Fritz Lang’s 1944 crime drama The Woman in the Window is one of a handful of films that became the basis for what the Cahiers du Cinema called "film noir." These films (which include The Maltese Falcon, Murder My Sweet, Double Indemnity, and others) were beloved by French critics and filmmakers in the 1950s and '60s and helped usher in the French New Wave. The Woman in the Window was named as the best film noir of all time by Paste magazine. I wouldn’t go quite that far, especially as it is marred by a tacked on happy ending that Lang was at least partially forced into by the censors of the time, but it is a really great piece of crime cinema.
Edward G. Robinson plays Professor Wanley, a conservative, middle-class professor whose wife and children leave him at the beginning of the film for a holiday. That night, he goes to his private club for a few drinks with his friends. Outside, they notice a painting of a beautiful, mysterious woman. Inside, they debate what they would do if they met a woman like that and all agree that men their age should not have those sorts of adventures. The friends leave and the Professor falls asleep.
When he awakes, he leaves the club and again admires the painting. Out of the night comes Alice Reed (Joan Bennett), the model for the painting. They go out for a night cap and wind up back at her place to look at other paintings made of her. While there, Alice’s ex-lover shows up and attacks Wanley. One pair of scissors in the chest later and the two have a corpse to get rid of.
They carefully, and rather too calmly, wrap the body in a blanket, move it to Wadley’s car. She cleans up the mess while he drives the body someplace far away to dispose of it. Lang is a master at creating suspense. As they are taking the body to the car, someone shows up at her apartment and they have to rush the body back in. While Wadley is driving away with the corpse in the back seat, a cop pulls him over for not having his lights on. A toll-booth operator is chatty and has to have exact change. Over and over again, he is almost caught but somehow makes it out unscathed. She is not so lucky as it turns out as the dead man was a rather rich businessman who was being followed by Heidt (Dan Duryea), a private investigator who puts the screws to her for some pretty big money.
Robinson and Bennett are terrific as two ordinary people dealing with a pretty horrific situation. She’s not exactly your classic femme fatale as she’s not intentionally leading him into danger, but danger comes anyway. Lang uses a lot of what became tropes of the noir genre though. The film is full of shadows and light, interesting camera placements, and a dark moral character.
Some articles say that Lang was forced by the studio and the censors to give it a happy (and in places, jokey) ending, but the excellent commentary by Imogen Sara Smith seems to indicate that he was happy with it even if he was coerced into changing it from the darker ending in the book. Whatever the director's feeling, the ending completely takes you away from the film and nearly ruins it. If I mentally edit out the cheap ending, it becomes a really terrific bit of noir cinema.
This newly mastered disk from Kino Lorber looks good. I didn’t notice any debris or other deteriorating artifacts. The black are solid and the contrast crisp. It isn’t anything I’d show off, but it's quite nice. Extras include the aforementioned audio commentary that’s a little dry but quite informative and a theatrical trailer.
The Woman in the Window is one of the earliest examples of film noir. It certainly isn’t the best of the genre, or even Fritz Lang’s best take on it, but it's real quite good and well worth watching. Kino Lorber gives it a nice HD transfer, but other than a commentary, keeps the extras pretty bare.