Fever Dreams: Fritz Lang’s THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (RKO/International Pictures 1944)

Back in 2016, I did a post expounding on one of my favorite films noir, 1945’s SCARLET STREET . This dark masterpiece of corruption starred the titanic trio of Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea in a sordid tale directed by German legend Fritz Lang, with moody cinematography courtesy of Milton Krasner. Recently, I viewed a film this team made the year previous, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, with a screenplay by producer Nunnally Johnson. Comparisons were inevitable, but though there are certainly similarities between the two films, this one stands on its own as a powerful entry in the film noir canon. With all that talent, would you expect anything less?

Robinson plays college professor Richard Wanley, an intellectual lecturing on the psychology of homicide to his students. He’s a happily married father of two kids, left alone while the fam visits relatives. Whaley goes to his men’s club to meet his pals for supper, but before going in, the three men gaze admiringly at a portrait of a beautiful woman in the window next door. Wanley’s friends, DA Frank Lalor (Raymond Massey) and Dr. Barkstane (Edmund Breon) leave after dining, but Wanley stays behind to finish his brandy, and reads a copy of Solomon’s Song of Songs.

As Wanley departs, he stops to again gaze at the portrait – and the woman appears in the flesh, her face reflected in the window! He strikes up a conversation with her, learns her name is Alice Reed, and impulsively joins her for a late night cocktail. Alice takes the professor to her apartment to look at some artist sketches she posed for, all quite innocent. That is, until a man (Arthur Loft) barges into the apartment, angry she’s with someone else, and slaps her hard across the face. A fight breaks out between the man and the scared professor, who grabs a pair of scissors and stabs the intruder to death!

To say things go steadily downhill for Wanley is an understatement, as he methodically concocts a cover-up, dropping the body in a wooded area miles away. His buddy Lalor is on the case, as the deceased turns out to be a big shot financier, whose sleazy bodyguard Heidt (Dan Duryea of course!) comes calling on Alice with blackmail on his mind, and Professor Wanley sinks deeper and deeper into that old familiar noir quicksand…

Fritz Lang’s Expressionist visual roots show up all over this film, and the dark scene where Wanley dumps the body in a rainstorm particularly stood out for me. Krasner’s cinematography is outstanding; he was one of Hollywood’s top DP’s, from his work on 40’s Universal Horrors (THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS,  GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN , THE MAD GHOUL ) to film noir (THE DARK MIRROR, THE SET-UP ), comedies (HOLIDAY AFFAIR, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH), drama (ALL ABOUT EVE), his Oscar winner THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN), and everything in between.

Johnson’s script is a murderous marvel of construction that features a twist ending I admit I did NOT see coming – and I don’t think you will, either! While THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW didn’t supplant SCARLET STREET as my favorite of the Lang/Robinson/Bennett/Duryea/Krasner collaborations, it’s a great film that noir fans will surely love. Like I said before, with all that talent, would you expect anything less?

Bloody Pulp Fiction: THE SET-UP (RKO 1949)

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The seedy worlds of professional boxing and film noir were made for each other. Both are filled with corruption, crime, and desperate characters trapped in situations beyond their control.  Movies like CHAMPION, BODY AND SOUL, and THE HARDER THEY FALL expose the dark underbelly of pugilism. One of the best of this sub-genre is THE SET-UP, Robert Wise’s last film for RKO studios. He doesn’t fail to deliver the goods, directing a noir that packs a wallop!

THE SET-UP follows one night in the life of aging, washed up fighter Stoker Thompson ( Robert Ryan ). Stoker’s 35 now, ancient in boxing terms, but still has delusions of making the big time. Wife Julie (Audrey Totter ) is tired of going from one tank town to the next, and fears for Stoker’s safety. She refuses to go to tonight’s fight, a matchup with up and coming young contender Tiger Nelson. Julie, unlike Stoker, knows the man is running out of time.

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Time plays an important role in this movie, as the script is laid out in real-time, three years prior to the Oscar-winning HIGH NOON. The clock in Paradise City’s town square looms large in the film’s beginning (9:05) and end (10:16). Clocks pop up frequently throughout the movie, letting us know, as Julie already does, that Stoker’s time is running out. Wise’s brisk direction keeps the 72 minute film marching towards Stoker’s inevitable date with destiny.

Stoker’s manager Tiny (George Tobias) and trainer Red (Percy Helton) have made a deal with crooked gambler Big Boy (Alan Baxter) for Stoker to lose in the third round. But they don’t tell Stoker because they assume the bum will lose anyway, and why split the dough three ways? But they fail to realize the fighter in him, angry his wife hasn’t shown up and determined to prove himself worthy, won’t allow him to do anything but his best.

