Netflix UK film review: The Woman in the Window
James R | On 04, Nov 2019
Director: Fritz Lang
Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett
Watch The Woman in the Window online in the UK: Netflix UK
From The Stranger to Double Indemnity, Edward G. Robinson was no stranger to film noir. The Woman in the Window, released in the same year as Double Indemnity, is destined to be the underdog next to Billy Wilder’s deservedly praised masterpiece, but this low-key genre cornerstone shouldn’t be overlooked.
Director Fritz Lang is still up to his dizzying and formatively bold tricks in this seemingly simple tale of a good man drawn into bad things by a tempting woman. But there’s more going on than the surface would have you believe, an elusive truth that Lang conjures up in a hazy myriad of mirror images and faint echoes. It’s no coincidence that we first meet the femme fatale in question – Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) – as a reflection in a shop window, the very embodiment of the desirable ideal up for sale inside.
Standing outside the window, gazing at the hitherto intangible beauty within, is Professor Richard Wanley, who spends his days lecturing on psychology and murder and his nights going home to a cosy family life that leaves him at once comfortable and yet too comfortable. So with the kids and wife out of town, he accepts Alice’s offer of a drink, and soon enough, they end up back at her place. When a jealous lover arrives, though, Chekhov’s scissors come into play, and Richard and Alice find themselves having to dispose of a body.
Lucky for Richard – or unlucky, given his nervous disposition – he gets a fly-on-the-wall view of the police’s investigation into their killing. We first see him at his fancy men’s club downing port with his friend District Attorney Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey), who lets him literally sit in the passenger seat as he drives from clue to clue.
Robinson’s sad, hopeful, worried and guilty face is a joy to watch, as he tries to act innocent in front of his pals. Explaining away suspicious scrapes and bruises, and brushing off his apparent knowledge of the murder’s particulars, it’s fun just to see him try and avoid being detected – Massey and the police officers looking into the case respond in kind with smiles and jokes that are so knowing you (like Richard) never quite relax.
As the screws tighten, Lang has fun toying with windows and doors, always teasing his protagonist with other routes out of his crisis, before zooming in for close-ups that confidently give Robinson plenty of screen time. Bennett, meanwhile, is wonderfully fiery and persuasive, playing Alice like she’s too good to be true and knows it.
The script, by Nunnally Johnson, has become known for its ending, which is as divisive as conclusions come. But whether it was introduced to please censors or not, it makes the film what it is: not just the story of a doomed man in a morality fable, but a gentle deconstruction of the gender norms and vices that typically make up film noir. From the off, Richard’s preoccupied (along with his well-off male chums) with the redundancy of middle age, dwelling on how he and his pals have lost their mojo. Alice, then, becomes the familiar undoing of that urge to escape domestic doldrums.
But in this world of dreamlike reflections, where nothing is as it appears in the shop window, she’s also a chance for Richard to contemplate the unthinkable while exposing the fickleness that’s at the heart of man – a willingness, happily or not, to avoid disrupting routine and make do with the status quo. After all, the only thing more satisfying than being whisked away into a world of darkness? Longing to do so without actually getting out of your chair. And that truthful undercurrent makes The Woman in the Window a fascinating entry in the film noir genre – a movie that, in its own way, is about the thrill of watching movies.
The Woman in the Window is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.