The Window (1949) Blu-ray Review: The Boy Who Cried Murder

There’s a good reason to hate films focused on kids: they’re obnoxious. If they’re cute, it’s usually a cuteness at odds with decent story-telling. As an adult, the concerns of kids aren’t that interesting. So that’s a point against The Window: the main character is a kid.

And he remains the story’s focal point as the movie unreels, in the very adult genre of film noir. Noir is about passions and hidden desires. That’s not kid stuff, but little Tommy Woodry comes smack dab into it because of a hot New York night, and a penchant for tall tales.

Tommy is the neighborhood liar. He makes up stories about everything, and doesn’t quite understand there could be consequences. He tells the local kids his family has a ranch out West, and they’ll be moving in a couple days’ time. Kid’s stuff, except that someone tells their landlord and a couple comes to look at the family’s apartment. Dad, who works the night shift, has had it up to here with Tommy’s lying, a tendency which Tommy can’t explain. He just needs to tell stories.

That night, it’s too hot to sleep in the apartment, so Tommy sleeps on the fire escape. Only his fire escape is too hot, and he sees a breeze in the upstairs laundry, and chases it. He’s at the upstairs window when his neighbors are caught in the middle of a scam. The wife, Mrs. Kellerson, has clearly picked up a man with the intention of emptying his wallet, but he catches on, and attacks her. The timely distraction of Mr. Kellerson gets him away, and a pair of scissors in the man’s back ends him. Which begins the spiral into terror that controls the next 24 hours of Tommy’s life.

He tries to tell his parents what he saw, but they, of course, don’t believe him. He’s sentenced to a day is his room, but he sneaks out to go to the police who send a man to the apartment… only to bring Tommy right back to his mother. Nobody believes him.

Except the Kellersons. Tommy’s mother brings him up to their doorstep to apologize, so they know they’ve been seen. And that night, thanks to a misdelivered telegram, they know Tommy will be alone in the apartment.

What follows is an uncommonly skillful presentation of suspense filmmaking. The director, Ted Tetzlaff, was not prolific, but he made his bones in Hollywood as a cinematographer whose last project was Hitchcock’s Notorious, arguably one of the greatest films ever made. This film isn’t a high-budget affair like Notorious, but it makes the most of what it has with expressive lighting and inventive set-ups. The print used for this Blu-ray’s transfer is exceptionally clean, and the film’s black and white cinematography looks terrific.

The Window is based on a story by Cornell Woolrich. Chandler, Hammet, and James Cain might be more readily known, but Cornell Woolrich is one of the original sources of film noir storytelling.

The Window has an unconventional protagonist in a 10-year-old confabulist, but the feeling of noir permeates the story. The kid is a relatively normal kid, despite his tendency towards fabrication. But his lying ways send him into a dark spiral where no-one believes him, despite telling the honest truth. This eventually leads him into an abyss where the murderers are waiting to capture him.

And when they do, it’s some harrowing film-making.

The Window clocks in a 73 minutes long. It’s a B-movie, a designation about which there are some misconceptions. The letter B is conflated with “Bad”, but that’s not what it means. A B-movie was made to be second on a double bill, a shorter entertainment to round out the higher-budgeted, more prestigious A-film. But the length of The Window is part of its power.

Not every premise can sustain 90 minutes of film-time. At 73 lean minutes, The Window finds every possible nook of its story without ever tilting to indulgence or repetition. It’s almost like a horror movie to the young protagonist, which is exactly how a film noir ought to feel.

The young actor who shoulders this immense burden is Bobby Driscoll, who won a special Academy away for this performance, and his role in So Dear to My Heart. He went on the voice Peter Pan in the Disney film and then when on to a rather dismal life that seems like a prototype for other dysfunctional child stars to follow.

That’s a sad story, but The Window is a grim triumph. It puts its child star, and character, through a ringer that other characters would crack under. It’s beautifully shot, and like the best noirs is threaded with as much a sense of the tragic as it reeks of evil. The story is simple, the running time is short, but the craft put into this little film is immense. It’s beautifully shot, with terrifically intriguing suspense sequences. For a simple story about a lying brat, The Window is a quintessential noir.

The Window has been released by the Warner Brother Archive Collection. Other than English subtitles, there are no extras on the disc.

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Kent Conrad

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