Woman in the Window is a definitive film noir. There’s the nighttime settings, the unintended crime, the naive protagonist falling fast from respectability into a dangerous underworld, a creepy villian, and a mysterious lady. It doesn’t hurt that the protagonist, Professor Wanley, is played by Edward G. Robinson, the lady by Jean Bennett, and the creep by Dan Duryea. Unlike the similar Scarlett Street, here the protagonist is cut off from his family near the beginning, never to return to them (well, almost never).
As the title suggests, windows, pictures, and images play a key symbolic role. It’s Alice’s (Bennett’s) painting that sets the plot in motion; that she appears as a reflection in the window next to her portrait is an almost supernatural touch. Near the end, as the Professor sits alone, contemplating his misfortunes, he sees the comforting family photos. But they’re only that–images, reminders that they’re remote and inaccessible., unable to help. Once the Professor finds himself at Alice’s apartment, he’s entered the unknown. Ironically, he’s strongly hinted that he wants to forestall “the end of spirit and adventure” that he and his stolid, respectable middle-aged colleagues have felt. After the jealous Mazard’s (Arthur Loft’s) death, the Professor faces relentless challenges that ruin him emotionally and physically.
Unlike the femme fatales in many noirs, Alice is fairly sympathetic. She never wavers from supporting Wanley (the Professor) in their dilemma; not only with the police but also with Dan Duryea’s Heidt, the sociopathic blackmailer. She does affect double-crossing behavior with Heidt, but only as a ruse to gain his confidence. His giddy manner betrays that he’s in his element in the criminal underworld; he’s enjoying messing with peoples’ lives. At the opposite end of the law, Raymond Massey, as the D.A. Frank Lalor, cruises comfortably through his investigation of Mazard’s death, knowing what he’s doing, and, more importantly, knows why he’s doing it. Lalor and his subordinates inadvertently twist the screws tighter on Wanley, their nonchalance and jocularity about the crime mocking Wanley’s hidden guilt. Lalor is a sort of alter ego for Wanley, able to say and act out what Wanley’s fretting about–all the tell-tale details of the crime.
It seems that Wanley feels they do suspect him; his paranoia undoubtedly stoked by the repeated, almost hallucinatory appearance of cops in his path. Interestingly, Wanley, despite Heidt’s threats to go to the cops, is never officially a suspect. Alice could give him up, but won’t. She’s the one fingered by the police, she’s the one dealing with Heidt, and it’s her place that Heidt’s leaving when he’s killed in a shoot-out with the police. The cruelest irony is that, just as the Mazard’s case is neatly tied up by Heidt’s death, Wanley, figuring that he’s doomed, poisons himself. Heidt is found with evidence that is self-incriminating, all the juicy stuff he has on Wanley dies with him. I would’ve been happy if the hand that revives Wanley had been his wife’s, or even Alice’s.
But, no, we’re left with a Wizard of Oz ending, complete with a parade of doppelganger characters in innocent roles. I’ve got to admit to the ending’s cleverness; but it’s unsatisfying. I’d be more taken in if either Wanley dies, or gets help before he dies. Woman in the Window would be perfect with a different ending; as it is it’s still remarkable, and incredibly entertaining. 9/10.