Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson were a spectacularly successful pairing in Fritz Lang’s classic 1945 film noir Scarlet Street. That was in fact their second pairing for Lang, having previously appeared together in The Woman in the Window a year earlier. Once again they’re an oddly effective fatal attraction kind of combination.
Robinson is Professor Richard Wanley, a mild-mannered criminologist who loves to discuss crime with his friends over a glass of sherry at his club. His friends are in the business as well, so to speak, one of them being the District Attorney. Wanley is the sort of quiet rather bookish man who has probably never been guilty of returning a library book late but he’s undoubtedly wondered how he would react if he actually found himself involved on a crime. He’s about to find out.
The crucial scene in the movie is an anticipation of Scarlet Street since it involves Joan Bennett and a painting. The professor sees an extraordinary portrait of an extraordinary woman in an art gallery window. As he gazes in rapture at the picture he notices a woman standing behind him, reflected in the glass. It’s the very same woman. She seems friendly, she’s amused by his response to the painting, and invites him to have a drink with her. Her name is Alice. They end up back at her apartment.
Whether they were going to get up to anything romantic or not is something we don’t know since they are interrupted by the sudden appearance of an enraged madman. The professor defends himself; the intruder is soon lying dead on the carpet.
While it’s unlikely he would be charged with murder there would be a scandal, and the university authorities might not be too thrilled. The question of why he was in this woman’s apartment would also be raised and it would be difficult to convince anyone that they were really just having a quiet drink. And the professor is a married man. In fact the scandal could wreck his career. Then the professor has one of those ideas that people in movies always seem to have - if nobody knew the man was there do they really need to report it to the police?
Unfortunately the professor isn’t as knowledgeable as he thought when it comes to the field of criminal investigation and he is soon alarmed to discover that his friend the DA might well solve the mystery. There’s also a question of blackmail.
The Woman in the Window is a movie that even Fritz Lang fans have second thoughts about, mostly due to the ending (about which I will say nothing).
The most interesting this about this movie is that Wanley and Alice have done nothing wrong, but that isn’t going to stop them from being hunted. Perhaps they made a foolish decision in not calling the police but despite their innocence the circumstances could most definitely have seemed suspicious and maybe being innocent wouldn’t have helped them. In Lang’s universe a policeman is not necessarily your friend. Whether you’re innocent or guilty doesn’t really matter, it’s all just a matter of luck, of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And if you make a bad decision it can never be reversed. Once Wanley and Alice have chosen their course they cannot turn back. They can only wait as the hunters close in.
This had the potential to be one of Lang’s great movies, and there is still a great deal to admire. The ending is a problem though. Robinson and Bennett are terrific, Lang piles on the paranoia very effectively, and despite its flaws it’s still essential viewing for anyone with any interest in film noir.