries in the film noir genre that followed didn't come close to its standards.