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The Window (1949): The City as a Prison

thewindow 1949 billboard The Window (1949): The City as a Prison

The Window, an RKO b-noir that was a big box office hit in 1949, features an Oscar-winning performance from child-actor Bobby Driscoll as a kid who has told too many tall stories to be believed when he actually witnesses a murder.  Based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, the movie is a tight thriller of entrapment, where the tenements of working-class New York are a prison few escape. Filmed on the streets and in deep focus, The Window challenges Jule’s Dassin’s The Naked City  (1948) as the first documentary-style noir – it was actually completed two months before The Naked City in January 1948.  Director Ted Tatzlaff and DPs Robert De Grass and William Steiner fashion a cityscape and built spaces that express a deeply oppressive ambience.

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The Window (RKO 1949) 73min
Directed by Ted Tetzlaff
Writing credits: Cornell Woolrich (story) and Mel Dinelli (screenplay)
Cast:
Barbara Hale – Mrs. Mary Woodry
Arthur Kennedy – Mr. Ed Woodry
Paul Stewart – Joe Kellerson
Ruth Roman – Mrs. Jean Kellerson
Bobby Driscoll – Tommy Woodry
Original Music by Roy Webb
Cinematography by Robert De Grasse William Steiner


  
    	

13 Comments

  1. Wonderful choice for the royal carpet treatment at FilmsNoir.net, THE WINDOW is a tense and absorbing drama that bears some comparisons with Woolrich’s later REAR WINDOW, and at least in suspenseful atmospherics with THE FALLEN IDOL and SHADOW OF A DOUBT. As you note in this concise and appreciative capsule the young Bobby Driscoll steals the show with a performance that compellingly negotiates fear and panic. This may be the ultimate ‘boy who cried wolf’ drama, and I very much like your assertion that (with that Dassin film) this is the best and earliest example of ‘documentary noir’. Tetzlaff, who lensed Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS is a master craftsman, as you display here in this stunning caps. I’m tempted to put my Warner Archives DVD into my player again this week. This is a long-time favorite.

  2. Frank Gallo

    I do remember this as a taut and chilling film that waste’s not a single frame. Driscoll gave one of the best performances ever by a young actor. I did feel that ‘oppressive ambience’ you speak of.

  3. Jon

    Tony,

    Wonderful collection of images and a great synopsis as well. This is another film I’m going to have to get on my list of things to see. It looks like a great find.

  4. Hey Sam, Frank, ans Jon. Thanks for your comments guys!

  5. Nice write up & great Noir, I’ve located a few of the NYC locations also.

  6. Johnroy

    Hi Cigar Joe, I noticed you mentioned that you located a few of the NYC filming locations for “THE WINDOW” 1949 RKO. I’ve been trying to find the actual street where the tenements were supposed to be in the film. I managed to get the name of Hull street, but this is only located in Brooklyn and not Manhattan lower eastside where it is said to have been. Do you have any ideas? I’d be so grateful for any info. Cheers, Johnroy.(St.Helens, UK.

  7. Cigar Joe

    Yes I too found that Hull Street is in Brooklyn. At first I assumed the film took place on the Lower East Side from the opening sequence, but now rather than looking North we are actually looking South at the skyline.

    Its an amalgamation of locations.

    When Bobby Driscoll runs to the police station he runs through the stone arch tunnel at East 106th Street at the Park Avenue Viaduct, you can see the 3rd Avenue El station in the background, next we cut to the Fire House at 157 East 67th Street adjoining a police station.

    see images & go to google earth

    http://i841.photobucket.com/albums/zz337/cigarjoe/TheWindowEngineCo39HL16157East67thSt.jpg

    http://i841.photobucket.com/albums/zz337/cigarjoe/157East67th.jpg

    http://i841.photobucket.com/albums/zz337/cigarjoe/E106thStreet.jpg

  8. Thanks Cigar Joe!

  9. cigar joe

    A unique Noir Thriller. A Family Noir. A Kid’s Noir. But not just any kid, the kid who was a denizen of an decaying urban rat warren in a city that was constantly regenerating. A city before the Manhattan el’s were torn down, before TV, before air-conditioning, where clothes were dried on clothes lines, where playgrounds were winding back alleys, tar beach roof tops, jungle jim fire escapes, and condemned buildings that became, clubhouses, forts or whatever you may imagine. The real habitats of urban man circa 1948, apartment-street, hall-alley, sidewalk-pavement, steel-earth, inside-outside, light-dark.

    What really hits home with this film is its realistic telling of the tale from Tommy’s POV (Bobby Driscoll). Any viewer with an urban background will find some touchstones to his own childhood or two the childhood stories of his parents. I still remember trying to sleep on hot, humid summer nights, in a second story apartment, where, thanks to a corner bedroom and two open windows any slight cross breeze brought relief. But it also provided the city lullabies of traffic, distant and near, the rattle of the Connecting RR, the faint roar of the sunken Grand Central. Nature provided the rustle of a tree from a breeze or the patter of rain on leaves. My best friend who lived in a bigger apartment house actually did sleep out on the fire escape to cool off. An el the old BMT line to Ditmars Blvd. was just down the block.

