Saturday, August 1, 2015

Stubs - The Window

The Window (1949) Starring: Barbara Hale, Bobby Driscoll, Arthur Kennedy, Paul Stewart, Ruth Roman. Directed by Ted Tetzlaff. Screenplay by Mel Dinelli. Based on the story "The Boy Cried Murder" by Cornell Woolrich. Produced by Frederick Ullman, Jr. and Dorey Schary. Run Time: 74 minutes. U.S. Black and White Film Noir, Drama, Crime

It’s somewhat fitting that our Summer of Darkness salute would end with a film released by RKO. As noted in our earlier review of The Hitch-Hiker, this was a studio known for some of the better low-budget films in the genre. And none was more important than The Window to RKO's bottom line in 1949.

A single movie can have more stories going on behind the scenes as it presents to the audience on the screen. Such is the case with The Window (1949) from RKO. The film was originally shot on location in New York City and at the RKO-Pathe studios in Harlem from November 12, 1947 until early January, 1948, but wasn’t released until May 17, 1949. This wasn’t a case of re-shooting, but because then studio head, Howard Hughes, did not like films with children in them. The real star of this film was Bobby Driscoll. While the name might not be familiar, Driscoll was a child-star at the Walt Disney Studios on loan to RKO for the film. (RKO used to handle the distribution for Walt Disney movies.) Driscoll’s best known roles were still ahead of him at the time, though he had appeared in Song of the South (1946), the one live action/animation feature that has stayed securely locked in the Disney Vault, never to see the light of day or appear on Disney Blu-ray.

But with RKO in a mess under Hughes’ “leadership,” The Window was finally released and was such a commercial hit that it, at least for a while, saved the studio from its ultimate financial ruin.

The film is based on a story by Cornell Woolrich and is a re-do of the old Aesop fairy tale about the boy who falsely cried wolf so many times that no one came when an actual wolf did appear. Such is the case with nine-year-old Tommy Woodry (Bobby Driscoll), a boy who tells tall tales to help him fit in with the other kids in the neighborhood.

Tommy (Bobby Driscoll) uses the fire escape to get around.

Tommy starts off by telling them that his father has a ranch out west, wherever Tombstone is, and that they’re going to move out there in a couple of days after all the Indians have been killed. The other boys believe him and one tells his parents about the Woodry’s impending departure and that gets back to the manager, who then shows up at dinnertime with prospective renters. After Tommy’s parents, Mary (Barbara Hale) and Ed (Arthur Kennedy), convince the landlord that they’re not moving, it is apparent that this is not Tommy’s first tall tale that has landed them in trouble.

Tommy has the reputation for being a boy who stretches the truth.

Tommy is sent to bed, but can’t sleep due to the summer heat. He asks his mother if he can sleep out on the fire escape and she lets him. He takes his pillow outside, but decides to climb up to the top floor outside the Kellersons’ apartment. Seeing that their light is still on, he looks inside through the partially drawn shades. Tommy witnesses as Joe (Paul Stewart) and his wife, Jean (Ruth Roman), rob and then murder a Seaman (Richard Benedict) with a pair of scissors.

Tommy looks through the Kellersons' window one night while he's trying to sleep on the fire escape.

While the Kellersons dispose of the body in an abandoned and condemned building nearby, Tommy goes back downstairs and tells his mother what he’s just witnessed. Mom, of course, dismisses what he’s seen as a nightmare and sends him back to bed. Still unable to sleep, Tommy remembers he’s left his pillow up on the fire escape. The Kellersons, who are too busy to notice it even though they step on the pillow, do not see Tommy retrieve it.

Tommy's parents (Barbara Hale and Arthur Kennedy) don't believe what he's seen.

The next morning, when Ed comes home from his night shift, Tommy tells him what he’d seen. Ed tells Tommy to stop making up such stories and Mom sends him to his room, telling him that there had been a murder upstairs the police would know. Tommy sneaks out to tell the police, going into the nearest station. He is sent into the detectives’ room. Even though no one thinks there much merit to his accusation, a detective, Ross (Anthony Ross), is sent to take Tommy back home and investigate the allegation.

