The Woman in the Window capitalizes on one basic, human fear: entrapment. It does not do this in a literal sense; instead it finds the protagonist hopelessly stuck in a very unfortunate situation. What is most troubling is that most viewers find that, given the circumstances, they mightâ€™ve done the same thing. Empathy creates suspense.
This film tells the story of a perfectly average guy who finds himself unwittingly at the will of a murderous woman. She, filling the void of the ever-famous femme fatale noir clichÃ©, is eminently intelligent and very manipulative. This film is steeped in noir mythology. First, it is very focused on the â€œaveragenessâ€ of Wanleyâ€™s life. He is a psychology professor depressed by boredom, seeking adventure. When he meets the woman in the painting he so often glares at, he finds himself intrigued. So enters the femme fatale. WanleyÂ thenÂ kills the womanâ€™s lover on accident. The film exhibits an overwhelming sensation of being in over your head. The always-brilliant Edward G. Robinson delivers a solid and believable portrayal of a person who always wanted more but never had the guts. Well this is what guts brought him.
Naturally, one must wonder about the implications of the storyâ€™s morals. The story essentially devalues the notion of adventure. Perhaps Fritz Lang liked the idea of settling down peacefully after running from Nazi Germany. Whatever attracted him to the project, we will never know, but his visual style and tense direction of actors elevated this genre piece to quality cinema. It is not, by any stretch, a great Fritz Lang film. But it does help to draw the direct connection between German Expressionism and American Film Noir.
Thematically, The Woman in the Window is one of Langâ€™s most depressing works. While both Expressionism and Noir are known to dwell on the darker side of humanity, this film elevates that concept in a more hopeless respect. This film offers very little in the way of redemption, granted it is not one of his more serious works.
The film is essentially a black comedy, provoking the thought â€œwhat ifâ€ in a bizarre scenario. The screenplay, tightly written by Nunnaly Johnson (The Dirty Dozen), expertly captures the tension and paranoia within Wanley. Each step in the rather simplistic case is not only believable, but done in a way to elicit an emotional reaction.
Spoiler Alert: I do not give away the end in the following paragraph, but I do hint at it. It is difficult to address the film thematically and morally without analyzing the conclusion’s implications.
Now it has to be said, the movie borders on the absurd and has something of a frustrating twist. In its short runtime, the only real character development is within Wanley, and it isnâ€™t necessarily a positive change, although the movie would like you to think it is. Essentially, it serves as a weird, but depressing inverse of A Christmas Carol. As if to say that the best we can do is just accept our lot, the film encourages us not to pursue our desires, our dreams.
The trick of the film is its simplicity. By not adding any subplots or scenes without our lovable psychology professor, we become overtly empathetic towards him. His story is simple, believable and frustratingly depressing.
This is not a significant achievement for Fritz Lang. But, as with most of the directors who leapt across the pond in this era, he didnâ€™t really do much once he came to America. He made films, but it often seemed as though his heart was not in them. The same is often said of F. W. Murnauâ€™s post-Sunrise career. If nothing else, The Woman in the Window works as an effectively cynical black comedy from a great director. His staging and visuals are still solid as is Edward G. Robinson.
This film may be no masterpiece, but it is a classic excursion into Film Noir from some of the best in the business. An average film from Fritz Lang is a great film from most other directors.