“If you see a thing with your own eyes, it can’t be a dream, can it?”
For Noirvember 2019, I plan to revisit several of the film noir movies I haven’t watched in several years, some famous, some obscure. Today’s Noirvember title is one that I originally saw many years ago, possibly as far back as the late 1980s. In revisiting the film, it struck me how unusual and disturbing this is for a film noir. Although it was screened for TCM’s Noir Alley a couple of years ago, it deserves to be mentioned in film noir conversations much more than it usually is, especially during Noirvember.
The Window (1949)
Directed by Ted Tetzlaff
Produced by Frederic Ullman Jr., Dore Schary
Screenplay by Mel Dinelli
Based on the story “The Boy Who Cried Murder” by Cornell Woolrich
Cinematography by Robert De Grasse, William O. Steiner
Edited by Frederic Knudtson
Music by Roy Webb
(1:13) Warner Archive DVD (MOD)
Ted Tetzlaff’s opening shot for The Window presents a New York City skyline which closes in first on a neighborhood, then a street where a rundown tenement house catches our attention. We’re clearly zeroing in on one particular story, but while doing so, Tetzlaff is also focusing on poverty or near-poverty and how children survive it.
Our introduction to 10-year-old Tommy Woodry (Bobby Driscoll) doesn’t look right. He’s lying down on scattered piles of straw on the second floor of a ramshackle tenement house, but something’s wrong. He could be having an anxiety attack, grimacing, awkwardly trying to make himself comfortable. He reaches out and finds a pistol, turns, looks over the edge of the second floor, and sees a group of boys playing below. He points the pistol and fires. We’re relieved to discover the pistol’s a toy. “Hey guys!” Tommy yells, “I shot ya! Why don’t you die?”
In no time at all, we realize that Tommy has a problem: he likes telling stories, tall tales… lies. Not just any lies - grand-scale ones. Tommy tells his buddies he and his family are moving out west, he’s got a horse, and on and on. Most of the kids know Tommy’s proclivities in spinning these yarns, but upon hearing that the Woodry family’s going to move, one boy alerts his parents, who alert the landlord in Tommy’s building, who knocks on Tommy’s door, ready to show the apartment to prospective tenants. Tommy’s done it again and his dad (Arthur Kennedy) isn’t too happy.
Tommy’s an only child and falls prey to one particular condition that often faces kids with no siblings: making up stories to earn some attention. (It’s not just a condition of kids without siblings. I know from first-hand experience and a few whippings.) Mr. Woodry thinks it might be time for Tommy to see a doctor, but his mom (Barbara Hale), who normally coddles him, knows that something’s got to be done, and soon.
To escape the stifling heat (and his parents’ displeasure at his behavior), Tommy decides to spend the night on the fire escape outside his window. Unable to sleep, he moves one floor up and hears a disturbance in the adjacent apartment. Through a narrow opening in the window shade, he witnesses a man and a woman commit a murder.
Now the boy who cried wolf really has something to talk about, but as we know from this retelling of Aesop’s fable, no one is willing to listen to him. We also have a precursor to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), based on another Woolrich story, “It Had to Be Murder” from 1942. (Woolrich clearly had a thing about windows…)
I don’t want to tell you too much about the rest of the film, but I do want to touch on some of the wonderful touches in the movie as well as disturbing nature of the storyline.
Tetzlaff - a former cinematographer - creates an enormous sense of claustrophobia in the film, made even more so by having a child as his protagonist. Tommy is fond of exploring the dilapidated tenement, a building as loaded with danger as a mine field. Kids know how to navigate such tight spots, but the camera closes in tight on Tommy even when he’s supposedly in sturdier places.
On the night of the murder, Tommy navigates the fire escape as if the steel structure were closing in on him. But it’s not just Tommy who feels entrapped. The killers, Mr. and Mrs. Kellerson (Paul Stewart and Ruth Roman), struggle not only with space, but also time. Tetzlaff expertly shows something that often looks easy in the movies: disposing of a dead body. I recently rewatched Purple Noon (1960), which does a fine job of this with Tom Ripley (Alain Delon) trying to bring a dead body down a flight of stairs and into a car. In The Window, Mr. Kellerson shows how laborious the act really is, holding the dead body of a grown man as he awkwardly lumbers up the fire escape stairs. Tetzlaff, using tilted camera angles that give an indescribable weight to the forces of gravity, makes us believe that every step Kellerson takes could end in disaster.