After depositing Tommy at home, Ross reluctantly goes upstairs. Pretending to be an estimator for a construction company, Ross gains entrance to the Kellersons’ apartment and takes a look around. There is a suspicious spot on the carpet, but that’s explained away by a leaky roof. With no evidence of a crime, Ross makes his exit. Jean is somewhat anxious, but her husband tells her not to worry.

But later, mother Woodry takes Tommy upstairs to apologize to the Kellersons. She hopes it will cure him of making up lies about people, but Tommy is more afraid for his safety. While he doesn’t actually apologize, his mother does for him; what he’s apologizing for is never said, but Jean is pretty sure it’s connected to the murder. Joe tells her that he’ll talk to the boy when he’s alone to find out what he knows.

That opportunity comes soon, for that evening Mary receives a telegram from her brother-in-law, Charlie, informing her that her sick sister has taken a turn for the worse. Tommy is convinced the telegram is a ruse by the Kellersons to get him alone, but his mother refuses to take him with her.

To help ease Tommy, the family goes to the local drugstore, the nearest place with a phone, to call Charlie. He assures the boy that he did send the telegram, but the boy is still afraid to be left alone.

After his parents leave, Tommy prepares to run away, thinking that is the only way to stay safe. He leaves his parents a handwritten note, adding at the end that what he’d said about the Kellersons was true. He is about to leave when his father returns unexpectedly to check on him. Ed is very mad at his son for trying to sneak off and not only nails the window in the boy’s room shut, but he locks him in his bedroom.

Soon after Ed leaves, Joe, using a passkey, breaks into the Woodry’s apartment. Tommy, meanwhile, has used a coat hanger to pry the key from the lock and is in the process of pulling the key back under the door. Joe, unbeknownst to the boy, even places the key so Tommy can pull it back.

Joe tries to sound reasonable to the boy, suggesting that he and his wife accompany Tommy down to police headquarters to straighten everything out. Tommy goes along, but when they are a safe distance from their apartment, the Kellersons drag him into an alleyway to get rid of him. Tommy does manage to get away, but only for a short while, as the Kellersons corner him and drag him into a taxi. They tell the cab driver that Tommy is their misbehaving son and he buys it.

The Kellersons (Ruth Roman and Paul Stewart) pretend
 to take Tommy to the police before they try to kill him.

On the ride, Tommy yells at a policeman on his beat for help. When he investigates, the Kellersons tell him that Tommy’s just upset because he’s going to be punished when they get home. The policeman tells Tommy that a little punishment will be good for him and leaves it at that.

In order to keep Tommy quiet, using Jean to shield the driver’s view, Joe knocks Tommy unconscious with a single punch. When they arrive back at their building, the Kellersons pass the unconscious Tommy as being asleep. Joe carries him up to their apartment and puts what he thinks is the unconscious boy out on the fire escape, hoping to leave him teetering so he’ll fall to a certain death. Jean suddenly develops a conscience and doesn’t like the plan, momentarily distracting her husband. When Tommy, who is awake, sees his opportunity, he bolts up the fire escape to the roof.

Joe plans to leave what he thinks is an unconscious Tommy in
a dangerous situation, hoping the boy will fall to his death.

Meanwhile, Ed has come home again and found not only that Tommy’s gone, but he notices the note Tommy had left, minus the part about the Kellersons, which Joe had sliced off when he was in the apartment earlier. Ed finds the same policeman on the beat who accompanies him back to the apartment after calling for reinforcements to help in the search.

Joe and Jean pursue Tommy as he tries to hide in one of the nearby condemned buildings. Tommy, who plays in these buildings, knows his way around even in the dark. Tommy manages to stay one step ahead of his pursuers until he stumbles upon the dead sailor’s body, which Joe had hidden there. His screams give away his position and Joe chases Tommy out onto an exposed rafter. But the rafter Joe is on cannot support his wait and the building collapses around him. Joe falls to his death.