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The locker room is filled with fighters on their way up and down. Young Shanley (Daryl Hickman) is a bundle of nerves before his first professional bout. Cocky Danny (Edwin Max) lives for wine, women, and song, while devout Tony (Phillip Pine) depends on a Higher Power. Black fighter Luther (James Edwards) has big dreams ahead, but punchy Gunboat (David Clarke) has taken one too many blows to the head. The locker room is held together by cynical Gus ( Wallace Ford ) who’s seen ’em come and go, and knows that no one here gets out alive.

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The main event between Stoker and Tiger Nelson is well choreographed by ex-welterweight Johnny Indrisano, a stuntman and bit player (GUYS & DOLLS, SOME LIKE IT HOT, JAILHOUSE ROCK ). The bout is intense and realistic, with Wise using three cameras to capture the brutality. DP Milton Krasner’s use of shadows and light should’ve been Oscar nominated, but wasn’t (Paul Vogel won B&W cinematography that year for BATTLEGROUND). Editor Roland Gross ( THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD ) intersperses the action with shots of the bloodthirsty crowd, including a fat man who keeps stuffing his face, a blind spectator and his pal who interprets the carnage, a young couple, an older couple (the husband seems appalled at his wife’s blood lust), and a gentleman trying to watch the fight and listen to the ballgame on his transistor radio.

Tiny and Red finally tell Stoker to lay down, but the proud fighter is determined to prove himself one more time, and winds up knocking Tiger out. This doesn’t sit well with Big Boy, who just lost a bundle. The gambler, Nelson, and his people confront Stoker in the locker room. He tells them the truth, he didn’t know the fix was in. Tiny and Red have taken a powder, and now Stoker is truly alone. He attempts to leave through the arena, which is locked, and has no recourse than to head out through the alley, where Big Boy and his crew await. He valiantly fights back, but the odds are against him once again, and he’s held down as Big Boy crushes his hand with a brick. Julie sees her husband stagger out of the alley through their hotel window and rushes to him. Bloodied but unbowed, his meal ticket hand ruined, Stoker tells his wife “They wanted me to lay down… I took that kid… I can’t fight no more”. “I won tonight. I won”, he says, and Julie tells him “We both won tonight”, as the camera pulls back to show the town square clock, signaling time has finally run out for Stoker Thompson.

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The powerhouse script is  by ex-sportswriter Art Cohn, who died in the same 1958 plane crash as producer Mike Todd. It’s based on a poem by Joseph Moncure Marsh, with the protagonist changed from a black man to white due to the unsteady race relations of the era (RKO didn’t think a film starring a black boxer would sell in the segregated South). The casting of James Edwards (HOME OF THE BRAVE) was a crumb tossed to black audiences. Even with the change of race, THE SET-UP is still one of the best boxing films in film noir, and holds up well today. Special mention should be made to the use of sound in the movie, with Phil Brigandi and Clem Portman’s work outstanding. Plenty of Familiar Faces show up, like Herbert Anderson, Bernard Gorcey (Louie Dumbrowski of THE BOWERY BOYS series), Donald Kerr ( THE DEVIL BAT ), Tommy Noonan , Charles Wagenheim, and Constance Worth. Famed New York crime photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig has a cameo as the timekeeper.

THE SET-UP is downbeat as all hell, but that’s what makes a good noir, a glimpse into the dark side of life. With its squalid boxing milieu and shady cast of characters, this is one movie fans of the genre will not want to miss.

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Spies Like Us: THE VENETIAN AFFAIR (MGM 1967)

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Robert Vaughn played superspy Napoleon Solo on TV’s THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. from 1964 to 1968. The series was inspired by the James Bond craze, filled with outlandish gadgets and evil supervillains. Vaughn’s popularity led to a starring role in THE VENETIAN AFFAIR, a Cold War spy thriller with a much more adult theme. Here, he plays Bill Fenner, ex-CIA agent, now a hard-drinking reporter who gets caught up in international intrigue.

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Fenner is sent to Venice after a U.S. diplomat supposedly sets off a bomb at an international nuclear disarmament conference. He soon learns the assignment was arranged by his former CIA boss, “Rosey” Rosenfeld (Edward Asner). Rosey wants to use Fenner to smoke out old flame Sandra Fane (Elke Sommer), a Communist agent with a mysterious link to the bombing. Fenner’s odyssey takes him through double-and-triple crosses in the world of international espionage he once left behind.

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Boris Karloff is on hand in his last non-horror role as Dr. Vaugiraud, whose report holds the key to the mystery. Karloff, looking every bit the scientist, does well with the part, giving a very understated performance. German actor Karl Boehm (PEEPING TOM) plays the main villain, Wohl. The rest of the cast includes Roger C. Carmel (STAR TREK’s Harry Mudd), Felicia Farr (wife of Jack Lemmon), Luciana Paluzzi (Bond girl Fiona in THUNDERBALL), and Joe DeSantis (THE PROFESSIONALS, COLD WIND IN AUGUST). Director Jerry Thorpe handles the film with restraint, keeping things realistic. He was best known for his television work, having won an Emmy for the series KUNG FU. DP Milton Krasner had long been a top Hollywood camera ace, lensing everything from THE BANK DICK to GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, SCARLET STREET to ALL ABOUT EVE, THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN (Oscar winner) to THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, HOW THE WEST WAS WON to THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, to his last, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES. Lalo Schifrin’s score is sufficiently moody enough for the shadowy goings-on. Schifrin of course is remembered for composing the theme for another 60’s TV spy show, MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE.

