The Noir Odyssey
Writer: Mel Dinelli
Based on: “Fire Escape” written by Cornell Woolrich
Director: Ted Tetzlaff
Cinematographer: Robert De Grasse
Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Bobby Driscoll, Barbara Hale, Arthur Kennedy, Paul Stewart, Ruth Roman
Release: August 6, 1949
Studio: RKO Radio Pictures
Awards: Driscoll won a special Juvenile Oscar for both “The Window” & “So Dear to My Heart.” The film was nominated for Best Editing (Frederic Knudston) but lost to “Champion.” It was also nominated for a WGA Award for Best Screenplay, Drama, but lost to “All the King’s Men.”
Percent Noir: 50%
When I was growing up, I was Tommy Woodry. Tommy has a penchant for creating fantastic stories to get attention. And though I never told anyone that I had a ranch in the West that I was going to move to as soon as all the Native Americans living there were killed (yikes, Tommy, just yikes), I did tell my classmates that I was in the running for the role of Robin in “Batman Forever” and that I had a bit part in “The World is Not Enough” where I sold James Bond a piece of fruit. When you’re young, these other worlds you create give you the opportunity to escape your life, if only for a few moments.
Tommy (Bobby Driscoll) is a poor kid living in a falling-apart tenement in New York City with few friends and parents (Barbara Hale, Arthur Kennedy) who are becoming tired of his lies. One night Tommy is so hot he goes out onto the fire escape to sleep. He wakes up and peeks through a window to see his upstairs neighbors the Kellersons (Paul Stewart and Ruth Roman) kill a man. Tommy desperately tries to get anyone to believe what he saw, but of course no one does.
Driscoll’s work as Tommy is fantastic – one of the best children’s performances on film ever. He first must be likable despite all the lies he tells, and then believably terrified in the final two acts, and Driscoll gives all that and more. He is always certain of his convictions regarding what he saw, but his repetitive statements of what happened never get annoying. There’s a small moment where Tommy’s parents are leaving him for the evening and Tommy knows that he’s probably going to be killed where he holds onto his mother tight when he hugs her goodbye, and my heart just broke watching him.
And though the storyline could have easily been watered down, it’s pretty savage, allowing dark material into the film. We see the bloody wound on the back of the murdered man along with Tommy. Later, Tommy is trapped in a closet with the dead body. Oh yeah, and at the climax Tommy straight-up murders Mr. Kellerson in self-defense!
All of that pales in comparison to a sequence after the Kellersons have kidnapped Tommy, which is one of the most horrifying in the history of film… just as frightening as anything from “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “The Exorcist” or “Audition.” The Kellersons throw Tommy in the back of a taxi, which weaves through the streets. Tommy pulls and fights and screams, but the driver pretends that nothing is happening. Moments later Tommy’s screams get the attention of a cop, but despite Tommy’s pleas, the cop believes the Kellersons that Tommy is their kid and just misbehaving. It’s excruciating and almost impossible to watch.
Despite barely sketching out the Kellersons as more than “token bad guys,” the script by Mel Dinelli (“The Spiral Staircase,” “The Reckless Moment”) is always smarter than it needs to be. After Tommy sees the murder, he does all the right things. He begs his parents to believe him. When they don’t, he goes to the police. When the officer escorts him home, Tommy begs not to be seen with him, otherwise the Kellersons will know what’s happening. He pleads to go with his mother to his sick aunt, and then asks his dad to go to work with him. This is what any smart, helpless child would do in the situation… and as a result the audience is with Tommy 100%. Dinelli breaks POV several times from Tommy to show adults talking about the situation, but though I would normally find that annoying and it would take me out of the film, here it underlines that no one believes the kid – and this invests you even more in his plight.
The film’s third act is essentially one very long chase scene, with the Kellersons using any means necessary to catch and murder Tommy. In all, it’s almost 20 minutes of straight suspense. At certain points, it seems like it’s going to become too much, but here is where director Ted Tetzlaff and his cinematographer Robert De Grasse go crazy with expressionism, atmospherics and visual invention. Once the couple chase Tommy into a disintegrating building, Tetzlaff offers some truly iconic noir imagery. The building is mostly black and cast in dark shadows, but Tetzlaff was smart enough to set up the blueprint of the place in the first, well-lit scene, and therefore the audience always understands where Tommy and the other characters are. There’s a moment on the fifth floor where Tommy races up some stairs, followed closely by Mr. Kellerson, and then the stairs collapse beneath Kellerson… and we watch some (what I presume to be) incredible miniature work as the stairs tumble four floors to the ground below.
Though he directed 14 features, Tetzlaff is known more for his cinematography work, which includes “Notorious” and “My Man Godfrey.” Here his budget was a little more than $200,000, or the equivalent of a Monogram Picture, but “The Window” feels just as big as it needs to, and though the finale was obviously filmed on a shoestring with shadows equaling most of the atmosphere, you walk away thinking you saw a major action/suspense set piece that is just as good as anything from an A-list feature.
It’s a shame that “The Window” is one of those very good films noir that has fallen through the cracks of time. I can see why – a child protagonist, a cast without any major stars (or even dependable noir figures) and a director who never directed a movie close to this quality. And yet, for those willing to seek out this gem, there is great reward indeed. I’m telling the truth – I promise.