By Philip Schweier
Some months back, I offered for your consideration a review of Fritz Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945), unaware that it had an unofficial prequel in the form of Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944). The two films are less cousins and more like identical twins, in that the three major roles seem cut from the same cloth and are played by the same actors.
Edward G. Robinson plays college professor Richard Wanley, an upstanding family man who sends the wife and kids off to Maine (presumably to cool off during the brutal New York summer, a la Seven Year Itch). He then joins his buddies Raymond Massey and Edmund Breon – a district attorney and doctor, respectively – at their favorite gentleman’s club (not the modern kind; this one has over-stuffed chairs and cigars, and instead of scantily-clad stripper named Destiny, they make do with fade-into-the-woodwork butlers named Collins).
Next door to the club is an art gallery, which features the portrait of an anonymous young woman in the front window. This leads to a discussion concerning the tendency of older gentlemen like themselves to indulge in what may seem a harmless middle-aged fantasy, but often leads a man down a path of self-destruction, all due to a temporary lapse in judgment or one drink too many.
Wanley is just such a candidate, but his moral resolve is stronger, leaving him to perusing the Song of Solomon (one of the Bible’s more ribald passages) in the club library while his buddies head out for a night of ambiguous carousing. Later, when leaving the club, Wanley pauses to admire the painting in the window one more time.
Who should appear reflected in the glass but Alice Reed (Joan Bennett), the woman who posed for said painting. She invites Wanley for an innocent drink and to view the artist’s other work. Later, back at her place, a jealous sugar daddy (Arthur Loft) bursts in upon the two sharing an innocent bottle of champagne. In a fit of rage, the man is choking Wanley, only to have Alice hand the college professor a handy pair of scissors with which to defend himself.
With his attacker dead on the floor, Wanley asserts his position as self-defense, but rather than allow the potential scandal of being involved in this little love nest destroy him, he chooses to conspire with Alice to dump the body elsewhere, putting distance between themselves and the nameless victim. To seal the deal, Wanley offers to leave behind his vest, providing authorities with a potential clue. Alicefinds a monogrammed pen in the pocket, which she keeps as insurance.
Later, when the body is located by a local Boy Scout, the man is revealed to be Claude Mazard, wealthy financier with a rock-hard reputation. Wanley’s district attorney buddy is brimming with clues the luckless Wanley left behind, such as tire prints, and shoe prints indicating height, weight and build of the likely murderer. Wanley is frightened, already seeing his respectable beginning to unravel.
It only gets worse when Heidt (Dan Duryea), a low-life blackmailer, gloms onto Alice’s involvement and begins squeezing her for blackmail money. He locates Wanley’s pen in her dresser drawer, suggesting that there’s more than one canary here with something to protect. There’s a $10,000 reward for identifying Mazard’s killer; he’ll settle for half that. Alice’s fear of being exposed tells him he’s on the right track. But then he invites her to run away with him, comfortable in the notion that his knowledge of her illicit doings will keep her in line.
So as in Scarlet Street, you have a matchable trio: Robinson is still playing the good guy in over his head; Bennett is still playing a woman of questionable means and morals; and Duryea is a lowlife, right down to the straw hat he wears in both films. I always thought boaters went out of style in the 1920s, but judging by this film, perhaps not.
When Wanley learns of Heidt’s efforts to blackmail them both, he tells Alice there are three ways to handle a blackmailer: call his hand and allow your secret to be exposed, pay him off or kill him. I won’t spoil the movie by revealing their intention, but it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out at this point.
The comparisons between The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street are inevitable, and one seems like a dry run for the other. Scarlet Street’s storyline seems more sophisticated, more intricate than its predecessor’s. The Woman in the Window features an ending that’s a little too pat (and possibly predictable to your better-informed movie buffs), but it is interesting to watch the two almost back-to-back, as if watching one film mature into a better one.