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Two by Lang: 'The Woman in the Window' & 'While the City Sleeps'

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by Peter Bogdanovich
May 7, 2012 3:20 PM
6 Comments
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Edward G. Robinson Joan Bennet in 'The Woman in the Window' (1944)

When Alfred Hitchcock made his first thrillers in the mid-1920s, he was often praised as “an English Fritz Lang,” Lang then being world famous for making nightmarish German crime pictures in the silent era, culminating with such 1930’s sound classics as M (about a child murderer) in Germany, and Fury (about a lynch mob) in the U.S., where he lived and worked from the mid-30s. When asked, Hitch always counted Fritz among his biggest influences, but film history being so fast-moving and fickle, from the mid-1940s onward, Lang was occasionally referred to as “the German Alfred Hitchcock.”

If you’re in the mood for a double-feature of American Lang suspense movies, both excellently representative of the kind of dark, ominous and scary work for which he was known to film buffs internationally, check out Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett, and Dan Duryea in 1944’s THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (available on DVD) and George Sanders, Vincent Price, Ida Lupino, Rhonda Fleming, Dana Andrews, Thomas Mitchell, and John Barrymore, Jr. (Drew’s dad) in 1956’s WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (also available on DVD).

Although many actors did not get along with Lang’s autocratic, often dictatorial methods—-Spencer Tracy (after Fury), for example, vowed never to work with him again—- but The Woman in the Window was the first of two pictures Edward G. Robinson did with the director and the second of four that starred Joan Bennett, who reportedly liked him very much.

Both stars are also especially good in this cautionary tale of the dangers of temptation: Middle-class businessman Robinson, extremely fond of his family, finds himself feeling lonely when they leave for a vacation, and unfortunately vulnerable to a pickup by the sexy young woman Bennett plays tantalizingly. Soon Robinson is embroiled in a murder he commits in self defense, along with numerous other terrible repercussions, all because of a moment’s weakness. Although the playful ending has been much criticized as a commercial copout, Lang always defended it as justified by Robinson’s essential innocence; yet fate is rarely kind in Lang’s movies and only in this rare instance does he allow his victim a welcome (and cleverly visualized) reprieve.

No such luck for the group of self-serving, cynically grasping, generally hypocritical newspaper people who dominate the cast of characters in While the City Sleeps, which deals with a serial sex-murderer (Barrymore), on whom they are all trying to get leads, or apprehend, mainly in order to improve their position at the big city newspaper, where they’re each vying for a newly-vacated executive position.

Fritz Lang

Lang enjoys portraying the killer as essentially more honest than the supposedly upright citizens on his trail: after all, doesn’t the murderer have the self-awareness and decency to plead to be caught “before I kill more” (this based on an actual case in Chicago)? The stellar ensemble of solid B-picture stars are all adroit and likeably scabrous in their various underhanded dealings. Though the film was quickly made on a tight budget and sometimes shows it, Lang always spoke highly of While the City Sleeps, considering it among the best of his American pictures, a work that had “something to say.”

The Vienna-born master only made one more film in this country, and three back in Germany before entering an uncomfortable retirement that lasted seventeen years until his death in 1976. This sad period included eventual blindness, plus a single film appearance—playing a director named Fritz Lang—-in one of Jean-Luc Godard’s best pictures, Contempt (Le Mepris; 1963), co-starring Brigitte Bardot, Jack Palance, and Michel Piccoli. The melancholy world-weary wisdom Lang displayed there connects clearly to the artist behind these two exciting and provocative melodramas about some of urban life’s least pleasant aspects.

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6 Comments

  • Barry | September 7, 2013 7:37 PMReply

    I don't think you can call Dana Andrews or Ida Lupino B - Picture stars. Nor Price, Mithell and Sander, though of course they did appear in lower budget projects. And, while it is clearly so, that budgetary limitations show, anything with Rhonda Fleming is Grade - A in looks at least.