    The film begins brilliantly with one of Tommy’s fantasies instantly drawing us in to his world.

    We see a condemned building, we see black window, lying face down, we see Tommy. He awakens looking somewhat in pain, clutching his chest. A child in distress. Crawling forward he grabs a cap gun and we are brought to reality. Tommy is fantasizing, playing/acting out, a “shot” cowboy crawling in a hayloft to the hay-door from where he spots the “gang” playing cards. He shoots and his older buddies ignore him, a new game has replaced the one Tommy was still playing, and a fire truck siren from the street trumps even that.

    As Tommy makes his way to his street urchin buddies we follow the relatively benign, maze like, cinematic urban landscape that duplicates in reverse a final reckoning that, taking place in the dead of night, turns it all very noir-ish and frightening, murderous silhouettes on window shades, illumination stabbed by slanting shadows.

    The city, especially in this film, is given equal billing. William O. Steiner (cinematography) a native New Yorker along with two of the three assistant directors, informs the visual compositions with a loving and knowing familiarity. Interiors (studio probably) Art Direction by Italian born Sam Corso, native New Yorker Albert S. D’Agostino and Kansian Walter E. Keller looks flawless.

    All performances are top notch. Bobby Driscoll was incredibly talented. He’s thoroughly believable as Tommy. All his interactions and reactions with his peers, with his parents especially his father Ed (Arthur Kennedy), with his neighbors, and with the police, as he tries to convince them that he’s telling the truth ring clear. Barbara Hale and Arthur Kennedy are excellent as Tommy’s doubting parents ratcheting up the tension/horror level every time they attempt to reason with or placate Tommy’s accusations with the kind of statements most parents faced with the same situation would make. They even make Tommy confront the upstairs neighbors the Kellerson’s. Joe Kellerson and Jean Kellerson are one of the most despicable couples in noir. Their grift is for looker Jean (Ruth Roman) to lure single men to their apartment, probably for sex, where she slips them knockout drops, Joe (Paul Stewart) then rolls them for their doe and dumps them in an alley.

    On a hot & humid night Tommy can’t sleep, he wakes his mother Mary Woodry, (Barbara Hale) and asks if he can sleep out on the fire escape where it would be cooler, she says sure but be careful. Laying out in the sweltering evening with his pillow Tommy sees the towels hanging from the Kellersons clothesline billow in a breeze, a breeze that doesn’t reach down enough to give Tommy relief, so like any resourceful kid, Tommy grabs his pillow and climbs up to the Kellerson’s landing to fall asleep there. He’s awakened both by a shaft of light spilling across his face from the space between the bottom of a pull shade and the window sill, and the sounds of a grift going murderously wrong. Its a beautifully filmed sequence where the action is obscured, partially silhouetted by the shade and vividly focused through the slot.

    Though I’ve never read the Cornell Woolrich short story I have read that the story is even gorier. Lots of great sequences, watch for the police station cat. The original music score by Roy Webb even includes a leitmotif for Tommy. Great New York Noir 10/10

  10. Thanks Ray for sharing you own experiences and your slant. Always welcome.

  11. Griot Tony

    As kids, my late mother had us tune into this classic on WOR tv’s Million Dollar Movie on a similarly sweltering August night in 1965. She vividly remembered the filming of this movie in her East Harlem ‘hood as a teenager but quite awhile before 1949. Found out movie was shot in ’47 just after she passed 2 yrs ago. A Hollywood film crew at work in this neighborhood during post WW2 years was a big deal indeed! And mom was a movie buff from that era, she remembered Ruth Roman’s movies, etc.

    During the late 1940’s, this area was in rapid transition from a predominantly Italian and Irish American enclave to ‘El Barrio’, due to a large & continuing influx of Puerto Rican immigrants. Whole city blocks of the old tenements depicted in this movie, were being condemned, razed and replaced by housing projects along Third Ave from 103rd street upward as part of postwar urban renewal.

    There was an express station at 3rd ave 108th St which had 2 separate track levels – like those seen in some shots. The Woodry apartment house depicted may have actually been there or in the vicinity. The 3rd Ave El was prominent in her memories and she was amazed at how classy the post-el avenue got in recent yrs as compared to the ‘dump’ it was in 1949. I, myself rode the surviving Bronx branch of this line with those old, heavy, nerve battering noisy trains until it was razed in ’73

    Wish mom was here to give u folks more scoop on this but she would have loved Cigar Joe’s wonderful and ‘right on the money-no bs’ comments on old school urbanity. I sure do love ‘em. wish he’d do a book or a movie of his own.

    bobby driscoll became a cult hero to all us kids I told to see this movie. Like many other people, his later life didn’t sum up so happily. but he left us this masterwork! RIP Bobby! and the others too!

  12. Thanks Tony for sharing your family story. A great contribution to this thread.

  13. cigar joe

    Nice story Tony, the station was at 106th Street though. Here is a link to a great book on the 3rd Avenue el:
    http://www.amazon.com/By-El-Lawrence-Stelter/dp/0977722015/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1394931491&sr=8-1&keywords=by+the+el

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