• Joan Bennett and Edward G. Robinson in The Woman in the Window

This article contains spoilers.

When I told a friend I was planning to revisit Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window at the Siskel Center this past Saturday, he made a joke about the movie’s corny twist ending, which reveals the preceding narrative to have been dreamt by the main character, a middle-aged professor played by Edward G. Robinson. It’s the sort of conclusion that feels tacked on, leading spectators to wonder if the filmmakers didn’t know how else to end the story. I don’t know if the makers of Woman in the Window actually suffered this problem, but ultimately that’s a moot point—a great movie remains that way no matter how it ends, Michael Miner be damned. And so, I decided on Saturday to watch the movie in a generous state of mind (after all, Fritz Lang’s films have given me so much), assuming that the twist ending was intentional and the movie is supposed to be Robinson’s nightmare. Would the movie play differently if I viewed it not as a conventional thriller, but as the representation of a troubled subconscious?

In this regard, the pulpy setup becomes pregnant with symbolic meaning. Looking for adventure, Robinson’s lonely professor goes for a drink with a strange woman (Joan Bennett) he meets on the street—the inspiration, it turns out, for a gallery window portrait that recently captured his imagination. He ends up escorting her back to her apartment, where they encounter a strange man, who turns red at the sight of Robinson and tries to kill him. The hero stabs him in self-defense. Worried they’ll be arrested for murder, Robinson and Bennett collaborate to quietly get rid of the corpse. It should be a perfect crime—they’d never met before, they’ll never meet again, and Robinson is so careful to dispose of any damning evidence. A few days later, though, it turns out that the victim was a famous tycoon, and now a big police search is underway to find who killed him.

It’s such a pure scenario in its pattern of desire, temptation, transgression, and guilt, and Lang emphasizes its elemental quality with stripped-down mise-en-scene. The movie doesn’t feel cheap, but deliberately bare—we don’t even know in which city the story takes place! With so little around them, the objects that arouse Robinson’s guilt seem especially significant, like those items in dreams that we manage to remember after waking. I could continue to consider how The Woman in the Window feels “dreamlike,” but I’m interested in what the movie tells us about the dreamer, one of those pathetic little people with an advanced sense of integrity who is often the heart of Fritz Lang’s films.

Robinson’s professor isn’t so pathetic at the start. He’s a fairly respected professor in good standing at his private club. From the looks of things, he doesn’t seem to mind an uneventful life. He’s single, though “married” to his work and the fastidious rituals he’s established around it. Like an insect, he thrives within the bustle of city life, content to disappear into the greater spectacle of the metropolis. His one refuge is his imagination, which the film expresses, eloquently, through his boyish fascination with that silly portrait. He suggests one of the archetypal moviegoers—the single urban professional who showed up for every new pulpy entertainment because that’s what you did when you lived alone in a city. How appropriate that The Woman in the Window—which superficially resembles dozens, if not hundreds of other low-budget noirs in its stark look—should be his nightmare!

Robinson is cursed because he dares to follow his fantasy to its end point. His fantasy is not of random sex with a beautiful woman (his rapport with Bennett is oddly yet endearingly paternal), but of being so anonymous that he could kill a stranger and get away with it. And what is his curse? For the few pleasures he takes from living in society to be turned against him. Robinson’s best friend from the private club, a forensics specialist, ends up assisting the manhunt that’s trying to catch him. Meanwhile, the momentary companionship offered by his chance encounter with Bennett curdles into mutual paranoia. And the only new person who wants to get to know him is a terrifying ex-cop played by Dan Duryea . . .

Who are the woman and child in the photograph Robinson often studies at home? Are they estranged family members? Dead ones? Perhaps Robinson’s character has a normal family life when he’s awake, and this nightmare serves to illustrate, however obliquely, his innermost fears. Though he claims to love a tiny, fastidious life, Robinson dreads he’ll wind up forever apart from other people, that his moviegoer’s life will be the death of him.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.