Many film connoisseurs mistakenly qualify “The Woman in the Window” as “minor Fritz Lang”, considering it more mainstream, less original and less art-like compared to Lang’s earlier “Der Müde Tod” (1921), “Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler” (1922), “Die Nibelungen” (1924), “Metropolis” (1927) and “M” (1931). Even critics who acknowledge the importance of “The Woman in the Window” in Lang’s oeuvre and in film history, mainly stress its value as the precursor of film noir genre, rather than the artistic merits of the film itself. In my opinion, “The Woman in the Window” is deeper film than other Fritz Lang films I mentioned above, and it shows the director’s greater maturity as an artist; I hope to prove it in this article.
Viewers usually see this film as a sort of morality tale illustrating dangers of being lured into a sexual trap set by a femme fatale, and the common notion of a single misstep having far-reaching consequences – but such interpretations are not entirely correct. First of all, Alice Reed (played by Joan Bennett), isn’t a typical femme fatale, but rather a victim type: she is not consciously trying to destroy Assistant Professor Richard Wanley (Edward G. Robinson in one of his less aggressive roles), and isn’t even trying to manipulate him into submission or to take advantage of him in any way (aside from relieving her boredom by practicing her charms on a funny middle-aged man); she is in trouble no less than the lead character. Secondly, even though the “single misstep” theme is present in the film, it’s not the key subject matter here, but rather a form-building technique that gives this story certain similarities with such literary structures as “The Monk” by Matthew Gregory Lewis (published in 1796), and “Das Schloß” by Franz Kafka (published in 1926).
I believe that the true theme of “The Woman in the Window” is the philosophical dichotomy between determinism and free will. The film asks whether all events of our existence are bound by the rigid cause-and-effect structure, or we can freely choose things that befall us – and, if the latter is true, what should be the basis for our choice and how we can make it.
The ancient intellectual conflict of strict causality versus free will isn’t likely to ever be resolved. From deterministic point of view, everything – including our thoughts, actions and decisions – is caused by preceding events, and what we see as “free will” is nothing but our ignorance of the “big picture” of the complex and nearly infinite network of causes. The proponents of the free will, on the other hand, state that there are events even in physical universe that are not connected by any cause-and-effect relationship, and therefore, a conscious mind is free to make a choice that is not dictated by any prior occurrence. Till the late XIX century science seemed to favor determinist point of view, but the most current trend, started by Josiah Willard Gibbs, is to see physical reality in terms of statistical probability and chance rather than strict causality. Philosophers has differed in their opinions through the ages, and offered powerful reasoning in support of determinism and free will, as well as many equally weighty arguments in refutation of both concepts. Ultimately, no measurement can be absolute, no result of mathematical calculation can be confirmed with complete certainty, no physical law can be fully tested and proven – and no philosophical position can be asserted as the truth. It all comes down to individual faith and the personal choice (either predetermined or freely made). First we gain faith in a certain concept for certain combination of reasons, and then we seek best arguments to support our faith. For example, I support the concept of positive reasonable doubt in the matters of idealism versus materialism: I cannot be sure that the material universe is the only true reality, and recognize many things as evidence of higher, spiritual level of being – so I must apply the concept of reasonable doubt and choose idealism as the truth (see “12 Angry Men”, dir. by Sidney Lumet, 1957).
But let’s get back to “The Woman in the Window”. Its dramatic structure contains not one, but several progressive missteps by the lead character.
1. Richard Wanley stops to admire the portrait of the unknown woman in a gallery window. This seems the most innocent misstep, but actually the crucial one. It’s his attraction to the painting that makes the character of Alice Reed materialize. He should have just walked by, which would have been the easiest thing to do – but he doesn’t.
2. Alice Reed appears out of thin air and accosts Richard Wanley, striking up a flirtatious conversation with him. He should have apologized and left, instead of supporting the conversation, and that, too, would have been relatively easy – but he hasn’t.
3. Alice Reed invites Richard Wanley for “just one drink” in a nearby bar. He agrees, even though he should have said no, which still wouldn’t require a lot of willpower.
4. She invites him “to look at some sketches” at her house. After showing feeble resistance (giving her a list of things that he shouldn’t have done by now), Richard agrees. His willpower, somewhat diminished by alcohol, isn’t sufficient to overcome this new temptation (still relatively minor, but stronger than the previous ones).