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THE VENETIAN AFFAIR is closer to THE IPCRESS FILE or THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD than any James Bond or Man from U.N.C.L.E. shenanigans. It’s a taut, well paced Cold War thriller, with gorgeous location scenery. While it may not be the best or gaudiest of spy thrillers, it’s certainly worth a look (especially for Boris Karloff buffs). It’s one of those movies that’s not bad, not great, but  pretty entertaining. And who could ask for anything more?

The Art of Noir: Fritz Lang’s SCARLET STREET (Universal 1945)

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One of my favorite movies of any genre has always been SCARLET STREET. I used to watch the grainy Public Domain print on my local cable access channel over and over. When I saw that TCM was running the film last October, I recorded it for future reference, as I was in the midst of my “Halloween Havoc” marathon. I finally got the chance recently to sit down and enjoy this beautiful, crispy clear print and watch the film as it was meant to be seen.

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Meek, mousey cashier Christopher Cross receives a gold watch at a party honoring his 25 years of service to J.J. Hogarth’s company. Chris has done his boring, repetitious job without complaint, though his dream has always to be a successful painter. When Hogarth leaves the party, Chris watches him get into a car with a pretty young girl. Walking home with friend and co-worker Pringle, Chris muses aloud what it would be like to have the love of a young beauty. His  wife Adele is a ballbuster, constantly berating his art and lack of gumption, and unfavorably comparing him to her late policeman husband.

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Enter Kitty March. Chris encounters her getting slapped around by an unknown assailant (later revealed to be her boyfriend Johnny) and rescues her. They go for a cocktail, where Chris tries to impress her by passing himself off as a painter. Kitty, thinking he’s rich and famous, claims to be an actress. Johnny schemes to have Kitty string Chris along, playing him for a sucker. Gullible, lonely Chris now becomes a thief and embezzler in order to fund Kitty’s lavish lifestyle. Johnny brings Chris’s paintings to sell in Washington Square, where they’re snapped up by an art critic named Janeway. Believing he’s discovered a new sensation, Janeway tracks down Johnny to Kitty’s apartment, where he’s tricked into believing Kitty is the artist. Chris’s “modern art”, under Kitty’s name, becomes the toast of the art world. Things fall apart when Adele’s ex-husband shows up, quite alive, and demands to be paid off. Chris, finally free of Adele, can now marry Kitty. But the vixen cruelly rejects him, and Chris murders her, pinning it on Johnny. But Chris will never be rid of Kitty and Johnny, as we discover in the film’s haunting finale.

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Edward G. Robinson has one of his best roles as Chris. Henpecked, his dreams never fulfilled, Chris Cross is one of the most pitiful, heartbreaking characters in film noir, and Robinson pulls it off beautifully. Joan Bennett was never sexier or sluttier than here as Kitty. She’s cruel, lazy, and downright treacherous, without an ounce of kindness, the complete opposite of Chris. Dan Duryea is her man Johnny, giving one of his patented sleazebag performances. Even though he’s framed on a murder rap, I felt no sympathy for Johnny paying for his countless other, unacknowledged sins. Rosalind Ivan (Adele) is as good here as she was in another noir, Robert Siodmak’s THE SUSPECT. Jess Barker, Russell Hicks, Samuel S. Hinds , and Margaret Lindsay round out the excellent supporting cast.

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Fritz Lang’s  expressionistic direction is top-notch, and SCARLET STREET is (in my opinion) one of his top three films, right up there with METROPOLIS and M. Dudley Nichols’s screenplay was based on the French novel LA CHIENNE, filmed in 1931 by Jean Renoir. Of course, since “La Chienne” translates in English to “The Bitch”, the title had to be changed! (We’d have to wait til 1979 for a film with that title, starring the eternally bitchy Joan Collins) Milton Krasner’s B&W photography gives SCARLET STREET an atmospheric, melancholy mood, as does Hans J. Salter’s score.

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The paintings in the film are by John Decker, artist and notorious Hollywood reprobate. Decker was a talented portrait artist known for his drinking bouts with famous pals like Errol Flynn, John Barrymore, and W.C Fields. His paintings are certainly unique, and I’ll leave you with a gallery of some of his artwork:

W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria
W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria
Errol Flynn
Errol Flynn
Harpo Marx as The Blue Boy
Harpo Marx as The Blue Boy
John Wayne
John Wayne