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Tag Archives: Mel Dinelli

The Window (May 17, 1949)

The Window
The Window (1949)
Directed by Ted Tetzlaff
RKO Radio Pictures

Ted Tetzlaff worked as a cinematographer on more than a hundred films dating back to the silent era. After shooting Notorious (1946) for Alfred Hitchcock, he moved to directing full time.

Tetzlaff directed a relatively small number of films, but the two I’ve seen so far have both been fantastic. The first was Riffraff (1947), a visually inventive detective thriller in a tropical setting. The second was this one, which I thought was even better than Riffraff.

Apparently The Window was filmed in 1947, but its release was delayed when Howard Hughes acquired RKO Radio Pictures.

The Window is based on a story by Cornell Woolrich called “The Boy Cried Murder” (also reprinted under the title “Fire Escape”). The story was originally published in Mystery Book Magazine in March 1947. The screenplay was adapted from the story by Mel Dinelli, who also scripted the terrific RKO thriller The Spiral Staircase (1945).

The Window opens with a quote from Aesop’s fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” I guess they were concerned that people weren’t going to pick up on the concept immediately, so they’d get it out of the way before the movie even started.

Even without the opening text, I don’t think you’d need a PhD in Comp Lit to pick up on the “boy who cried wolf” theme pretty quickly.

The Window stars Bobby Driscoll, a child actor on loan from Disney. Driscoll plays Tommy Woodry, a nine-year-old boy who lives in a working class neighborhood of New York with his parents, Ed and Mary (Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale). Tommy is an only child who plays in the street and in an abandoned building with the other boys in the neighborhood. He’s a bright kid, and he loves playing make-believe and telling tall tales.

“If it isn’t Indians it’s gangsters, and if it’s not gangsters it’s something else,” his mother complains. (Incidentally, Barbara Hale was 27 years old when The Window premiered in 1949. Driscoll was 12. What this means is that Kennedy, who plays Driscoll’s dad, would have been 23 when his 14-year-old wife gave birth. In fairness, Hale is made up to look older than she is, and I don’t think the filmmakers were trying to imply statutory rape and teen pregnancy.)

Bobby Driscoll

One sweltering summer night, Tommy asks permission to sleep out on the fire escape because it’s a little cooler outside. He lies down and gazes up at the black sky, pinpoints of stars, and white laundry flapping on a line above him. Still too hot, he climbs up one story to the top floor, where it’s slightly cooler. He drifts off to sleep, but wakes up later and witnesses something terrible. He thinks he sees his neighbors kill a man.

“With all the stories you tell it’s no wonder you have nightmares,” his mother tells him when he wakes her up.

Tommy persists with his story, but his parents refuse to believe him. When he takes his story to the police, it only makes things worse.

The wonderful thing about The Window is how believably adults relate to Tommy. His parents are both patient and understanding people, especially his dad. They’re not clueless buffoons or coldly abusive, the way so many parents are in movies with child protagonists. That they refuse to believe him is not their fault. It’s how the situation would play out in real life.

The police don’t just dismiss his story either. They are kind and indulgent. But when they investigate Tommy’s upstairs neighbors, everything seems to be all right, so they drop the matter. Again, this is probably how the situation would play out in real life.

The Window is genuinely suspenseful, and it has a fairly shocking climax. This is one of those films where everything comes together perfectly. The actors are wonderful, the writing is great, and the pacing is perfect. Tetzlaff and his cinematographers, Robert De Grasse and William O. Steiner, crafted a great-looking film that seamlessly blended New York locations and studio soundstages.

I always have more movies I want to watch than I can find the time to watch (and review), so I rarely watch movies twice, but I liked The Window so much that I watched it a second time and enjoyed it even more than I did the first time.

Incidentally, Bobby Driscoll ended up having a very sad life. I don’t feel like getting into it here, but if you’d like to know more about him, Google him.

The Window will be shown on TCM on March 10, 2014.

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The Spiral Staircase (Feb. 6, 1946)

Robert Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase was made in 1945, and released into some theaters in December. The earliest confirmed day of release I could find, however, was February 6, 1946, in New York City, so I’m reviewing it here.

Based on Ethel Lina White’s 1933 novel Some Must Watch, The Spiral Staircase is a slick, good-looking thriller with some striking visual choices. White’s novel took place in contemporary England, but the film is set in early 20th century Massachusetts. Some sources I’ve found claim it takes place circa 1916, but the silent film an audience in a movie house is watching in the first scene of the film is D.W. Griffith’s 1912 short The Sands of Dee, and one of the characters has just returned from Paris, about which he waxes rhapsodic, speaking wistfully of all the beautiful women. So it seems to me that the action of the film must take place before the First World War.

The Spiral Staircase doesn’t take long to deliver its terrifying goods. In one of the rooms above the silent movie house, we see a young woman (Myrna Dell) getting undressed. She walks with a slight limp. When the camera moves into her closet as she hangs up her dress, there is a pause, then the camera moves into the thicket of hanging clothes. They part slightly, and suddenly we see an enormous, maniacal eye fill the screen. We then see the girl reflected in the eye, her lower half blurred (why this is will be explained later).

Alfred Hitchcock used a closeup of Anthony Perkin’s eye to great effect in Psycho (1960). And one of the earliest indelible images in the history of cinema was an eyeball being slit open by a straight razor in Luis Buñuel’s short film Un chien andalou (1929). But a close shot of an eye used in the same way as a violin stab on the soundtrack, or a shadow quickly passing across the frame, to make the audience jump out of their seats, is relatively rare. I thought Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974) was the first film to do this — when the killer is shockingly revealed as an eyeball peering out from between an open door and a door jamb — but apparently it wasn’t.

Among the patrons of the movie house, none of whom is questioned by the incompetent local constable (James Bell) after the murder, is a mute woman named Helen Capel (Dorothy McGuire). Her friend, the handsome young Dr. Parry (Kent Smith), gives her a ride home, and tells her that he believes her muteness can be overcome. She silently demurs, and goes home to the creepy old mansion where she is employed as a servant to the bedridden but mentally sharp Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore). Also present in the house are the other domestics, Mr. and Mrs. Oates (Rhys Williams and Elsa Lanchester, who looks a lot frumpier than when she played The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935), Mrs. Warren’s two stepsons, Prof. Albert Warren (George Brent) and ne’er-do-well Steve Warren (Gordon Oliver), the professor’s pretty assistant Blanche (Rhonda Fleming), and Mrs. Warren’s crotchety old nurse (Sarah Allgood).

Once the action settles down and focuses on the Warren estate, The Spiral Staircase becomes a more predictable game of whodunnit, as well as a frustrating game of “when will she find the strength to scream for help, already?”

The film is never boring, however, due in no small part to the brilliant cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca. The Spiral Staircase is all shadows and gaslight, which — along with one of the longest thunderstorms on film — hearkens back to spooky haunted house pictures like James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932).

The Spiral Staircase is not quite a masterpiece, and it never aspires to be more than a pulse-quickening thriller, but it is exceptionally well-made entertainment.