5. At Alice’s place, after showing Richard the sketches, she offers him another drink. It’s the last chance for Richard to escape the quagmire, but as Alice says, “this is much too pleasant to break up”. Richard hurts his finger while trying to open a bottle of champagne (the foreshadowing of the approaching suffering), but this forceful reminder is just not enough to sober him up.
6. A grotesque “force majeure” is introduced, in the form of the jealous millionaire Claude Mazard who storms in and proceeds to strangle Richard. Fighting for his life, Richard stabs his attacker with scissors and kills him. The choice is thus elevated to a new level: to report the murder to the police or to hide the body. There’s more at stake this time: if Richard calls the police, he may lose his job and probably be separated from his family; if he doesn’t call and is later found out, he will face a trial, a prison term or even death penalty. It’s clear that the correct choice would be to confess, but Richard chooses to hide the body of the murdered man instead. During the following several interactions with his friend, the District Attorney investigating the case of the missing millionaire, Richard blurts out several clues that may very well implicate him in the future. (Why he does that will become clear in a couple of paragraphs.)
7. Heidt, the blackmailer, appears and demands five thousand dollars. Richard Wanley defines the choice at this point as threefold: “You can pay him and pay him and pay him until you’re penniless. Or, you can call the police yourself and let your secret be known to the world. Or… you can kill him.” The fact that Richard by that time has already made the choice to kill the blackmailer, and the way he says it, shows that the pressure of circumstances has precipitated his inner corruption, transforming him imperceptibly from an innocent, diffident academician in peril to a violent, cynical predator. (This introduces the very important part of the subject matter: series of wrong choices that we may make are dangerous not so much because they put our social and physical survival at risk, but mainly because they can imperceptibly transform our psyche, turning us into our own evil twins. Such inner transformation is impossible to self-diagnose, because in our subjectivity we’re bound to perceive ourselves as unchanged and basically good, no matter how corrupt we my have become.)
8. The plot to kill the blackmailer fails and backfires: he demands more money. Drained of willpower, confused about his choices and unable to face the responsibility for his mistakes, Richard falls into abject despair and commits suicide.
This outcome reveals theretofore hidden true nature of the key motivation behind Richard’s actions: Freudian “Todestrieb” (death drive), the desire of any organic life to return to the inanimate state – the secret dark side of the “pleasure principle”, Thanatos behind the mask of Eros. (Evidently, having embraced the American commercial cinema style, Fritz Lang however never really severed his German Expressionist roots.)
The structure of the story very well illustrates the idea that tiny, seemingly insignificant choices we face every day should be treated very seriously, as they are often more important than they seem. It’s a lot easier to make a correct small choice in a situation where not much is at stake and very little energy is needed, than to face a huge quandary, selecting lesser of two evils. To quote from Chapter 64 of Tao Te Ching:
What remains still is easy to hold.
What is not yet manifest is easy to plan for.
What is brittle is easy to crack.
What is minute is easy to scatter.
Deal with things before they appear.
Put things in order before disorder arises.
A tree as big as a man’s embrace grows from a tiny shoot.
A tower of nine stories begins with a heap of earth.
The journey of a thousand li starts from where one stands.
Even though I must accede that “it-was-all-just-a-dream” ending of the film is probably not much of a surprise (it was added after the suicide sequence mainly to make “The Woman in the Window” better comply with the notoriously prudish Hays Code), I think Fritz Lang succeeded in making the movie more profound thanks to that ending. Richard Wanley’s overkill climactic reaction to a strange woman’s request to light her cigarette may seem hilarious, but it actually shows the correct tactic for abstaining from seemingly small temptations. Up to that point in the story, Richard failed to make the right choice each time, because making it would require just a little more willpower and energy than he was prepared to give it. In the humorous climax, however, Richard puts all his willpower and energy into the tiny right choice, refusing the “call to a dark adventure” with everything he’s got – and no matter how funny it may look, that’s probably one of the best ways it can be done.
In “The Woman in the Window”, Fritz Lang tells us that freedom of will is real, and can be actualized by investing our complete commitment into the right choice. “The window” of the title is the opening that allows us to see the reality beyond our mundane world, and “the woman” is any obstacle that blocks our vision of that higher realm. We must therefore concentrate on fulfilling our moral mission, and turn away from any “women in windows”, whatever specific forms they may take in each case.