A happy ending was practically a requirement in classical Hollywood that transcended other concerns, often imposed over the objections of the filmmakers. Thus one of the most unique things about Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Window is that the director insisted on a happy ending. That Lang was known for his sombre view of experience makes that insistence all the more intriguing.
The title refers to a portrait admired by Prof. Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson) and his friends on display in a shop window near their club. A complacent bourgeois temporarily on his own, Wanley by chance hooks up with the model in the painting, Alice Reed (Joan Bennett). Through a semi-accident, Wanley and Reed kill her sugar-daddy. They decide to cover up the death, even though they are guilty of nothing more than self-defense. Because one of his friends works in the district attorney’s office, the professor is able to track the investigation of Alice’s lover’s death. He thus stays one step ahead of the authorities, but at the cost of becoming ever more entangled in a web of deceit. His duplicity leads eventually to a conspiracy with Alice to murder the lover’s former bodyguard (Dan Duryea), who thinks he has figured out how his boss died. (It is typical of the film’s ironies that the bodyguard’s supposition is not entirely correct, just close enough to be dangerous.)
Screenwriter and producer Nunnally Johnson thought the story should logically end with Wanley’s suicide. Lang felt that doing so would ascribe all the action to a gratuitous, unwarranted and inescapable fate. To preserve the film’s inexorability, I won’t reveal how the film ends. Suffice to say that while Wanley may be a victim of circumstance, he clearly does not have to take the path he does. Nor can he blame Alice, since she wants to phone the police after her lover’s death. Concealment is the professor’s idea, but he does it neither out of fear of scandal nor even embarrassment. It is simply a bad choice, made in a moment of confusion. Robinson’s nuanced performance shows the professor sleepwalking through self-destruction convinced that his intelligence will get him out of trouble. He is too smart to recognize how stupid he is being.
Unlike his protagonist, Lang never loses his cool. Each understated moment is chiseled with lapidary precision, achieving a seemingly transparent, deceptively easy formal perfection. The result is an odd sort of identification. As we sympathize with the professor, we also recognize his foolishness, producing a kind of dazed fascination, as much at loose ends as the professor himself. You want to shake him and say “Wake up!” so we too can end the nightmare. The combination of lucid treatment and emotional turmoil produces an unnerving demonstration of what happens when a normally self-possessed man succumbs to baser impulses that he does not acknowledge. Lang was right that the story was about much more than an unhappy accident.