Written by Stuart Kurtz
USA, 1949. 73 min. RKO Radio Pictures. Cast: Bobby Driscoll, Barbara Hale, Arthur Kennedy, Paul Stewart, Ruth Roman. Music: Roy Webb; Cinematography: William Steiner; Art Direction: Albert D’Agostino; Produced by: Dore Shary; Based on a Story by: Cornell Woolrich; Written by: Mel Dinelli; Directed by: Ted Tetzlaff.
Films depicting children in adult predicaments intensify the sense of danger viewers feel because the idea of a child meeting a terrible end is unacceptable to us. We feel more than the average dread for the child, as we know grown-ups arenâ€™t completely innocent. While children donâ€™t always keep their noses clean either, the supposed innocence of childhood is enough to bring out the protective instinct in adults.
Ted Tetzlaffâ€™s The Window puts a twist on film noir in its substitution of a kid in the role of the ambiguously moral antihero. Tommy Woodry is not plagued by his past in the form of a bad love affair or shady dealings, but he is flawed due to his lying nature. He must get past that to find redemption.
The Window incorporates a number of typical noir elements. There is the femme fatale, who leads her man down the path of self-destruction. There is expressionistic lighting. Distorted angles and fuzzy focus communicates Tommyâ€™s delirium and the infectious heat of the evil city that seems to drive nice people to immoral acts. Urban physicality menaces: fire escapes and staircases, the in-betweens of ordered spaces, lead to danger. In that city (New York) murder, theft, and vice hang in the air like the sickly vapors.
The city is an organism wherein corruption touches everyone, right down to the kids. Parents donâ€™t always do whatâ€™s best for their kids. There is police bungling. Adults sometimes commit crimes and hide behind Cheshire Grins. The living conditions in this working class area create the problems, such as the father, Ed, needing to work nights and denying time with his family. Tommy is a child in harmâ€™s way, but he is not completely an innocent. Like any anti-hero in this genre, he is tainted by his misdeeds, which are his lies.
Violence is the driving force of noir (one could say fear too), and the murder Tommy witnesses does not account for it all. The boys chase fire trucks to find amusement in suffering. Tommy corrects a friend about â€œIndiansâ€ using guns instead of bows and arrows. Well, how did they get those guns in the first place? In fact, in the very first scene, Tommy â€œshootsâ€ his friends with his toy gun. He tells his Dad he killed a bandit with his gun. It is no surprise that a real rifle can be seen hanging from the wall.
Of the other genreâ€™s other driving force, we might note that Tommy fears not only the Kellersons, the murderous couple upstairs, but also his parents. Ed confines Tommy in the flat and limits his freedom. His mother plays a role in this in sending him to his room without meals until he will tell the truth. The denial of food is felt as a denial of love. The Kellersons, of course, plan more brutal punishmentsâ€” Mr. Kellerson punches the boy, he and his wife try to kill him in an alleyâ€”they are darker reflections of the chastising parents. William Steiner, the director of photography, uses noirâ€™s low angles to approximate Tommyâ€™s point of view and emphasize his fears of these adult figures.
Tommy has two predicaments: convincing others of the murder, obviously, and the need to win the approval of his parents. Ed doesnâ€™t want him to lie. A father wants to be proud of his son, he says. As itâ€™s been since tribal times, the son must earn the fatherâ€™s love. Tommy has fallen in Edâ€™s eyes, so he must redeem himself and reach toward manhood. He must have a trial and face danger, just as the young Aboriginal on Walkabout or the Amazonian on a Vision Quest. The mise-en-scene speaks of this. The first shots of Tommyâ€™s â€œshootingâ€ of his friends and first lie inside the abandoned tenement will later be the setting of his heroic action and redemption.
The Window is also palpably about Tommyâ€™s fear of confinement. The Woodryâ€™s flat is small. There are shots of ceilings and floors that seem to squeeze the tenement dwellers. Ed is confined to the night shift. Mrs. Woodry is bound by obligations to her ill sister. The family is limited by class, lack of opportunity, and family responsibilities, and Tommyâ€™s lies tend to expand his world from the humdrum life in working class meagerness. These tales give romance and heroism to his life, the kind he needs to win the love of his father, but, while his yarns win the respect of friends, they provoke punitative adult authority, which further constrict Tommy. His parents punish him; the police send him away, and he is physically confined â€“ the worst punishment for a freedom-seeker.
Confinement is the force against which the longing for freedom reacts. Vehicles convey freedom. The El cars that go away seconds too soon might have been Tommyâ€™s egress. Ed is carried away by the patrol car that might have carried Tommy away too. A tracking shot of Ed and Tommy seen from outside the window and framed by the bars of the fire escape while an El train is heard contrasts their confinement with freedom of movement. Streets are ways out. Even the fluttering of the laundry on the line implies freedom. The fire escape provides, for Tommy, an escape from the limitations of the apartment and the oppressive heat, but the image is reversed later in the film, as it becomes the site of two of the filmâ€™s more frightening scenes.
While the Kellersons are nightmarish versions of Tommyâ€™s parents, they also function in relation to Tommy and his transgressions. Like Tommy, they are rule-breakers, but they operate outside the law, while Tommy does not. Tommy, on the other hand, is a rule-breaker, but not a law-breaker. His contravening of parental dictums is what saves his skin. He is rewarded for his ingenuity in violating rules, not unlike Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. Tommy has his peccadilloes, but he is ultimately redeemed because he is, in relation to the Kellersons, moral. Tommyâ€™s leap from the beam is, then, heroic, unlike another characterâ€™s, which is tragic.
Tommy prevails over social forces to find personal redemption, a victory not always available to the anti-hero in this genre. He navigates all the pitfalls of the urban environment and keeps his wits and moral probity to save himself. Other victims of these social hardships have taken alternate routes in the form of crime. Perhaps the film is a cautionary tale to would-be law-breakers. They may have only the essentials and may lack freedom, but they may only bend the rules, not break them. It is telling that the final showdown occurs in the abandoned tenement. The departed residents may have climbed out of their conditions by following the law and through ingenuity. The Woodrys might do so. The opening and closing shots of the tenements with the gleaming towers of midtown emphasize that promise.