Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Two Women, Two Windows

Amy Adams in The Woman in the Window (2021).

In Joe Wright’s creepy new chiller The Woman in the Window, Amy Adams gives a splendid, unsettling performance as Anna Fox, a child psychologist living alone in an old house in Upper Manhattan. She and her husband Ed (Anthony Mackie) have separated, but she keeps in daily touch with him and their daughter (Mariah Bozeman); Anna is agoraphobic and Ed tries to talk her through her anxieties. Since she can’t make it out the door, she has a tenant, David (Wyatt Russell), a musician with handyman experience who checks in on her and does a variety of small jobs. But things turn sinister when the Russell family moves in across the street. First she meets Ethan (Fred Hechinger), a nervous teenage boy who brings over a lavender candle as a gift from his mother. Then the mother herself, Jane (Julianne Moore), appears. She’s a kind of free spirit with a wild laugh whose unfiltered conversation draws the lonely Anna in. Finally Anna meets the father, Alistair (Gary Oldman), who is abrupt and unpleasant; when he demands to know if any other members of his family have visited Anna, she instinctively lies about Jane – and she begins to suspect that Alistair is abusing one or both of the other two. Then she sees Jane being slashed by a knife in the Russell house, her attacker concealed from view. When she calls their home in a panic, Alistair shows up at her doorstep and warns her to leave his family alone. She calls the police, who arrive with the full Russell family in tow, claiming that nothing untoward has happened. But the woman who claims to be Jane Russell – and is now played by Jennifer Jason Leigh – doesn’t look remotely like the woman who came to visit Anna and introduced herself as Ethan’s mother.

For a while The Woman in the Window, which is based on a popular novel by A.J. Finn, has some similarity to a number of mysteries (The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, Shutter Island) that pivot on a tricky, implausible twist. But actually the script by Tracy Letts – who has a couple of scenes as Anna’s shrink (he has to see her at her home, since she can’t venture out to come to his office) – is cleverly worked out, and it has no loose ends; not having read the book, I can’t say how much of the credit goes to Finn. The movie isn’t psychologically complex, but it’s satisfying, and Wright handles both the suspense and the terror expertly. He does more: the movie, which was designed by Kevin Thompson, lit by Bruno Delbonnel and edited by Valerio Bonelli, looks fantastic, and a couple of the images are staggering, though unfortunately there’s no way to describe the most dazzling one without giving away a plot surprise. Both Delbonnel and Bonelli worked with Wright on his last picture, the first-rate Darkest Hour, in which Oldman played Winston Churchill.  The role of Alistair Russell is one-note; you get the feeling he did the movie as a favor to Wright, and considering he gave the performance of his career in Darkest Hour you can understand why he might have. Julianne Moore (in a memorable cameo), Wyatt Russell, Bryan Tyree Henry as a sympathetic cop and Fred Hechinger (whom I liked in a small role in News of the World) all contribute to the film’s effectiveness.  It’s a classy thriller that should please cinephiles who will pick up the Hitchcock quotes (from Rear Window and The Lady Vanishes).

Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson in The Woman in the Window (1944).

Wright’s film happens to share a title with a 1944 film noir that is among the best movies Fritz Lang made during his two-decade tenure in Hollywood. Adapted by Nunnally Johnson from a novel by J.H. Wallis, Lang’s The Woman in the Window is not among his more famous American pictures; Scarlet Street, which he made the following year with the same three principal actors – Edward G. Robinson, Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea – has a stronger reputation, though I think it’s mediocre. Robinson could be flamboyantly, entertainingly malevolent, as he is in Little Caesar and Key Largo, but he had a special gift for playing reasonable, rational men (e.g., Double Indemnity, where he’s the patient insurance-company investigator who uncovers the crime), and in Lang’s movie he’s a professor caught in an enveloping nightmare – the kind of essential film noir situation that plunges decent men over the edge into darkness. Bennett plays the titular character, an unconventional femme fatale named Alice Reed. Robinson’s Professor Wanley, a happily married man whose family has left the city on vacation, admires a portrait of her in a gallery window, innocently accepts her invitation to visit her apartment to see more work by the same artist, and is there when her jealous lover (Arthur Loft) arrives unexpectedly. Enraged, the man almost manages to strangle Wanley, who can only save himself by stabbing his assailant with a pair of scissors. Then Wanley has to devise a way to get rid of the body so that he won’t get swept up in a scandal that would surely ruin him. But the dead man turns out to be a wealthy industrialist, and the homicide investigation is front-page news. Enter the blackmailer (Duryea, who makes one’s skin crawl). Lang is so skillful and Robinson is so convincing that they glide you over the holes in the plot, all of which Johnson sews up neatly in the finale. You can see The Woman in the Window on YouTube, in a print that showcases Milton Krasner’s evocative black-and-white cinematography. Give it a look.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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