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This excellent noir thriller was a hit in 1949, holding audiences in thrall over the fate of its boy hero, played by child star Bobby Driscoll. With his intelligent face and credible acting (at age 11), Driscoll was in Disney's controversial Song of the South but cemented his fame in another Disney live-action hit, Treasure Island. The Window may be his best film overall. The airtight story by Cornell Woolrich updates "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" to a disadvantaged New York tenement, where a bored kid passes summer days making up tall tales. One murder later, the film edges into a full-on paranoid nightmare not equaled until 1953's Invaders from Mars.
Playing in the crumbling, abandoned building adjacent to his tenement, Tommy Woodry tells a pal that his family is moving to the wild west, which causes trouble when the landlord arrives up to show their apartment to prospective new tenants. The dingy set of rooms bake in the summer sun while Tommy's mother Mary (Barbara Hale) hangs out the laundry. Hard-working father Ed (Arthur Kennedy) has the night shift, so Mary gives Tommy permission to sleep on the fire escape. Tommy witnesses the upstairs neighbors the Kellersons murder a sailor. Well aware of his issues with the truth, Tommy's parents fear that he's unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Punished for refusing to admit his "lies", Tommy takes his troubles to the police. Detective Ross (Anthony Ross of On Dangerous Ground) checks with Tommy's mother and Joe and Jean Kellerson (Paul Stewart & Ruth Roman). The next thing he knows, Tommy is locked in his room, convinced that the Kellerson's will now want to kill him too. He's absolutely right, but nobody will believe him.
The Window is an extremely well directed and convincing production, thanks to the craftsmanship of the RKO studio departments. The blend of location photography and studio work is nearly undetectable. Director Ted Tetzlaff, a topflight cinematographer for greats like Alfred Hitchcock and George Stevens, does great work, maintaining tension while fine-tuning the adult actors' levels of concern, indulgence, impatience, and menace to the character played by young Driscoll. The final reel's suspenseful chase sequence is extremely well done on a technical level. A set representing a half-fallen apartment building seems absolutely real, even when the young actor looks to be in grave danger of falling. Even the stunts are better than average, especially one instance of a stairway collapsing beneath a man's feet.
I have to say that the movie appears to be heavily influenced by the Italian Neorealistic films that were having a big impact in New York and Los Angeles in 1947 and 1948. The kids look as dirty as the Woodry's apartment, with the detail of a filthy lampshade showing a truer face of real poverty in America. Cameramen Robert De Grasse and William Steiner also overexpose some of the daytime exteriors to suggest the oppressive sunlight, a tactic that reminds us of the documentary look of pictures by De Sica and Rossellini. This may be stretching the issue, but Ruth Roman's unkempt black hair and general unadorned appearance are also reminiscent of Italians Clara Calamai and Anna Magnani in Italian pictures by Visconti and Rossellini. Of course, when night falls and young Tommy must fight for his life against the murderous Mr. Kellison, the show reverts to a more expressionist mode.
Tommy Woodry's parents are rather enlightened in that they neither beat Tommy for being so obstinate nor abuse him in any way, not even verbally. He's lucky to have a mom and dad that care, even if in trying to do the right thing they deliver him into the hands of his potential murderers. The Woodrys don't display the usual "Hollywood nice" smiles and cuddles around children that almost always seem false. The Kellisons, by contrast, are a real piece of work. The only way to interpret the murder is that Jean Kellison has somehow lured the sailor back to their apartment so he can be drugged and robbed. Neither villain ever shows the slightest remorse at what they do. Jean balks only at the moment that Joe preps the unconscious Tommy for his "accident" ... sitting balanced on the fire escape rail so that he can fall five floors without having to be pushed. It's pretty cold blooded.
Even more interesting, when the Kellisons are driving Tommy around in a taxi, they seem a cruel parody of his own family, pretending to administer tough love when knocking him unconscious, etc.. We can't help but think what it must be like to be an unloved foster care child, convinced that one's caretakers are only in it for the support money from the state. The Window is a regular Child's Garden of Paranoia.
The crisp script by Mel Dinelli (The Spiral Staircase, The Reckless Moment, Jeopardy) doesn't waste much time wrapping things up, which leaves The Window in a kind of uncomfortable limbo. We can assume what happens to several characters but the relationships aren't completely resolved. For instance, the detective Ross never reappears, to realize the error he made in selling little Tommy Woodry short. 1
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Window is a 'remastered edition'. What this means is that a special retransfer was commissioned for the WAC program. The first few minutes have a number of scratches but the movie soon levels off to a higher quality level, with excellent contrast that allows one to appreciate the careful visual choices remarked on above. Roy Webb's music also comes across nicely on the clean soundtrack. The main theme reminds me very much of another movie that I can't seem to pinpoint in my head ... any help on that? Other cues sound so much like Webb's work for Val Lewton, that they might be repurposed from those moody thrillers.
No extras are offered. The RKO studio apparently didn't save trailers for this era of its output, because most that we see are 16mm reissue reprints in poor condition. The disc's original cover artwork illustrates a key scene in melodramatic fashion. If it weren't for Bobby Driscoll's take-charge performance and Ted Tetzlaff's exciting direction, parts of The Window might seem in borderline bad taste. Now it plays like a variation on Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window -- which is appropriate, because Cornell Woolrich wrote the source story for that film as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Window rates:
1. I once thought, and I'm sure that I expressed my suspicion somewhere here in Savant, that The Window showed signs of a reshoot at the conclusion, a reshoot to make the ending seem more upbeat and cheerful. I was wrong -- there's no evidence to support that. I must have been reacting to the film's extremely fast wrap-up.
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T'was Ever Thus.