There’s a wonderful, very simple shot of the morning after the incident. A new day dawns as we see clotheslines stretched across buildings, proudly displaying white t-shirts and sheets, signifying cleanliness and purity. They further signify that nothing as dark and dirty as murder could’ve happened the night before. No, that would be unbelievable, which is exactly Tommy’s problem.
When Tommy tells his dad what he saw the night before, it sets in motion a wonderful exchange as well as a study on ethics and human nature. Tommy asks his dad, “If you see a thing with your own eyes, it can’t be a dream, can it?” Mr. Woodry responds, “You don’t want me to be ashamed of you, do you?”
Mr. Woodry’s statement is both fatherly (possibly with the best of intentions), but it’s also emotionally manipulative. We feel that most of Tommy’s problems are of his own making, but his dad is giving him an ultimatum that’s not only performance-based, but also plays to Mr. Woodry’s pride. Earlier in the film, Woodry mentions that he wants people to walk down the street and point to himself as the father of an upstanding young man like Tommy Woodry. Maybe he realizes that Tommy provides the only opportunity for the elder Woodry to receive any recognition (implying that he gets none on his own, although he does hold down a stead job). But his reasoning is, at least partially, selfish. Selfishness itself is an attention-getting device, just like Tommy’s stories. The only difference is that Mr. Woodry isn’t a 10-year-old boy.
Perhaps it took an event as traumatic as witnessing a murder to cure Tommy from telling further lies. When Mrs. Woodry tells Tommy that he should change his story, Tommy points out that such a thing would be dishonest. We know that Tommy has seen the light and acknowledged the error of his ways, but as far as his mom is concerned, this is business as usual and it’s time he was punished for it. But his mother’s insistence that he change his story leads Tommy to being dragged upstairs to apologize to Mrs. Kellerson, which is, of course, the worst thing his mom could’ve done.
Ruth Roman, by the way, is wonderful in this scene. Just watch her eyes when she says, “Stories? What kind of stories, Tommy?” And Paul Stewart is just as wonderful as Mr. Kellerson. There’s a small touch with his character that’s very subtle, yet very smart. When a police detective disguised as a building inspector comes knocking on their door, Kellerson tells his wife to “Open the door. Open it wide,” which would signify that they have nothing to hide, nothing to fear. To have opened it an inch or two would’ve signaled that there really was something to hide. (But in this neighborhood, would anyone really open their door wide to a complete stranger? Not doing so may be just as suspicious.)
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the film is the age of its protagonist. Rear Window is ultimately more thrilling than disturbing, but The Window presents the same basic story with a much younger protagonist, which puts us even more on the edge of our seats. Yes, Tommy is a storyteller (Ok, call him a flat-out liar if you like) and this is partially based on a fable, but what if Tommy had been a straight-and-narrow kid before this, never telling stories? He’d still be in a mess of trouble since his parents would’ve thought he’d been having a nightmare or been mistaken in what he actually saw. Since Tommy wasn’t in the habit of telling the truth all the time, his predicament means more. No one likes to see a kid in danger, especially when it could’ve been avoided, but Tommy has to realize (and he does) that his previous behavior has largely gotten him into this mess.
But we still care about him. Putting a kid in a film noir is dire stuff. Risky and gutsy.
Poverty becomes an essential component of the film, especially in its finale, which I will not detail here. The setting suggests that not only the building, but the neighborhood is a breeding ground for violence and danger. Tommy’s attempts to make himself look good in the eyes of his buddies is part survival instinct, part self-promotion, but in these surroundings, lies - and even the truth - can get you killed. During these final scenes, Tommy’s actions imply that he knows how to navigate the dangers surrounding him, but - like the stories he tells - he finds out that he can easily find himself in a corner with no easy escape. Poverty can get you killed.
Although they no longer appear on the archive, you can Google Eddie Muller’s intro and afterword to The Window. In them, he discusses more about the film and the tragic end of its star Bobby Driscoll. The DVD is available from Warner Archive. I highly recommend this for your Noirvember viewing.
Photos: DVD Beaver, IMDb, Diary of a Movie Maniac, Film Fanatic