Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A STRANGELY FORGOTTEN 1949 FILM NOIR: "THE WINDOW" IS WELL-WORTH LOOKING INTO. (OK, I promise no more bad jokes). With a story by Cornell Woolrich (credentials don't come much noiry-er ... and Woolrich was also the author of ANOTHER story involving a window with which Hitchcock fans should be QUITE familiar!), "THE WINDOW" is an at times nail-biting movie that had a much higher profile back when it was released and, in fact, earned it's young star an Academy Award. That young star, of course, was Bobby Driscoll: Disney's very own PETER PAN who also appeared as the juvenile lead in TREASURE ISLAND and SONG OF THE SOUTH. In fact, "THE WINDOW" features a title card stating the fact that the youngster was loaned out by Walt Disney in order to make this film. Another title card makes mention of Aesop's Fable "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" which is exactly what this movie is about.
Director Ted Tetzlaff (better known as an Oscar-nominated cinematographer) begins "THE WINDOW" with a rather brave ploy. We first see Bobby Driscoll as young Tommy cowering in a loft somewhere and he appears to be overacting horribly. Oh no, the viewer thinks, here we go having to sit through an entire movie with a hammy child actor. However, this "hamming it up" is deliberate since we aren't into the actual plot yet; young Tommy is merely playing cops and robbers with some other kids and is emoting in just the way kids do when playing such games. Rest assured, although I am no fan of child actors, I can honestly state that Bobby Driscoll is one of the best of them and no bad acting will be demonstrated in this film.
Tommy Woodry has a big problem; he likes to tell tall tales and whoppers involving gangsters and killings in the street. One such fib he tells the neighborhood kids is that his dad has a ranch in Texas and they'll be moving to it in a couple days (as soon as all the Injuns have been taken care of). Soon afterward, the landlord shows up at Tommy's parents' door with prospective renters to take the place after they leave. Tommy's lie has nearly upended his family right into the street. Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale play Tommy's weary parents very realistically; they give Tommy a serious but not caustic talking to about telling lies and then Dad goes off to his job on the night shift. The New York tenement building (a step down in quality from Ralph Kramden's place) is sweltering in the summer heat and Tommy asks his mother if he can sleep out on the fire escape. Once there, the heat is still stifling. Looking up, Tommy sees a breeze way up at the top of the tenement lift some washing hanging on a line so he decides to climb up to the top-most fire escape for some air. This fire escape is outside the apartment of the Kellersons (excellently played by superb characters actors Paul Gregory and Ruth Roman). Peeking inside the window of the apartment, Tommy witnesses the Kellerson's struggle with and ultimately stab an unknown man with a pair of scissors. He scampers downstairs (leaving his pillow outside the window) to tell his mom he's just seen a murder. Of course, Ma doesn't believe "the boy who cried wolf" and sends him to bed.
Tommy keeps on about the murder until his parents get fed up and lock him in his room. Naturally, Tommy escapes out his window and heads on down to the police department to report the murder. In a scene very reminiscent of the later 50's science fiction classic INVADERS FROM MARS (a film which shares remarkable similarities with this movie), Tommy approaches the immense desk and tries to convince the cop he's seen a murder. Never really convinces, a patrolman DOES promise to check it out but, when he walks Tommy home, marches him right up to his front door and hands him over to his mother. However, the cop does go upstairs and, under the pretext of renovating their apartment, takes a look around the Kellerson's place but finds nothing. Already suspicious that their secret is out, the Kellersons are further rattled when Tommy's mother marches him up to the Kellersons to apologize for "telling stories about them". Tommy won't open his mouth but the Kellersons now begin to suspect the kid knows something. Mr. Kellerson promises his wife to find out exactly WHAT when he can get the kid alone.
