Ted Tetzlaff brings Bobby Driscoll to the voyeur’s front window
The Window (1949) is the kind of movie probably best experienced as a child of 11 or 12, plagued by insomnia, moved to turn on late night television. It’s the sort of thing that, once seen at that age, would always be in the back of your head as a nightmare, a mystery film. Did you see it or did you not? It was directed by a distinguished cinematographer, Ted Tetzlaff, who helmed a few other B-movies of no particular distinction. Tetzlaff shot Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), quite moodily. One day on the set, bemused by the master’s haggling over the accuracy of a visual detail, he said, “Getting a bit technical, aren’t you, Pop?” This makes him sound something of a philistine, but, having seen The Window, I would guess that there might have been some admiration in the remark. For The Window is like a tightly wound comment on the Hitchcock style of suspense, and quite technically adroit, so much so that I wonder if it might have been an inspiration for Rear Window (1954), which, like Tetzlaff’s film, was based on a story of sleepy voyeurism by Cornell Woolrich.
Tommy (Bobby Driscoll) is a young boy who has developed a bad habit of telling tall tales, and his rather stuffy working class parents (Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale) discourage his imaginative impulses. They live in a dark, foreboding film noir tenement during the dregs of a typical New York summer, which drives the sleepless young boy onto a fire escape for air. He moves to the grid above his and is soon awakened by a scuffle. We see his big young eyes take in a gruesome-looking murder: a man falls dead with a gory stab wound in his back and a pair of scissors drop to the floor. We then see and hear bits and pieces of a couple (Paul Stewart and Ruth Roman) quietly arguing. The scene is framed in a dark, off-kilter way, so that we’re not sure of what we are seeing a lot of the time, and this heightens the tension. (Like Hitch, Tetzlaff must have been influenced by the withholding effects of Val Lewton.)
Driscoll tells his parents what he saw, and Kennedy does some fatherly guilt-tripping, with vague talk of the boy’s future, while Hale is so irritable that she seems hell-bent on teaching her boy all the wrong things: her message is, “Stay out of trouble at all costs.” But this is no ordinary little boy. He has suddenly learned the difference between right and wrong, and he knows that keeping quiet about what he saw is wrong, no matter what his parents tell him. Since this film was made in paranoiac 1949, it goes against the grain of its era in suggesting that authority figures must be fought if they are misguided. So Driscoll goes to the police station, where the cops seem to humor him as a way to relax from real crime.
Hale insists that he apologize to the murderous couple, which is where the real trouble starts. Tetzlaff plays this scene from Driscoll’s point of view, having the camera stare up at the surprisingly tarty-looking Roman (a striking instance of a dull actress who seems re-invented by being cast against type). When she moves to pat his head, Driscoll flinches away (a very tense moment), and the idea of a possible witness soon unnerves Roman and her husband Stewart, the dead-eyed butler from Citizen Kane. Driscoll proves an extremely resourceful little boy through several trials by fire, cleverly lying about not having gone to the police when he’s confronted by Stewart (he knows that the truth can sometimes kill you). When Stewart and Roman (above) drag Driscoll into an alley to murder him, the screen goes dark, and it’s impossible to tell just how the boy claws his way out of there (blurry garbage cans fall across the screen, their lack of definition adding to the terror). The couple capture him again and get him into a taxicab, where he calls for a policeman; the cop doesn’t believe him, of course (nobody believed kids then, while today children are believed far too much). In a particularly nasty moment, Roman pushes herself in front of Driscoll and Stewart punches the boy out — it’s as if Tetzlaff remembers the uncomfortable moment when Cary Grant slugs Ingrid Bergman in Notorious and is saying, “OK, Pop, I’ll do you one better . . . you punched out saintly Sister Ingrid, I’ll slug a cute little kid!”
The suspense of the last third is agonizing, because we continually expect Kennedy to figure out what’s going on and come to his son’s rescue, as he would in just about any other movie. But he doesn’t, leaving Driscoll to fend for himself with his often amazing self-possession: placed on a fire escape so he’ll fall to his death, he fakes out the killer couple just long enough to run onto the roof. Putting a child in jeopardy for such a lengthy period of time is rather cruel, and even Hitch might have demurred; he always regretted a similar sequence in Sabotage (1936) where a boy with a bomb wanders around London. Hitch killed the child off, brutally, but that goes back to the Conrad novel the film is based on. We can be pretty sure that Driscoll won’t die, but the skill employed in scaring the audience is so intense through The Window‘s spare 73-minute running time that a lot of things begin to seem worse than death. If Jacques Becker’s Casque d’or (1953) inspired Renoir to make French Can Can (1955), then it isn’t too out of line to think that Hitch might have been impressed enough by The Window to take the action to the Rear with Grace Kelly. Sometimes a minor artist can impress and rejuvenate a master through humble example, and if Tetzlaff made nothing else that was as good, he deserves mention as a man happy to hide out in Hitchcock’s notoriously capacious shadow.
Bobby Driscoll won a special Oscar in 1949 for his performance in The Window, and he really is outstanding. A Disney contract player, the model and voice for the cartoon Peter Pan, he was let go after a bout of severe teenage acne and his career floundered. Not as strong-willed as Tommy, Driscoll got into hard drugs and was found dead of a heart attack at age 31 in an East Village tenement not unlike his prison-like home in The Window. He was later buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave, and his fate is a prime example of why the movies are usually more merciful than life.