It’s plastered on thick. Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944) opens with Edward G. Robinson giving a college lecture, while behind him the words SIGMUND FREUD are written on a blackboard. If only he had turned to read that board himself. Ten minutes later Joan Bennett, playing the strange femme fatale of the title, turns up in a see-through blouse, and asks him to her apartment to see her etchings.
That would be enough, but in terms of the psychological goodies of film noir, The Woman in the Window probably has it in greater quantities than any other movie of the era.
The Woman in the Window seems to be painfully slow at times, and you may never know why, unless you watch it to the end. In the first scene we establish Edward G. Robinson’s character. He is middle aged, he privately yearns for adventure, and yet simultaneously feels that all of that is behind him. If this is explained once in the first scene, Edward G. Robinson probably repeats it ten times.
The scene in fact last for five minutes, although it seems like four times that long — and I have to ask why that is. Transgressing bourgeois respectability is such a big step — and that is what is happening here. There is a certain type of noir that specialises in this, and the darkness invited by the handle noir is much more suggestive of an internal darkness, or a real path to hell, the doorkeeper of which is always a woman.
It’s hard to nail this deep transgression without having seen the rest of the film, and fully appreciated the dully plodding dreamlike nature of everything. The Woman in the Window is a mainstream crowd pleaser from Fritz Lang, who seems to have been given the leeway to make these experiments in pace. I feel that other directors may have been encouraged to make something a little more pacey, but with Fritz Lang it’s different, and he has his eye on the whole production in each and every scene.
Obviously then, the transgressing Edward G. Robinson finds the adventure he secretly fears, and indeed he almost finds a film within a film, so slick is the procedure. It’s akin to moves like Something Wild (1986) — The Woman in the Window is a classic case of the dullard hero (actually the academics call this guy the ‘transgressive-adventurer hero’ — it's for real!) getting what they asked for — and more to boot. In the noir era, a similar thing happens to Dick Powell in Pitfall (1948) and Wendell Corey in The File on Thelma Jordan (1950). What you get in each case is an articulate statement of the difference between being a regular family guy, with its conventions and restraints, and a much more wild and tough version of masculinity.
No study of how Hollywood vulgarised Freud could pass by The Woman in the Window without suggesting it as the crowning chapter. In The Woman in the Window Edward G. Robinson meets wish fulfilment, dream narrative, subconscious castration of the middle-aged male, Oedipal revolt in the killing of the father figure, and what his friend Lalor — played by Raymond Massey — calls ‘the siren-call of adventure’ — complete with siren, if you missed that.
Strangest of all, there is no divide between dream and real-time, as there is in most other noir, most other film in fact. The relationship between Edward G. Robinson and Jean Bennett is nearly completely innocent, despite its resultant danger, and this is best seen in the displaced manner in which he enjoys her — by admiring pictures of her. This lapse is therefore caused by the most common of all media images — that of the female fashion model.
It almost isn’t worth putting The Woman in the Window through the noir-rater checklist, to prod its credentials. This is because The Woman in the Window was one of the films released in 1946 in France which led the French film magazines to start using the term.
But it was a pleasant coincidence, and as soon as Hitler was ejected from France, and things had settled down a little, several shiploads of American film arrived in a short space of time, creating an instant post-War buzz in France — films that included The Maltese Falcon (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), Laura (1944), Murder, My Sweet (1944), and The Woman in the Window. None had been seen in France during the war, and all arrived at the same time, causing the idea of the noir movement or genre to be suggested.
You Just Gotta Have Dan Duryea!
The Woman in the Window does have many noir credentials, even though some of its inclusion in this list is the result of mere association. In terms of lightning, it makes a modest noir effort; for femme fatale, it scores high; for paranoia and Freudian suggestion, it can barely be beat, and for coincidentally accidental crime, it’s also a winner. It’s not a film about crime, however, although it offers a completely new take on police procedural; and it is certainly not a film about society’s underbelly, although it does have one nasty hood in it, played by the constantly watchable Dan Duryea.
If I were to recommend The Woman in the Window for one thing however, it would be the nudity. How this escaped the censor, I will never know, but Joan Bennett spends the first third of the movie effectively topless. I’m pretty sure you will never see a blouse like this anywhere else in mainstream cinema, and the thought of one of our stars of today wearing such a thing is crazy.
But angle after angle confirms the dark depths of fantasy that are behind this movie. At first you may think you are imagining it, but once you’ve looked again you’ll see that you’re imagination has been bypassed, and you are in the topless dream. Weirder still is the blouse itself, which tends to suggest (weird) underwear, but which in shot after shot proves this to be as much a phantasm as everything else in the film.
Think of how many times you’ve seen a guy in a film noir, bored with the dull routine of his day to day. It was one of the drivers behind the crimes of Walter Neff in Double Indemnity (1944). And as always in these stories, the woman is the sexual commodity on offer for the successful escapee. This is dressed up slightly by Lang in his movie — in Woman in the Window, it’s all about the portraits of the woman in question — and in Scarlet Street, it’s a portrait too that eventually becomes the focal point. But Dick Powell falls for it too in Pitfall (1948) in which it’s also some portraits that set off the sexual fleeing from the family, towards the tempting means of escape that we must identify as the woman.
Women actually fare badly in film noir, perhaps more than they might in other genres. The gals are always to blame, but they’re also packaged as desirable objects, offering false satisfactions and generally being the cause of all alienation and loss. When you see the family leaving the father behind for their vacation at the start of Woman in the Window, there are a lot of clues as to what family life is like — the children in the foreground read their comics and ignore their parents, the father fumbles nervously with his hat, while the wife attempts to touch him, although she has a pile of magazines which stop her really holding him.
This would be OK, but it’s once again not the woman’s fault — here are the guys doing everything they can, including murder, to get away from their families, and yet it’s always been the family unit, within the capitalist set up that has been the main oppressor of the women. Daughters, wives and mothers are therefore convenient ideological entities for the film makers, allowing any counter ideology and counter eroticism hagning about (and there's plenty in noir) to be bundled into the wicked women of film noir — where of course the dames are also ritually punished.