Monday, September 21, 2009

Region 2 Cinema: The Window (1949)

Turner Classic Movies has this film scheduled for a 3:45pm showing today, so I thought it would be fortuitous if I made it the subject of this week’s Region 2 Cinema post. If you’re planning on watching it on TCM, I’ll forewarn you that there may be a spoiler or two.

Bobby Woodry (Bobby Driscoll) is a decent nine-year-old kid whose weakness is a predilection for telling tall tales that not only get himself in trouble but his parents (Barbara Hale, Arthur Kennedy) in hot water as well. (For example, he tells some of the neighborhood kids that his family is getting ready to move out west to a ranch…prompting a visit from the landlord at dinnertime, who’s anxious to show the apartment to a family looking to rent.) On a particularly hot, sweltering summer night, Bobby climbs out on the fire escape to try to get some sleep, and awakens to witness a murder committed in the apartment upstairs by Joe (Paul Stewart) and Jean Kellerson (Ruth Roman), who have just rolled a sailor on leave. Bobby tries to convince both his mom and dad of the truth, but his past record of whoppers works against him—even going to the police station wins him no converts to his tale. The little boy is then plunged into a nightmarish situation when his parents—Dad’s working the night shift, Mom is tending to a sick relative—are forced to leave him in the apartment all alone…with both Kellersons anxious to keep him permanently quiet.

When The Window (1949) was released to theaters sixty years ago, R-K-O dismissed it as just another B-movie product…and found themselves pleasantly surprised when the unassuming little noir turned out to be the sleeper hit of the year. It isn’t hard to understand why; there aren’t many big names in the cast save for Kennedy (though future Della Street Hale gets top-billing) and Driscoll, who at the time was making a name for himself at Walt Disney in films like Song of the South (1946) and So Dear to My Heart (1948). (Uncle Walt even gets a credit at the beginning of Window, basically saying “Thanks for the loan of the kid.”) Former cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff (who had scored with a previous success in 1947’s Riffraff) held the reins on this picture, and did a first-rate job (along with cinematographers Robert De Grasse and William Steiner) depicting the working-class environs of the film’s principles (I love the darkened hallways, narrow staircases and seedy appearances of the apartments). There’s also Mel Dinelli’s screenplay—adapted from Cornell Woolrich’s story, and you don’t get more noir than Woolrich—which is also great; its only weakness being the parents’ dialogue (you could play a nice drinking game every time you hear Hale or Kennedy use a variation of “What are we going to do with this kid?”).

Many film buffs argue that the bloom has left Window’s rose but I find myself enjoying the film every time I sit down with it (and it’s been more than a few times) because it successfully plays on one of our primal fears: that the stability and security of the family and home mean bupkis, because there are some truly scary and dangerous elements out there. Bobby hasn’t done himself any favors with his flights of fancy but at the crucial moment when he needs the support of his parents they’ve pretty much turned on him—he can’t even get the dimwitted cops (one of which is played by OTR veteran Anthony Ross) to believe he’s telling the truth. Everyone has experienced this sort of childhood paranoia from time to time. Most of the nail-biting suspense in the film is supplied by the situations that occur due to the young boy’s abandonment—there’s a particularly effective scene when Bobby, who’s decided to high-tail it out of the Big Apple before the Kellersons come a-calling, tries to get out the front door…and there’s a mysterious figure just outside, lurking in the dark. The figure enters the apartment almost as soon as Bobby gets the door open…false alarm, kids—it’s only Dad, who decided to check up on his son. But Dad gets so pissed off at Bobby that he locks the little mook inside his room (after nailing the bedroom window shut)…and when Bobby attempts to escape a second time by jimmying the key out of the lock, Kellerson is standing outside the room just waiting for him. (Stewart is great in this scene; he’s just biding his time and grinning like a cat who’s about to have the canary du jour—and when Driscoll [on the other side of the locked door] is desperately trying to drag the key under the door with a coat hanger, he sportingly repositions the key so that Driscoll is successful in his quest.)

Paul Stewart has always been one of my favorite character actors; he is positively aces in this film, a charming bad guy who nevertheless receives a fitting comeuppance at the end as he pursues Driscoll through a decrepit, should-be-condemned apartment building. He excelled at screen villainy (Appointment with Danger, Kiss Me Deadly) so well that even when he played good guys (Champion, In Cold Blood) you were never entirely certain he was on the level. Stewart left us in 1986 but he must have taken good care of himself—I remember remarking to myself when I saw him in The Day of the Locust (1975) that he hadn’t aged all that much and looked the same way as he did during his prime.

With his appearance in Window, Bobby Driscoll earned the cache he needed to get a special Oscar in 1950 as 1949’s Outstanding Juvenile Actor. Driscoll continued on at Disney, notably with Treasure Island (1950) and voicing the titular character of Peter Pan (1953), but the Disney people terminated his contract just before the release of Pan and the actor found it decreasingly difficult to find work. Sadly, Driscoll’s life went into a downward spiral toward the end of the 1950s and though he tried to institute a comeback he went largely unnoticed by the studios—turning to drugs and then turning up dead in an abandoned tenement building in the East Village (a building not entirely dissimilar to the one Stewart chases him in during Window’s climax).

I purchased The Window (Une incroyable histoire) on a Region 2 disc about two years ago as part of the R-K-O collection released by editions montparnasse available at Amazon.fr; it’s pretty much a no-frills DVD (no trailers, etc.) except for a brief introduction to the film by Lobster Films’ Serge Bromberg who, while very knowledgeable on the subject of classic films, speaks French…and I do not. The print is of very good quality (I don’t see this movie being remastered or restored at any time in the future) and though I probably could have waited until it showed up on TCM (where it plays often) I didn’t have TCM at the time of its purchase. Remade many times since (The Boy Cried Murder, Eyewitness), the only one of the remakes that I’ve seen is Cloak & Dagger (1984) which, with the exception of the novelty casting of husband-and-wife OTR vets John McIntire and Jeanette Nolan as the baddies, is pretty regrettable.

3 comments:

The Siren said...

The bloom is off the Window's rose -- huh, sez who? A beautifully made thriller that I still find almost unbearably suspenseful in parts. One of a number of 1950s movies that tapped into childhood's loneliness and fears with great expertise. And Driscoll is very good; his fate is one of the saddest of all child stars, and that's saying a lot. Thanks for posting about this movie.

Vanwall said...

Tetzlaff was pretty damn good - "Riffraff" has been a favorite of mine since I was a kid. "The Window" was pretty scary for a kid watching on TV - even today it works as a suspenser.

Tom said...

This is a great movie!