Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) teaches psychology at a city university, specialising in the criminal mind for subjects such as murder, which he knows a lot about yet as a mild-mannered citizen, has never been close to in real life. Today his wife and two kids are going away on a vacation, leaving him to his own devices, so he kisses them goodbye and retires to his gentlemen's club for a chat, coffee and cigars with his two best friends, the District Attorney Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) and a doctor, Michael Barkstane (Edmund Breon). They make fun of him for being so captivated by the new portrait in the club's front window, a middle-aged man's folly...
The Woman in the Window was not director Fritz Lang's first film noir, but it was the first one to be most associated with the then-blossoming genre to which this would be a major contribution. Scripted by Nunnally Johnson, scribe of so many well-regarded hits that he became the highest paid writer in Hollywood for a time, it adopted Lang's favourite subject of fate and applied it to a thriller plot where the meek professor actually meets the woman in the painting and she leads him on a downward spiral to his doom, and all because he decided to have a drink with a lady who was not his wife, and whom he was purely spending time with because he found her attractive - big mistake.
The sexuality of middle-aged men is often ripe for lampoon in many quarters, when it's not bringing up a kind of revulsion that the libido doesn't wane at that point in life, not in a fair few men at any rate, so what could have been implemented for comedy here is turned into a nightmare. But we're not meant to be revolted by Wanley, more to pity him, and something else, get a kick out of how his lusts, which are never anything but politely expressed, have led him so badly astray. So though this was dramatic in tone, there was a certain glee in the delivery that indicated the audience were asked to indulge themselves in enjoying another's misfortune, which is actually a rather grim impulse.
The crime that Wanley winds up committing is an act of self-defence, but it takes place in the portrait woman's apartment, and would take a lot of explaining, not only to his wife but the police as well. Lang and Johnson took an undisguised delight in toying with him as a cat plays with a mouse, putting him in situations where all his morality is telling him to confess, or at least try to explain in a "There's a perfectly reasonable explanation for all this, officer" sort of way, yet he is also very aware that should he blab so much as a little, the whole house of cards of his previously tranquil existence will come tumbling down. And when the screws are further tightened as a blackmailer enters the story, the poor, put-upon prof grows increasingly desperate, living out a personal nightmare there is no escape from.
Wanley wasn't going to cheat on his wife, he's too timid, but the fact that the notion might have crossed his mind in a moment of weakness is enough to damn him. Casting Joan Bennett as the femme fatale, who was by no means a nasty piece of work herself, more amused this little man could be strung along until the tragedy occurs, was a neat touch as you could understand why Wanley would be flattered by her interest, however sincere or insincere it was, and Massey and Breon as the pals were avuncular in a constricting fashion as they begin to twig what their friend may have done. But the casting coup was Dan Duryea, who showed up in the second half as a blackmailer, one of his best, well, not loved, but appreciated roles: offscreen Duryea was a nice guy family man, but on it he had a terrific knack for playing the detestable, and you'll relish the louse he essays here. All well and good, but what of the controversial twist ending? Lang said this punchline was his idea, but it does look like a method of getting around the censors. Whichever, it may be amusing, but it's humorous in a manner the rest of this sly film is not. Music by Arthur Lange.
[This has been released on Blu-ray by Eureka, fully restored and with the following features:
1080p presentation on Blu-ray
LPCM audio (original mono presentation)
Optional English subtitles
Brand new and exclusive video essay by critic David Cairns
Feature Length Audio Commentary by Film Historian Imogen Sara Smith, author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City
Original theatrical trailer
PLUS: A Collector's booklet featuring new essays by film journalist and writer Amy Simmons; and film writer Samm Deighan; alongside rare archival imagery.]
Tyrannical, monocle-sporting, Austrian-born director who first became established in Germany, significantly due to his second wife Thea von Harbou who wrote many of his scripts for him including famous silents Dr Mabuse the Gambler, the two-part Die Niebelungen, revolutionary sci-fi Metropolis, Spione and Lang's first sound effort, the celebrated M (which catapulted Peter Lorre to fame).
He had caught the interest of the Nazis by this time, so after another couple of Dr Mabuse films he decided to flee the country rather than work for them (von Harbou stayed behind), and arrived in America. There he was quickly snapped up by Hollywood producers to create a string of memorable thrillers, such as Fury, You Only Live Once, Man Hunt, and the World War II-themed Hangmen Also Die, which fed into a talent for film noir he took advantage of in the forties. Some of these were Ministry of Fear, Scarlet Street, The Woman in the Window and Secret Behind the Door, noirish Western Rancho Notorious and The Big Heat. After the fifties and one final Mabuse film, Lang had difficulty getting work due to his bad-tempered reputation and increasing blindness, but stayed a personality in the movie world right up to his death.