Laois Library Film Club: ‘The Woman in the Window’ (1944)

Few other films of the 1940s better set the template for film noir than the 1944 Fritz Lang directed  ‘The Woman at the Window’. One of the giants of early twentieth-century cinema,  Austrian-born Lang directed some of the seminal masterpieces of European pre-war film – works such ‘Dr Mabuse, The Gambler’, (1922) ‘M’ (1927) and ‘Metropolis’ (1931). These films set new standards for world cinema, deploying complex sets, astonishing special effects and brilliantly imaginative plots. Lang’s mastery of the camera also contributed to the ‘language’ of cinema through his pioneering use of shot, composition and camera angle.

A scene from Lang’s 1927 film ‘Metropolis’.

Working as a director in post WWI Weimar Germany,  Lang enjoyed considerable creative freedom up until the Nazis came to power in 1933. Facing increasing censorship, he soon discovered that he could no longer make the films he wanted.  Furthermore, as the Nazis extended their control over literature, art, theatre, music and cinema, Lang was in danger of becoming a tool for the regime. Recognising his skills as one of the world’s foremost directors, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels sought to recruit Lang’s talents for the purpose of fabricating propaganda films. Unwilling to submit to this compromise, Lang fled Germany for Hollywood in 1933 and began working for MGM in 1936. Over the following twenty years, he directed some twenty-three films, working for several of the major studios and as an independent director.

Fritz Lang (Born Vienna, December 5, 1890; Died Beverley Hills, August 2, 1976

Like many émigré directors, Lang found that his work for American studios often resulted in a trade-off between his particular artistic vision and the demands of mainstream studios seeking films that would be formulaic and would, in the opinion of movie moguls, appeal to mass audiences. His American work is sometimes compared unfavourably to his earlier European films, but the reality is that there is a continuity of aesthetic vision and cinematic style throughout. Drawing from the stylistic conventions of early-twentieth-century German Expressionist art, Lang loaned a hard-edged realist to US films of the ‘forties, and his work is now regarded as pivotal to the emergence and development of the film noir genre.

This evening’s film The Woman in the Window (1944) was one of the first films to be termed ‘noir’ – a name applied retrospectively by French film critics. Film noir features certain visual tropes – an urban setting, a sense of the past haunting the present and expressionist lighting – but also particular characterisations.  Very often these involve variations on the theme of a naïve, troubled or compromised male character who becomes romantically attached to an attractive or seductive woman (the femme fatale character) who in turn leads the hapless male on the road to ruin. In tonight’s film Edward G. Robinson (who also starred in last week’s film ‘The Stranger’) plays Richard Wanley, a mild-mannered psychology professor who meets and becomes infatuated with a young woman called Alice Reed, played by Joan Bennett. His attraction promises an excitement missing from his comfortable – if mundane and rather boring – married life. However, things are not the way they seem and his moral choices threaten him with destruction.

Co-starring Dan Duryea as Alice’s clandestine lover, The Woman in the Window is a gripping noir thriller with several unexpected twists in the tale. It also has more than a touch of comedy to the proceedings – fans of the TV series Columbo will enjoy the scenes in which Wanley appears to know more about a murder than he should. Without spoiling the plot, it can be acknowledged that the movie’s ending is also unusual:  one that suggests while Wanley’s troubles may be over, there is still the existential issue of a life that lacks excitement and meaning. A brilliantly suspenseful murder mystery melodrama, directed by one of Hollywood finest directors, The Woman in the Window will keep you guessing to the end!

– Tommy Scott

Portlaoise Library.

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