woman in the window

© 2013 William Ahearn

In 1943, Fritz Lang worked on a treatment of “The Golem,” a remake based on an adaptation of the Jewish legend by Paul Falenberg and Henrik Galeen – who had made three Golem-based films: “Der Golem” (1915, considered a lost film), “The Golem and the Dancing Girl” (1917, also considered lost), and a remake of “The Golem” (1920). Julien Duvivier did a French version, “Le Golem” in 1936. Lang’s version would have taken place in France during the Nazi occupation.

“When I made ‘Woman In The Window,’” Lang wrote in an article for the Penguin Film Review in 1948, “I was chided for ending it as a dream. I was not always objective about my own work, but in this case my choice was conscious.”

The film does end as a dream and how it got that way has been disputed between Fritz Lang and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson, among others. The film is based on Off Guard, a novel by JH Wallis, and it’s the story of an English Professor who meets a younger woman one night and that leads to death, blackmail and suicide. It is the suicide aspect – that would never get past the Hays Office – that demanded a different ending to the story. By the time Lang was hired by Johnson, the script – except for the ending – was finished, Edward G Robinson and Joan Bennett were already cast. In Screenwriter, the Life and Times of Nunnally Johnson – Thomas Stempel writes, “[William] Goetz insisted that the story be revealed at the end to be a dream. Johnson felt that kind of ending was a cheat, but Goetz was insistent, and Fritz Lang, the director agreed with Goetz.”

What makes the dream ending interesting is the way Lang created the transition. When Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G Robinson) takes the poison and nods off, the camera closes in on his face as the crew tears off the breakaway clothes to reveal the clothes he was wearing at the club and the set is changed back to the club and as the camera pulls back, Wanley is back snoozing in the club. One shot. That is what is known as “Langian”: a brilliant technical solution and a visualizing of the script that is dazzling.

The ending of this film has doomed it – although many people defend it – as a minor work of Fritz Lang and that is utterly missing the point. Whoever came up with the ending – and it’s doubtful that it was Lang – is irrelevant. The problem isn’t the ending; it’s everything that precedes it.

In an interview with Stempel for the American Film Institute – and quoted by McGilligan in his biography of Lang – Johnson refers to Lang as a “humorless” man and said “I hardly know what to say about Fritz [Lang] as a director. His record is too formidable, you know, to dismiss him, which I wouldn’t be trying to do, but he offered suggestions that I thought were so corny that I thought he must be laughing. He wasn’t.” Johnson also referred to the scene – shot as newsreel – of the Boy Scout that should have been a solid laugh but Lang filmed it as “a piece of exposition.” Johnson thought that the script was “funnier” on the page. “Comic touches,” he told Stempel, “that were supposed to add to the tension do so but without being in any way comic. What Lang did was simply emphasize the elements of the script he sympathized with and ignore those he did not.”

Had those comic touches been emphasized and the tone of the film lightened, the ending wouldn’t be as jarring as it is. Besides the obvious humor of the private club scene and the scene where Professor Richard Wanley (Robinson) goes with District Attorney Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) and Inspector Jackson of the Homicide Bureau (Thomas E. Jackson) to view the area where the body was found, there is also the scene where Wanley informs Alice Reed (Joan Bennett) that the only way to deal with a blackmailer is to kill him. Here Wanley goes into a completely off-the-wall character transition and Lang directs it as pure drama instead of setting up the dream ending. As a result, the film ends with “why the long face?” without ever stating, “a horse walked into a bar.”

Even so, the film was a major success for Lang and coming after the success of “The Ministry of Fear” it was a banner year for Fritz Lang.

Scarlet Street