Sun 27 Jun 2010
J. H. WALLIS – Once Off Guard. E.P. Dutton, hardcover, 1942. Also published as: The Woman in the Window. World, 1944. Paperback reprints: Mercury Mystery #81, 1944, abridged; Armed Forces Edition #723, 1945, as The Woman in the Window; Popular Library #385, 1951, abridged.
I like to do the book/movie thing (read a few chapters in the book each day, then watch the corresponding scenes of the film that night) and got a chance last week with The Woman in the Window, originally published back in 1942 as Once Off Guard by J.H. Wallis and filmed by Fox in ’44.
Wallis’s book is an oddly depressing read, tense and claustrophobic, told almost entirely from the point of view of Professor Richard Wanley, who, overcome by reading erotic poetry of ancient Greece, gets involved with a tart and suddenly has to kill her sugar-daddy in self-defense.
Terrified of scandal and genuinely reluctant to hurt his wife, Wanley and the tart cover up the crime and hide the body, leading to a world of complications.
The book, as I say, gets a bit depressing as Wanley frets and sweats over little things that loom large in his guilty conscience, sure that everyone notices tiny clues that link him to the killing, and it gets worse yet when the tart gets a visit from a prospective blackmailer. All of which leads to more murder, more guilt and a neat, ironic ending. An involving read, but not much fun.
So when Fox took this on for a movie, they gave it to writer Nunnally Johnson, who could be depended on to lighten things up, and director Fritz Lang, whose sense of fatalism was perfectly suited to the material.
The result is just as involving as Wallis’s book, but much less claustrophobic. Characters who seem merely looming presences in the book get neatly fleshed out in the movie by competent players like Raymond Massey, Dan Duryea and Edmund Breon (whom some may remember as the lascivious music box collector in the Sherlock Holmes flick, Dressed to Kill).
Also, we get to see things in the movie that in the book are only imagined by Wanley, opening things out a bit. Finally, there’s a twist ending, followed by a twist on a twist, handled beautifully by Lang in a cinematic flourish where he abruptly changes scenes without cutting.
Think of that: he actually switches scenes without cutting! A friend of mine once asked the director (by then quite aged and revered) how he did this, and Lang merely smiled and said some mysteries were best left as mysteries.
I suspect he just didn’t remember.
Bio-Bibliographical Data: James Harold Wallis, 1885-1958, was the author of ten mystery and crime fiction novels for Dutton between 1931 and 1943, the first six of which were cases for Inspector Wilton Jacks. Says Al Hubin of Wallis in Crime Fiction IV: Born in Iowa, educated at Yale; newspaperman in Iowa turned full-time writer in New York.