The human heart is sometimes fickle. Hidden desires come out uninvited and, sometimes, human beings can become slaves to them. If a desire is hidden and suddenly reveals itself, most often as a kind of forbidden fruit, it’s usually a good indication of direction one should not go. There is always a voice of ethics as opposed to a voice of the erotic that calls us back to reality so we might avoid the dire consequences of succumbing to unmoored eros. History and literature warn us that this is an especially dangerous temptation for middle-aged men no longer feeling vital in the midst of the ordinary turn of events.
In “The Woman in the Window” (1944), directed by Fritz Lang, Edward G. Robinson plays such a man. A professor of psychology at a local college, Richard Wanley deems himself an ordinary man who is aware of the precarious nature of his age. He doesn’t indulge in any wanton talk of a mid-life crisis. Instead, he uses logic and intellect to weed out any submission to emotional and irrational desires.
But when his wife and two children leave to go on short vacation, Wanley goes to his club to meet with a few friends. Before he enters the club, he is taken in by a painting in a store front window display: a portrait of a woman with a mysterious and suggestive facial expression, her neck and shoulder tastefully exposed. His gaze is one of curiosity but, it would appear here, he is mainly drawn in for aesthetic reasons.
At the club, his friends tease Wanley about the fact that he is now a “bachelor” while his wife and children are away. He assures them he is nothing of the sort—that there is no cause for concern or rude jokes. After his friends leave, and in order to pass the time, Wanley does pick a book—but not just any kind of book. Clearly alluding to the nature of hidden desires, the book is Song of Songs or Song of Solomon—the great Biblical erotic poem about two lovers who sing praises of each other as they desperately try to reunite.
There are many interpretations of the Song of Songs, some taking the relationship to be literally between man and woman, others have taken on a more philosophical, theological, and symbolic meaning. But it’s clear that the intent in the film is to look at the poem from a literal point of view.
As he reads, Wanley falls asleep, only to be awakened by the club’s butler so he heads home. He is driven to take another look at the painting of the woman in the storefront window. But this time, Wanley’s look is hardly distant or absent. As if reading the Song of Songs activated a long-forgotten desire, Wanley’s gaze is contemplative and yearning. He thinks that he has the power over the desires the painting draws out but in fact, it is the woman who draws him into her fold.
As he carefully examines the woman, as he is becoming obsessed with the desire to possess the painting, the face of the woman begins to come alive. Wanley is startled only to realize that there is an actual woman standing behind him. The woman is Alice Reed, played by Joan Bennett, and it turns out, she happens to be the woman who posed for the painting.
After a brief exchange, Wanley agrees to go out for a drink with her and to her apartment in order to see the original sketches of the painting. There is a suspenseful quality to this exchange. We know that this meeting will not end with Wanley going home, having a cup of warm milk, putting on his striped pajamas, and falling asleep. Alice is coy—as any femme fatale would be.
But this brief erotic exchange, this possibility of an affair is quickly extinguished by the abrupt and aggressive arrival of a man, Frank Howard. He is angry and appears to be threatened by Wanley’s presence in Alice’s apartment. He tries to murder Wanley but instead, in self-defense, Wanley kills him.
Alice the femme fatale suddenly becomes an irrational damsel in distress. Bennett switches so easily and beautifully from cigarette-smoking, gin-and-tonic-drinking seductress to a helpless woman, who suddenly has a dead body in her apartment. Any notion of a love affair, which seemed attractive and dangerous (and which the audience might have expected), is completely destroyed by this one act.
But can Wanley be judged in the same manner as a cold-blooded killer? Can he make this already absurd situation any better? If only he refused the siren call of the woman in the painting! The ethical necessity has taken over the erotic force. Nothing matters now, except the next step.
Wanley decides not to call the police and that the only option is to get rid of the body. Every scene keeps the viewer on edge because Wanley is continuously making clumsy mistakes in covering up the murder. Robinson is a master at playing Wanley as both a pathetic and pitiable man but also as a man who is trying to escape justice. He doesn’t deem himself guilty of murder, only guilty of having met and been drawn in by Alice.
Bennett’s Alice is warm and caring toward Wanley but that, too, is not something of which we can be certain. After all, who is she really? Why was she interested in the middle-aged Wanley? Was the whole thing just one big set up in order to get rid of Frank Howard? Is Wanley simply a dullard who was used for untoward purposes? Or is Alice really no femme fatale but merely a poor, confused woman caught in a nightmare? Or is there a most surprising twist in the end?
Lang certainly could be considered the creator of the film noir genre, especially with his 1931 film, “M.” But even before that, at the height of German Expressionism, in his silent masterpiece “Metropolis” (1927), we see the elements of darkness and tension, which become part of Lang’s language and oeuvre. As a director of silent films, he had to rely purely on images in order to convey the gravity of the plot and suspense. In “The Woman in the Window,” Lang’s background in making those choices stands out, especially in close ups. The film remains part of the great American tradition of film noir, as well as a perfect marriage between American cinematic vision and Lang’s roots in German Expressionism.
Robinson’s capacity as an actor to convey the interiority of a human being remains unparalleled. He is often known to the general audience as a man who played gangsters, but this is poor and lazy analysis. Robinson’s range throughout his career reveals a man deeply aware of the foibles of the human heart—one who knows that nothing is simple or superficial about people, not even gangsters. In this film, he shines as an academic, yearning for passion over his life of silent desperation. But, as his character reveals, there is always a cost for such untamed desire.