Review of The Window (1949)

The Window is a noir retelling of the old fable, "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." Like the fable, its central character is a young boy, Tommy Woodry. You might think that this film couldn't be truly dark because it centres around a child. But that would be wrong. The Window stands out from other films in the same genre because its heart-stopping suspense derives from the fact that the main character is a child.

As I was watching, I kept thinking: would Tommy be in great danger from the neighbours he witnessed murder a man if he were an adult instead of a child? The answer is no. It's true that neither his parents nor the police believe Tommy witnessed a murder because he lies often. But they strain to disbelieve him. It's as if they want to disbelieve him because it's incomprehensible that a child should witness the very adult act of murder. They unwittingly make him a target of the killers when they try to force him to apologise for the terrible things he's said about them. Only a child can be forced to apologise face-to-face with the criminal. Only a child can be sent to his room and made a sitting duck for the killers. And when Tommy escapes from his room and finds the killers waiting for him, he actually naively, childishly believes the lie that the adults are going to take him to the police station. The film works because only a child would be so utterly defenseless against danger.

Not only does The Window reveal its dark heart by placing a child in danger, it cynically depicts traditional authority figures. The parents and police fail miserably at protecting the imperiled child. The police are so skeptical about Tommy's claims that they're incompetent. They don't correctly perceive and act on murderous situations. However, the film's more stinging critique is aimed at the parents. They reveal him as a witness to the killers. But worst of all, they instill in him a stubborn desire to speak the truth, even at the risk of death. When the killer asks Tommy what he knows, Tommy tells the truth. Although Tommy told harmless lies before, he recanted. When his life depends on it, he cannot shake off his parents' values and lie. Obeying your parents can bring death.

The Window's dark attitudes are cleverly matched by its visual style. Deep focus shots show Tommy at the bottom of a staircase that appears especially long, representing the great distance between the boy and the safety of home. In times of crisis, Tommy's face is photographed in extreme close-up, showing what little room he has to move in. Even city structures like an alley or a staircase or subway platform supports visually close in on Tommy to depict how trapped he is.

Director Ted Tetzlaff worked as cinematographer for mystery director Alfred Hitchcock and rivals the master at building suspense. It helps that he works from a script so economical, it's almost terse in building up a tiny universe where everyone and everything matters. The actors are fine but the star is the child. Very few child actors are good enough to transcend the clumsy, artificial mode of acting and avoid being cutesy. But then twelve-year-old Bobby Driscoll rises to the challenge. He evokes sad little noir icon Gloria Grahame with his wistful eyes and nervous hands. As the haunted, hunted Tommy Woodry, Driscoll is the real thing.

(February 7, 2000)

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