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The Woman in the Window

If every new television season of detective dramas brings a fresh slate of psycho-killer tales, we have Fritz Lang to thank. The director's fascination with criminal procedure and the minds of killers marked most of his better work, starting with his chilling examination of Peter Lorre's child-murderer in M (1936) and his back-to-back criminal justice dramas Fury (1936) and You Only Live Once (1937). After a lengthy period of studio work (some pedestrian, some extraordinary), Lang's interest in the criminal mind blossomed with his dramas of the late 40s and early 50s. In pictures like Clash by Night (1952), The Blue Garden (1953), The Big Heat (1953) and Human Desire (1954), his artful tales of lust, greed and obsession, told with a distinctive use of noir chiaroscuro, established Lang as one of the masters of the genre. This especially fruitful period started in 1944-45, when he made two crime dramas that used the same actors in leading roles. The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street starred Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea, and while Lang told a very different story with each picture, they marked the beginning of a career span in which he would obsessively explore the reasons why men kill, and the often devastating effect of giving into impulse.

In The Woman in the Window, Robinson plays Richard Wanley, a psychology professor whose wife and children have left town for a holiday. After a quiet evening with a book and a few glasses of whiskey at his gentleman's club, a chance encounter with a beautiful woman named Alice Reed (Bennett) leads to their adjourning to her apartment for a nightcap and a little innocent flirtation for the meek professor. But when her angry boyfriend bursts in and attacks Wanley in a jealous rage, he defends himself with a pair of scissors, stabbing the man to death. Afraid that if they to the police it will harm his marriage and his reputation, Wanley conspires with Alice to hide the body and clean up the evidence. While their plan is solid, complications arise — the man Wanley killed was a wealthy industrialist, so his murder is given priority by the District Attorney (Raymond Massey), who happens to be one of Wanley's closest friends. And it turns out that the victim had a bodyguard shadowing him, a smarmy thug (Duryea) who now has blackmail on his mind.

*          *          *

Lang relentlessly ratchets up the tension in The Woman in the Window by placing Wanley - an ordinary, somewhat stuffy man who's not a killer by nature - in situations where he risks discovery at every turn. His drive into the countryside to dump the body is an exercise in guilt and anxiety, as Wanley fumbles for change at the toll booth and makes nervous eye contact with a motorcycle cop at a railway crossing. When his DA pal invites him to come along to the site where the body was found, Wanley's too flustered to come up with a good reason not to do so - and his ego is big enough that he believes he can bluff his way along, even though he keeps slipping up. Robinson is marvelous, showing the mistake in typecasting him as a tough, and while Duryea often played smooth-talking hoods, no one did it better. The film's ending has been described by some as a cop-out, but it offers a nice, light sigh of relief that concludes a supremely taut suspense thriller.

MGM's release of The Woman in the Window offers a very clean full-screen (1.33:1) transfer with nice contrast and excellent, deep blacks. The Dolby monaural audio (English, Spanish or French, with optional Spanish and French subtitles) is equally good. No extras, keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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