The Seattle International Film Festival always has a nice selection of older films to choose from and since, like Jeffrey Anderson, I think it's important for film critics to watch older films so as to have the perspective of what came before, I always try to catch a few. The screening of The Window, a 1949 film noir starring child-star Bobby Driscoll (who those of you who are my age or older may also remember from Disney's Song of the South, the voice of Peter in Disney's animated Peter Pan, and many other roles) as a boy prone to telling tall tales, who finds himself up to his cute little neck in trouble when he's witness to a murder.
The film, directed by Ted Tetzlaff, was shown on a spanking-new 35mm print (courtesy of the Film Noir Foundation), and it looked absolutely gorgeous. It was introduced by film noir expert (and Foundation president) Eddie Muller, who gave us some background. These days, Muller told us, a film like The Window would be hard to make, because the storyline puts a child in such peril. The film was adapted from the story The Boy Who Cried Wolf by noir author Cornell Woolrich (Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, made five years later and also based on a Cornell Woolrich short story, is basically the same story, only with a wheelchair-bound man instead of a small boy). The Window, Muller informed us, was also the first movie filmed on location in New York City. The film is set in what is supposed to be a blisteringly hot summer; filming actually took place in the winter, and the actors were sprayed with water to give the appearance they were hot and sweaty.
In the film, young Tommy Woodry (Driscoll) likes to play with his friends in an abandoned building in his New York neighborhood. He also likes to tell stories, mostly about seeing bad guys commit dastardly deeds. Tommy's father (Arthur Kennedy) works nights to support his family, while his mother (Barbara Hale), like most wives and mothers in 1949, takes care of home and family. Tommy's parents are a bit at a loss over what to do about their son's passion for telling stories (my sardonic thought was: Well, they might consider encouraging him, because he might grow up to be a writer someday, but hey, that's just me).
One hot night, Tommy can't sleep, so he asks his mom if he can sleep on the fire escape. He's still hot there, so he moves up a floor in hopes of catching a cool breeze. He dozes off there, and sometime later wakes up and sees (through the lower half of the window, because the shade is half-drawn) his neighbors, the Kellersons, murder a man and steal his money. He runs downstairs to tell his mother, who insists he must have just had a bad dream. The next morning, he again tries to tell his mother what he saw, and then tells his father, who gets angry with Tommy for telling tales about the neighbors. Sent to his room for the day, Tommy sneaks out and goes to the police, but they don't believe him either; they take him home to his mother, who angrily drags him upstairs to apologize to the neighbors. Nice job, Mom -- now the killers know there was a witness to their evil deed.
The rest of the movie is filled with tension as the Kellersons attempt to silence young Tommy. Tommy endures more than any young child should have to endure at the hands of the criminals: He is chased, nearly killed, escapes, is caught again and dragged into a cab, where both the cabbie and a passing police officer buy the Kellerson's tale that he is their miscreant son who's just saying they aren't his parents to avoid getting the stuffing whaled out of him at home. Naturally, none of the adults believe poor Tommy -- this is 1949, after all, and children are supposed to be seen and not heard. As if that weren't enough, Tommy is also knocked unconscious by a blow to the head, almost dropped to his death off a building, and trapped on a rafter swinging high above the floor. The final chase sequence, which takes place in the same abandoned building Tommy plays in with his friends (because, you know, all good parents let their kids play in derelict abandoned buildings), is truly harrowing.
It's interesting to watch a film as old as The Window, and to imagine how audiences in 1949 would have responded to it. The film was one of the first breakout hits for RKO Pictures, and then somehow slipped off into oblivion (though the existence of this new print gives rise to hope that a DVD might be available at some point). Muller came back onstage after the film to wind things up, and shared with the audience that Bobby Driscoll, who won a miniature Oscar for his role in The Window and was one of Disney's flagship child stars, died 19 years after the making of this film, at the age of 31, officially of hepatitis from drug abuse. His body was found, Muller told us, in an abandoned building very near where The Window was filmed. That was a bit of a downer, but the film was everything I hoped it would be. If you get a chance to see the film (or if it comes out on DVD), don't miss it.