The police come and are persuading Tommy to jump into a fire net when his parents arrive. Safe and reunited with his family, Tommy and his parents are taken downtown to give their statements. On the way, Ed tells Tommy how proud he is of him and will never doubt him again. Tommy, for his part, vows to stop making up stories.

I’m sort of with Hughes on films starring children, as they are not usually my favorites, but this one is actually pretty good. If you can’t necessarily place Driscoll, he was Jimmy Hawkins in Treasure Island (1950), but he was also the voice and the model for Peter Pan (1953). No doubt if you were a child born in the U.S., you’ve probably heard his voice at least once in your life.

The film really rests on Driscoll’s shoulders, as he is the focus. For a lesser actor, the strain might have been too much, but he holds your attention, even sixty-six plus years later. The New York Times even pointed out Driscoll for praise when the film was first released, "The striking force and terrifying impact of this RKO melodrama is chiefly due to Bobby's brilliant acting, for the whole effect would have been lost were there any suspicion of doubt about the credibility of this pivotal character.” For a child actor who was thought of as being cute, Driscoll was actually a good dramatic actor, winning a special Juvenile Oscar for his performance.

For every Ron Howard or Natalie Wood, who successfully transition from child star to adult, there are tens of Bobby Driscolls. When his childish looks faded, his career was pretty much over. His last part was in The Party Crashers (1958). Unable to find acting work, Driscoll, for a time, worked in Andy Warhol’s The Factory in Greenwich Village. He left there in early 1968 and later, in March, his body was found in an abandoned tenement in New York City and originally buried as a John Doe, though nearly two years later he was identified by his fingerprints. His death wasn’t reported nationally until 1971 when for the re-release of Song of the South, newspapers were trying to contact original cast members.

Unlike Driscoll, Arthur Kennedy had a long career. Nominated five times for acting Oscars, four for best supporting actor, Kennedy never won one in his nearly 50 year film career. He plays a believable father, who works hard and tries hard to do the right thing. He can’t be blamed for not believing his son after so many stories.

Barbara Hale is perhaps best known for her role as Della Street on TV’s Perry Mason, which ran from 1957 to 1966 and some 30 Perry Mason TV Movies from 1985 through 1995. Here, she is not as stylish as she would be as Della Street and, like Kennedy, makes a believable mother in a frumpy housecoat.

Paul Stewart got his start in film in Citizen Kane (1941) as one of Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre players. He would go on to appear in such films as Johnny Eager (1942), Mr. Lucky (1943), Deadline-U.S.A. (1952) and King Creole (1958). An accomplished actor, Stewart plays that neighbor with a sinister secret. I have to wonder if he had any misgivings about hitting a child, something you rarely see done in movies, especially in the 1940’s. Even today, that was still shocking to see.

Ruth Roman is perhaps best known for her role as Anne Morton, Farley Granger’s love interest in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951). She would also appear in Dallas (1950) opposite Gary Cooper. In a non-acting note, Roman would survive the sinking of the Andrea Doria ocean liner in 1956. Her role as Jean in this movie was early in her career and of the five leads is perhaps the least well developed.

The story is what carries the film. The child, a known story-teller (I wouldn’t say liar) is not believed by those he trusts the most, his parents nor by authority figures he wants to trust, the police. The only ones who think he might have seen something are the murderers themselves and his mother all but rats him out to them. The director does a good job to keep the story going, which is really a thriller more than anything else. Maybe he overplays the danger, like the wobbling Tommy on the fire escape, but otherwise it is a good solid effort for cinematographer turned director, Ted Tetzlaff.

The Window reminds me a lot of the Barbara Stanwyck film, Witness to Murder (1954), which this film obviously pre-dates. In that film, Stanwyck sees a murder in the apartment house across the street, and when the police investigate they don’t find any evidence, either. And like the Kellersons, the murderer Albert Richter, played by George Sanders, tries to kill her chasing her, not to a dilapidated tenement house, but rather into a new construction site. Of the two films, The Window is far and away the better.

Be sure to check out our Film Noir Review Hub for reviews of other films in this genre.

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