The Window’s opening shot is an immediate tip-off that somebody thought about the material before they turned the cameras on: a high, wide view of New York City, with Manhattan’s normally attention-commanding skyscrapers reduced by distance to objects of only peripheral interest. Instead our eye is drawn to the acres of tenements—a vast slum, or near-slum—filling the foreground, and telling us what kind of people we’re about to spend time with. They have spare, ratty furniture and carpets with blotches that could pass for bloodstains; they’re so worn out from their cruddy jobs and sick relatives that they’ve lost the energy for dreaming; and in a heat-wave like the one going on right now, their already tiny apartments are nothing more than sweatboxes where everyone gets on everyone else’s nerves. Ted Tetzlaff’s camera hovers over all of this for just a second, then plunges right in.
Today the brilliant, daft Cornell Woolrich is known mainly for two things: being a kooky recluse who lived with his mother until her death (when he was in his fifties), and for creating some of the niftiest, nastiest mousetraps in all of crime fiction. His stories, which were a natural for the movies, usually came with a catchy what-if hook, like reveries that someone had bothered to dream up an ending for. As in: “What if a man confined to a studio apartment witnessed a murder across the way, but couldn’t prove it?” Or the variation on Rear Window we have here: “What if a 10-year old boy witnessed a murder in his apartment building and nobody believed him—except the murderers?”
The Window quickly establishes Tommy Woodry as a lonely kid whose need to impress has turned him into a pain in the ass. Tales of bandits and killings spill out of him like water, driving his parents nuts and putting off the other neighborhood kids, a situation which only drives Tommy deeper into his private world. So when, one hot summer’s night, he’s awakened by the upstairs neighbors casually murdering a drunk who they’re trying to roll, and then tries to convince his parents of what he’s seen, he’s screwed; and when his at-wit’s-end mother marches him upstairs the next day to apologize to that “perfectly nice” Mr. and Mrs. Kellerson for telling such nasty stories about them, he’s totally screwed.
The noisy sidewalks, authentically dingy apartments, and gutted tenements are reason enough to see The Window: an early sequence where Tommy’s feeding some particularly odiferous bullshit to his pals isn’t visually far removed from early Rossellini. There are other marvelous moments: Tommy staring at his bedroom ceiling as it squeaks under the weight of the murderers pacing overhead, or the almost perversely satisfying way he escapes from Mr. Kellerson’s rooftop trap.
But the movie wouldn’t be the same without the murderous Kellersons, a coarse but somehow creamy pair of matched equals, played by Paul Stewart (Charles Foster Kane’s unsympathetic butler) and Ruth Roman. The Kellersons look like they had a taste of money one long-ago night in their lives, and have been itching for another ever since. They may have a paltry place on the food chain yet they seem to know their business and they communicate so well through their eyes it may as well be telepathy. Roman is particularly good. I’d only known her from her glamor-puss roles, such as the society gal who spends Strangers on a Train waiting for Farley Granger to call home, but as Mrs. Kellerson she appears sweating through her summer dresses and wearing a lopsided hairdo, as if she’d slept on the wrong side the night before, and the two or three malignant closeups of her may be my favorite things in the movie.
The Window is told from a child’s point of view and it comes with a moral—it is, after all, a retelling of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”—but it’s not really a kids’ movie. In one scene the Kellersons have Tommy trapped between them in a taxi cab, and when Tommy’s cries begin to alarm the driver, Stewart bluntly cold-cocks the child—not something you see every day. Bobby Driscoll, who played Tommy, took a cold-cocking in real life, too. He’d previously starred in Song of the South, then his performance as Tommy won him a special Oscar at the age of 13, and a year later he would star in Treasure Island (to the eternal delight of Charles Crumb). But when he developed a case of acne that makeup couldn’t hide, Walt Disney refused to renew his contract; his last real film job came providing the voice for Peter Pan. Transitioning to the real world was another ordeal, one Driscoll tried to soften with heroin. Legal troubles, a prison jolt, an aborted comeback. In the late ’60s he was back in New York and hanging out at The Factory, where he did his last bit of acting, in an experimental film. Then he suddenly dropped from sight, and stayed that way, until some real-life Tommys found his corpse in an abandoned tenement house. He was 31.
The Window was recently released on DVD as part of the Warner Archive series, and you can’t go wrong giving 73 minutes of your life to it. Before he took the director’s chair Ted Tetzlaff had been a cinematographer, and it appears he kept both his eyes and his ears open while he was capturing the sheen of those tuxedos in Notorious. People trying to praise a thriller almost inevitably invoke Hitchcock’s name, but in the case of The Window the comparison not only isn’t a travesty—there’s actually a point to it.