Monday, June 11, 2012

Frilmz Noir: The Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street

Before recently, my experience with Fritz Lang's films began and ended with his Expressionist science fiction masterpiece Metropolis. Considering how amazing that movie is, it's baffling that I've gone so long without seeking out more.

1944's The Woman in the Window and the following year's Scarlet Street, are two of Lang's early film noirs, both very dark tales of passion and murder, and both featuring the same main cast. They were made nearly two decades after Metropolis, and by this point he had gone from Germany to Hollywood.

The first, The Woman in the Window stars Edward G. Robinson as Richard Wanley a timid, middle-aged professor who yearns for the adventurousness of youth. After a quiet night of drinking at a social club with friends, he finds himself admiring a painting of a beautiful woman in a storefront window. He is then surprised to meet the subject of the painting herself, Alice (Joan Bennett). They get a drink together and Wanley soon finds himself at her home. Not long after that, her lover comes in, furious and violent. Wanley ends up killing him, and he and Alice work out a plan to cover up the murder.

The rest of the movie is Wanley trying to live with his guilt and cover his tracks, even as his own friends from earlier, the District Attorney, and a doctor, investigate the case and come ever closer to finding the culprit. At the same time, a blackmailer (Dan Duryea) is tormenting Alice with his knowledge of what really went down.

The whole thing builds toward a beautifully dark, poetic and ironic conclusion. That is, until it's all taken away in the last three minutes by the strict guidelines of the Hayes Code, whose regulations restricted pretty much anything cool in American movies until the mid-60's. That's right, they didn't accept the original ending, so Lang had to tack on a crappy little scene afterwards that negates pretty much everything that went on before. It's very disappointing, but if you just turn off the movie a little bit early (you'll know when), you'll get a story that feels complete, uncompromised, and uncompromising.

Lang's very next film, Scarlet Street, feels like he wanted a do-over after his previous film had been tampered with. It explores some of the same themes, of midlife restlessness, and of the nature of guilt. This time around, Robinson plays Christopher Cross, a timid, middle aged bank cashier in a loveless marriage whose true passion is painting. At a celebration honoring his long years with the bank, he jealously watches his boss leave the party with a young mistress. Walking home that night, he witnesses what he believes to be a mugging. Chasing off the mugger, he takes the victim, Kitty (Bennett), for a drink. Smitten, he tells her about his aspirations as a painter.

Kitty, in actuality, is the girlfriend of the mugger, Johnny (Duryea). Knowing little of the arts, Kitty believes Cross is actually a successful but modest painter, not just a hobbyist. Together, they work up a scheme to bleed Christopher dry, with Kitty acting as a muse for his paintings and Johnny selling them. It all leads to, you guessed it, a murder. And then guilt. I won't spoil the outcome, though.

Of the two, I liked the second film better. The Woman in the Window almost feels like a sketch for what ultimately became Scarlet Street. The characters were all around more three dimensional in Scarlet Street, the plot more fully formed, and the sad ending was not compromised. Also, even though no blood is shown, and the victim is cleverly obscured, the murder scene in Scarlet Street is still really brutal and effective. It takes some pretty sly work for a director to sneak something past the Hayes Code, and Lang gets away with quite a bit here.

These two films were the first I'd ever seen starring Edward G. Robinson, and I have to say, he really surprised me. Like everyone, I associate him with the "Nyeah, see, NYEAH!" voice that he's often parodied with. He's not like that at all in these. In both movies, he's a shy and timid loser-y guy who gets tangled up with the wrong kind of girl and makes a series of bad decisions. He's very sympathetic along the way, and it hurts to see him eaten alive by the end.

If you're in the mood for a good Film Noir double feature, you could do worse than these two movies. They play great as companion pieces to each other, and seeing Edward G. Robinson playing against the type he's come to be synonymous with is really fun. I'd love to watch more Fritz Lang films, especially more of his early German work.

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