Film Notes: The Woman in the Window (1944)

4 out of 4 stars

Image of repression in modern society

Legendary filmmaker Fritz Lang made films that successfully launched new genres. While his German films take gallant creative strides, his American works construct plots directly reflective of social dynamics. Likewise, the adventurous plot of The Woman in the Window looks into the functional repression in modern society. Its events take a teleological view of the ramifications of going against class division.

Even before we come to know anything about the plot, the film asks us a question that has incessantly subjected human society to an extreme dilemma. That is, whether we must judge all murders using the same parameters. By asking us this, the film indicates its interest in confronting the rigid framework of modern society. Spoilers follow for the film.

“Now, be good.”

Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) is left alone in the city as his wife and children go for a summer vacation. Before leaving, the wife asks him not to work late. He replies that he will not do so and spend the evening in the club instead. The club has a beautiful cozy library. The gentlemen spend a few lazy hours here having discussions that are humorous but also cautionary. They laughingly tell each other to be good and not have a drink too many. These are well-to-do gentlemen conscious of their class and what it expects from them.

After his friends go off, Wanley stays in the club for some more time. Here things happen that we must remember to fully admire the story. After he leaves, he arrives in front of the window of a shop. A beautiful figure portrait of a strikingly good looking lady is showcased there. Wanley and his club friends have always admired this painting. The lady in the work attracts their fantasy. As Wanley stands before the painting and fantasizes about her, he sees a reflection of a woman in the painting. He turns and sees the woman in the painting standing beside him on the street. How every window shopper wishes their dreams to come true in the same way!

The lady (Alice Reed played by Joan Bennett) even invites him to her home to see other paintings. But dangerous things follow soon.

“I couldn’t have drunk that much”

What follows is a cat and mouse game that conforms to noirish regulations. But the film also operates as an analysis of the genre. It is almost like a Salvador Dali dream, where distant components blend to form a surreal vision. The idea is to be conscious of this dreamlike story and then compare its essential components with the functional dynamics driving the society. The difference between the two is like the gap between the two worlds that exist on the two sides of Reed’s double doors.

The greatness of this film lies in its ability to see itself unfolding and utilizing this as a lens to observe the real world. Screenwriter Nunnally Johnson and novelist J.H. Wallis use painting as an essential instrument signifying the tendency of human beings to follow escapist ideas. Simultaneously, Lang applies mirror images to symbolize the duality of modern restricted lives. In possibly the best shot of the film, while Wanley looks at Reed with lustful eyes, his image stares away and hides his face. The repression in modern society can never find a better noirish lens to express its hidden desires.

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