Wonderfully sinister lurking about ensues while poor little Tommy gets more and more frantic that the Kellersons now know he saw the murder and that they plan to murder him! Mrs. Kellerson brings a "misdirected" telegram to Tommy's mother saying her sister is sick. Tommy thinks the Kellersons faked the telegram in order to get him mother out of the apartment while his father is at night work so that they'll find Tommy alone. A prudent phone call from the local drug store reveals that the telegram is actual genuine (one of several "fake outs" the script pulls on the viewer) but the end result is the same; Mom goes off to take care of her sister and Pop goes off to his night job and Tommy is left all alone in the apartment for the night. Who ever heard of day care in the 40's, right?!? Don't coddle your kids!!! Tommy leaves a note saying he's running away from home (more for self-preservation than enmity towards his parents) and provides a nice little P.S. to the note saying that everything he said about the Kellersons was true. As he is about to unlock the front door and leave, the door swings open of its own accord. Oh No! It's that homicidal Kellerson guy!!! No, wait, it's just Tommy's Dad home on a break to check on his son. (Another great fake out). But catching Tommy in the act of walking out the front door, Dad locks Tommy in his room and NAILS HIS WINDOW SHUT! (Fire codes were also pretty lax with parents in the 40's as well, I guess!). Then off Dad goes to work once more.
The Kellersons wait until 2 am before sneaking downstairs. Mrs. Kellerson takes a flashlight and climbs down the fire escape to shine a light through the terrified boy's window. The scene features Tommy scuttling across the wall just out of reach of the flashlight's beam and it's truly nail-biting. Meanwhile, Mr. Kellerson uses a passkey to come in the front door (unbeknownest to Tommy). The industrious kid uses a wire hanger to poke the key out of the lock on the other side of the door so he can pull it under the door and make his escape. The poor kid doesn't realize that, the whole time he's trying to hook the key, Mr. Kellerson is standing RIGHT OUTSIDE THE LOCKED BEDROOM DOOR staring bemusedly down and, at one point, even places the key where Tommy's wire hanger can reach it. Tommy opens the door and comes face to face with Kellerson! Soft-soaping the boy with plans to take him to the police station so all this can be straightened out, Mr. & Mrs. Kellerson walk Tommy out the door and down the street. They suddenly push the boy into an alley but Tommy somehow wriggles away and leads the Kellersons on a New York street chase. Sadly, they nab the boy and load him into a taxi (pretending they're his parents). A particularly brutal scene in the backseat finds the Kellersons trying to subdue the struggling boy. Tiring of this, Mr. Kellerson pulls his wife in front of Tommy to block the view of the cab driver (and us) and literally hauls off and punches the boy in the face! Knocking him unconscious. Now at their mercy, the pair carry the boy up to their apartment where they precariously place him on the fire escape so that he will have a convenient "accident".
Ted Tetzlaff shoots the screenplay with a swift, sure hand keeping suspense ratcheted up quite well. It is strange that he didn't make more films as a director since he demonstrates a sure hand with this movie. Also, great use of New York exteriors is made in which the sweltering heat of the city seems to ensure crime will bubble up. The entire cast is small but excellent without exception. Barbara Hale and Arthur Kennedy portray Tommy's parents with palpable weariness but still manage to convince us of their basic decency. Ruth Roman and Paul Gregory are exceptional as the seedy and genuinely threatening Kellersons. And Bobby Driscoll makes a fine little leading man. He obviously had the acting chops which is why the fact of Hollywood's "chewing him up and spitting him out" once he hit adolescence and was no longer "cute" is particularly tragic. Tossed aside and forgotten (just like the murdered man in "THE WINDOW"), Bobby Driscoll's unidentified dead body would be found in a similar abandoned tenement building in 1968 surrounded by empty bottles and religious pamphlets; it would take some police work to identify the nameless corpse as Disney's one-time top child actor and winner of a juvenile Academy Award for his performance in "THE WINDOW".

1 comment:

Weaverman said...

A great little movie which was remade quite well at least three times as THE BOY WHO CRIED MURDER, EYE WITNESS and CLOAK AND DAGGER but the original is still the best.
Cornell Woolrich has been the starting point for some excellent films.