  • MDL | June 12, 2012 3:33 PMReply

    Anyone interested in more on Lang should look no further than Bogdanovich's own interview book 'Who The Devil Made It..." The interview with Lang is terrific and gives good insights into the films as well as the man.

  • Kevin Barry | May 19, 2012 5:48 PMReply

    As I was growing up and falling deeper in love with movies, I think Fritz Lang was the first director whose name and style I recognized when I watched old movies on television. I saw his great films from the 40's and 50's before discovering the amazing German silents and early sound pictures (I still have my Praeger Film Library copy of Fritz Lang in America and refer to it often). I taught a film appreciation class in the early 1970's and after showing Metropolis to a group of college students who had never heard of it before - and couldn't believe that they were riveted by a black and white silent film made in the 1920's - I wrote a letter to Lang telling him about the experience. I received a lovely reply (neatly typed by Lily Latte, I'm sure, on onion-skin stationary but signed by the master himself) sincerely expressing his gratitude for writing to him. In my letter, I mentioned that I thought Woman in the Window was my favortite among his American pictures. Lang wrote that Scarlet Street was his personal favorite. Forty years later, I think I agree with him, but I just saw Ministry of Fear again and I was astonished by it (David Thomson thinks it is his best). By the way, I was quite amazed to receive a Christmas card from Mr. Lang that year, as well.

  • Steve Lanigan | May 17, 2012 4:39 PMReply

    I personally am glad that you have not gone for the obvious pairing of Woman in the Window/Scarlett street; While the City Sleeps is certainly one of Langs greatest films, and there is a better contrast between the murderers in the two films you have paired. I have long been a huge fan of Lang`s ouvre, and appreciate the work you have done in helping me understand his work (commentarys on dvds, your book on Lang in America), and I would suggest another excellent pairing for an evenings viewing would be Hangmen Also Die and Cloak and Dagger. I`ve always found it sad that it took so long for Lang to be realised as the master filmaker that he undoubtedly was - do you think that this was a result of him living in his adopted country? His being autocratic was - to my mind - no good reason for any negativity towards him, as that style of directing seemed to be the norm in those days.
    As a postcript, Peter, please keep up this brilliant work you do. Your work as a critic has always been as valuable to me as your work as a director (and I speak as a person whose wife of thirty years never tires of telling me, nearly EVERY time she gets in the car - "let ol` trixie sit up front with her big tits" And, god help me, I still laugh.
    Best regards
    Steve

  • MAK | May 16, 2012 12:04 PMReply

    Sorry not to see more comments on this post. But I'm happy to second MR. WU on Lang's SCARLET STREET which is the rare follow-up/companion piece (to WOMAN IN THE WINDOW) that improves on the template. It only suffers from not being preserved as well! There are ghastly Public Domain DVDs to avoid; try the recent KINO-DVD upgrade. The whole film looks and feels as if Lang had managed to recreate Germany's UFA @ Universal Studios, so that, unlike even the best of his other Stateside releases, it's 'all-of-a-piece.' And he surely earns bonus points for having modern art paintings in it (an important part of the plot) which actually look like they might be found in an upscale NYC gallery. LITTLE STORY: I'd taken some kids to a rep showing of an unrelated film and had started talking about SCARLET STREET. As I was quoting Joan Bennett's echoing lines from the end, 'Johnny, oh, Johnnnnny,' someone in the back answered back, 'Oh, Johnny, I Love You Soooooooo.' What a great film!
    www.maksquibs.blogspot.com

  • Mr. Wu | May 8, 2012 10:39 PMReply

    This may be the first piece I've read about Fritz Lang that doesn't contain the phrase 'film noir.' A remarkable achievement. Many urban crime dramas from this period seem to be overly influenced by the production code of the time and often don't go to the logical ends of their pessimistic worldview, as evidenced in the ending of The Woman in the Window. This film pulls its punches at the last minute and considering how great the picture is, the ending is an enormous letdown. For my money, Scarlet Street goes the distance. If every Lang film is a trap, Robinson is the only one granted a midnight commutation in The Woman in the Window.

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