Goodbye Hitler, hello Hollywood
After fleeing Germany in 1934, director Fritz Lang eschewed the surreal splendor of his earlier films for a series of pared-down, urban morality plays. Lang never made a Hollywood movie as great as M, but he had a knack for crafting taut, humane noirs, and one of the first—and best—of these films is 1944’s The Woman in the Window.
Edward G. Robinson plays assistant college professor Richard Wanley, a timid, middle-aged bookworm whose wife and children leave town for the summer while he stays behind to teach a class on the “psychological aspects of homicide.” One night over drinks, Wanley confesses to his friends that he hates the stodginess of his world, and sees this solidity as “the end of the brightness of life.” The “siren call of adventure” beckons him later that evening, as the beautiful woman (Joan Bennett) in the portrait he had been admiring materializes in the reflection of the gallery window. They go out for drinks and intimate conversation, and eventually return to her apartment. The woman’s jealous boyfriend busts in, and Wanley is compelled to kill him in self-defense.
Taking the academic approach, Wanley dumps the body outside town, and he and the woman swear themselves to secrecy. However, bits of stray evidence peel away from them, and the District Attorney pieces together the clues while a blackmailer (Dan Duryea) complicates matters further.
Like the best of Lang’s American films—You Only Live Once, The Big Heat, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt and Scarlet Street (which reunited Robinson, Bennett, and Duryea one year later in similar roles)—The Woman in the Window is about a decent man with amoral impulses that are revealed when he’s pushed into a corner. Fitting material for a man who lost everything when his countrymen—including his wife—became Nazis.