(Some people find spoiler warnings to be an affected annoyance, but the Siren doesn't write this stuff to lessen anyone's pleasure. And so she warns you that this post concerns the ending of The Woman in the Window. See Lang's great movie before you read this, is the Siren's advice.)
In the comments thread to the Siren's post on You and Me, Kevin Deany told a charming story about Fritz Lang's defensive reaction when asked why his films didn't include humor; and this led to some cracks about the term "German humor," to which sallies the Siren nonetheless has a two-word response. The Siren has written before that she finds Lang's films quite sexy (another quality he's occasionally said to lack) and adds that You and Me is very funny.
Plus, the Siren has her own example of an underrated Lang joke, and it's The Woman in the Window, a film she likes very much indeed.
Edward G. Robinson plays a contented professor of criminal psychology, Richard Wanley, who's adrift in Manhattan on a sultry July evening after he's seen his wife and children off to the country. At his club (do men still have those?), Wanley knocks back a couple with old friends, and on his way home he stops to admire a portrait of a beautiful woman in a gallery window. Suddenly, the portrait's subject is standing beside him, as if conjured by the heat cooking his subconscious. The woman, Alice, is Joan Bennett in her most seductive Hedy Lamarr-lookalike phase, and Wanley needs little persuasion to buy her a drink. They repair to Alice's apartment for champagne, and nothing more than that is happening when Alice's lover bursts in and, without much in the way of preamble, starts to throttle Wanley.
Wanley stabs his attacker dead with a pair of scissors. Flush with the classic film-noir determination to make a bad situation worse, he and Alice decide to cover up the crime. Alas, Dan Duryea arrives, puts two and two together and blackmails them. Alice and Wanley decide to bump off Duryea (also the time-honored choice), but Alice botches the poisoning attempt. With Duryea more disgustingly alive than ever, and demanding even more money, Wanley commits suicide. And then, o then...
We see that Wanley has been having a nap in his cozy club chair. Yes, friends, it was all a dream. Still a little freaked out, he exits the club, walks to the gallery window and looks at the portrait, when who should show up? And Wanley takes off in terror, leaving the puzzled beauty on the sidewalk.
What with sample reactions like "copout," "spuriously happy," "it seemed to be tacked on," and "the ending annoyed me so much that it compelled me to re-watch Scarlet Street"--hm, the Siren detects a certain resistance to accepting "it's all a dream" as any kind of a self-respecting film noir ending. There's a few defenders; Brian Kellow allowed as how it "beautifully underlines the inexorable, dreamlike pull of the story." And this gentleman, who helped restore Woman in the Window (without a negative, no less), hated the ending but thought
the technique used in the transitional shot is amazing...Edward G. is sitting in a big overstuffed chair in an apartment, the camera tracks in to a tight close up of his face, then it tracks back revealling him in an entirely different location. There’s no dissolve so you know the crew was flying walls in and out, changing furniture, replacing props, all in a few seconds. Really a great effect.
Well, the Siren, perverse mortal that she is, likes the ending. She can't claim to have seen it coming, but it made sense. Although it also makes sense that many people would hate it. Laughing Boy Fritz Lang plays a practical joke, and a large segment of the audience reacts the way people do to a practical joke: "That's NOT FUNNY."
But the joke doesn't shimmer in out of nowhere, like Jeeves. Girish Shambu (in a video essay the Siren recommends) says, "I find this film, in its own ironic and grim way, to be quite funny." Screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (who admittedly didn't like the end either) wrote some mordantly amusing lines, many delivered by Raymond Massey as Wanley's friend, an assistant district attorney. Massey's fossilized appearance can turn a scene into an instant Charles Addams cartoon anyway, more so when he's patting Wanley's shoulder and saying, "We rarely arrest people just for knowing where the body was." There's also the intrinsically amusing fact that Wanley is a professor of criminal psychology, but for all his ability to plan and execute a crime, he might as well be Father O'Malley in Going My Way.
Fritz Lang spent years telling skeptical interviewers that the Production Code didn't determine the end of The Woman in the Window, he did, and Lang went so far as to tell Peter Bogdanovich that he did it to make the film more plausible. In a way, it does. The film goes from twisted, to bleak, to horrifying, but that's the way a dream often progresses. You're in slumberland, dreaming of, say, a torrid X-rated encounter with Basil Rathbone circa Captain Blood, an example the Siren is pulling out of the purest hypothetical thin air, you understand. And then your creepiest co-worker shows up, and the dream becomes anti-erotic in one quick hurry, and then you hear footsteps on the ceiling and you know the footsteps are after you and when you awake and clutch the sweat-drenched bedclothes, you realize the dream was directed not by Michael Curtiz, but by David Fincher.
Don't lie to the Siren. You've dreamed about sex with a wildly inappropriate partner and found an excuse to skedaddle the very next time you saw the person. Maybe you've even gone to sleep and discovered that your subsconscious has given you permission to go full-dress Raskolnikov on your landlady. Waking up is a release, but there's a catch: Once your mind has revealed all the bits of anxiety playing bumper-cars around your amygdala, you can no longer pretend they aren't there. And Fritz Lang, never one to shy away from bitter truths, says the dream message could be worse.
Wanley says good-bye to his wife, who looks more like his mother than that of his children. And then he goes for a drink and muses that he can't even work up the energy to go see some strippers. And what does his dream bring him? A beautiful woman he never gets to have sex with. A moment of self-defense that he must cover up in the most craven way possible. A co-conspirator who can't manage a poisoning. Consequences he can't evade for acts he didn't even commit. Impotence, in other words, over and over again. Wanley flees from the lady of the evening and his nightmare, but the truth beneath his plumply bourgeois existence is running right with him.
Sure, that's depressing as hell. But it's also pretty funny.
Sure, that's depressing as hell. But it's also pretty funny.