Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Window (RKO, 1947, released 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched an American Movie Classics broadcast of the 1949 film The Window, a suspense thriller directed by Ted Tetzlaff (a much better movie than A Dangerous Profession, which he made at the same studio — RKO — the same year), probably one of the few noir movies that had a major role for a child (played by Bobby Driscoll, on loan from Walt Disney), a “Boy Who Cried Wolf” fable about a kid with an overactive imagination who actually witnesses his next-door neighbors commit a murder but can’t get anyone — his parents, the police or any other authority figures — to believe it. It’s a visually stunning film, full of Langesque shots of the “city” on hauntingly lit and framed interior sets, though the content is rather trivial and the final resolution unconvincing (one would think, psychologically, that witnessing a real-life murder and then being threatened by the killer would make a young boy more prone to “imagine” things, not less so — and, indeed, would probably push him towards paranoia and a real inability to distinguish between reality and imagination). — 8/20/93


The film was The Window, a 1949 movie that was essentially Aesop’s fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” recast as film noir. (An opening title actually mentions the fable just so we get the point.) In this version (which, according to an commentator, was actually filmed in 1947 but held back from release for two years as part of the confusion surrounding Howard Hughes’ acquisition of the RKO studio in 1948) the boy who cried wolf is Tommy Woodry (Bobby Driscoll, star of Walt Disney’s Song of the South, So Dear to My Heart and Treasure Island — Disney got acknowledgment on screen for supplying him, but it was probably an easy deal to make since at the time RKO was still Disney’s distributor), whose parents Ed (Arthur Kennedy) and Mary (Barbara Hale, top-billed) are largely absent from his life.

They live in a grungy tenement building in New York City — there are some exteriors that were obviously filmed on location (too many people, including too much moving traffic, over too much space to be the RKO backlot) but the building itself is clearly a studio construction and thanks to the direction by former cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff and the two directors of photography he used, Robert De Grasse (returning to the Gothic effects of his early British credit The Sign of Four after years of making Ginger Rogers glamorous) and William O. Steiner, it’s a noir netherworld of shadows, railings, forced perspectives and oblique angles: The Tenement of Dr. Caligari. Tommy’s fantasies appear motivated partly by his feeling inferior to the other neighborhood kids and partly to escape that hell-hole of an apartment building he lives in — it’s significant that the first fantasy we actually hear from him is that his father owns a ranch out West (Mel Dinelli’s script, based on a story by noir specialist Cornell Woolrich, ingeniously counterpoints one set of iconic movie images with another, representing Tommy’s real life and his fantasy of escaping it!), and that gets them into trouble when word spreads from the neighbor kids to their parents to the Woodrys’ landlord that they’re moving out West in a couple of days and therefore the landlord actually shows other prospective tenants the apartment.

The Woodrys threaten to punish their overly imaginative son by locking him in his room, but before they can do that he gets permission to sleep on the fire escape (this being an ultra-hot New York summer), and unable to sleep on his own fire escape he climbs up one story — and witnesses the upstairs neighbors, Joe and Jean Kellerson (Paul Stewart, the sinister butler from Citizen Kane, and a wildly anti-typecast Ruth Roman — TCM was showing this as part of a birthday celebration for her), try to subdue a drunken sailor they’ve brought up to their apartment, and when they’re unable to shut him up any other way Joe stabs him in the back with a pair of scissors, killing him. (There’s a bit of dialogue in which Jean upbraids her husband for killing the man, asking him why he didn’t just wait until she fed him a drugged drink — exactly what they planned to do with him isn’t spelled out explicitly, but it seems as if they planned to lure him up there with the promise of sex with Jean, then drug him, steal his bankroll and dump him on the street, unconscious and broke but still alive.) They hide the body in a nearby building that’s been condemned, and think they’ve got away with it — but in the meantime Tommy has told his parents about the murder.

Naturally, they not only don’t believe him, but they lock him in his room — though he escapes down the fire escape (again!) and visits the police station, where he tries to report the killing but the cops don’t believe him any more than his parents did. The only people who do believe him are the Kellersons, who wait for a night when he’ll be alone in the apartment (his dad is working a night shift and his mom is visiting a sick sister-in-law) and kidnap him, pretending to be his parents (one reviewer noted the irony that his real parents have been replaced by a false set of “parents” who want to do him in instead of protect him). They take him to the condemned building where they stashed the corpse, apparently intending to make it look like he died accidentally when bits of the building fell on him, and in a set of scenes in which beams hurl themselves at the camera and one gets the impression the final reel may have been intended for 3-D (even though this was five years before the first 3-D feature, Bwana Devil), Tommy is indeed put in mortal peril as the building collapses around him and he’s left holding onto a rafter for dear life — and the fire department ultimately arrives, though they tell him there’s no way they can set up a ladder in that basement and therefore the only way they can rescue him is to set up a net into which he’s supposed to jump.

I’d seen The Window once before, in the early 1970’s, and hadn’t liked it much — thanks, I suspect, to the overplayed cuteness of Bobby Driscoll in the lead, and this time around I spent the first 25 minutes or so wishing RKO could have cast a tougher boy in the lead (like the young Robert Blake, maybe?), but as I got into it I found the film absolutely gripping, with shock scenes more frightening that quite a lot of horror films and a compelling visual atmosphere that gives the impression that it was precisely because his real environment was so damnably claustrophobic that Tommy became such a fantasist.  The Window comes off today as a minor gem of the classic noir period, well worth watching and excellently cast, especially in the adult roles — Arthur Kennedy appears properly hangdog, Paul Stewart looks sinister but not so sinister that he can’t maintain a nice façade (Ed Woodry tells his son that he can’t believe their nice, considerate upstairs neighbors could possibly be guilty of the heinous crime Tommy has accused them of), and Ruth Roman’s performance works (this normally staid actress becomes a convincingly beaten-down madman’s wife and accomplice), though Barbara Hale is somewhat overshadowed by the other adults in the cast. A neatly done movie, a bright spot in Tetzlaff’s promising but largely unfulfilling directorial career, and in those interior scenes one of the most relentlessly stylized of all noirs. — 11/23/11