The Window (1949): The City as a Prison

Filmed on the streets of New York and in deep focus, The Window challenges Jule’s Dassin’s The Naked City (1948) as the first documentary noir…

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.

The Window (RKO 1949) 73min
Directed by Ted Tetzlaff
Writing credits: Cornell Woolrich (story) and Mel Dinelli (screenplay)
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


20 thoughts on “The Window (1949): The City as a Prison”

  1. Wonderful choice for the royal carpet treatment at, 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. 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. 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. 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.


  5. 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


  6. 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


  7. 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!


  8. Yes, scene where Bobby is being chased by the bad guy, the boy runs at night along E.106th Street towards the IRT 3rd Avenue EL (built in 1878) and up one of the ancient EL stairways to the EL Station house. He runs thru the station house, and out on to the lower level local track station platform. The single express track and its two platforms were on the UPPER level of that station.– the shadowy steel supports which can be seen along the lower level platform views. Bobby runs back thru the station house, and back down the opposite stairway to E.106th Street, (it appears to be the UPTOWN station house side) – where the bad guy catches him. I grew up and lived along and rode the Manhattan 3rd Ave EL quite a lot, living a few stations south of that one., and remember the EL well, and made scale models of its trains..seen on my website link. The Manhattan part of the EL was closed on Thursday, May 12, 1955, at 7PM, and it was demolished and removed between Aug. 8, 1955 thru early Feb. 1956


  9. Hello Tony

    You are welcome. I hope you checked out my FLICKR websites of my 1/4″ scale Modeling of NY City Transit and City scenes on my NYC EL-Trolley layout..

    By the way, the OPENING scenes in the very beginning of “The Window” after the credits — a rooftop view downward from the south side of E. 105th Street looking northwest towards 3rd Avenue and the 3rd Ave. EL structure’s double decked EL ramp 1 block south of the E.106th St EXPRESS Station showing a southbound EL EXPRESS train on descending on the upper level ramp, to the two local tracks level..

    The immediate NEXT scene is shot looking EAST along the north sidewalk of E. 103rd Street near, towards, Lexington Avenue with a 3rd Ave EL train passing by 1 block east in the background and a new 1946 vintage GMC (General Motors Co.built) transit bus southbound on Lexington Avenue.. The camera pans upwards towards a few abandoned and slated to be demolished tenement houses. This is the site TODAY of the two story FUNERAL HOME now located there.

    The boy (Driscoll) soon later running WEST across the rooftops to get home — note the huge circular NATURAL GAS Storage TANKS in the background view southeast – located at 1st Avenue around E.110th Sreett (tanks now long gone).

    Driscoll climbs down the roof-top fire-escape ladder at the north-facing REAR of his tenement building (the side facing the rear yard) and note the southbound N.Y. Central Railroad Electric Loco hauled commuter train on the Park Avenue stone Railroad viaduct ! That roof top was on a building (boy Driscoll’s “home”) along the north side of E.103rd Street just off of (east of) Park Avenue. That building and whole area to the north, since about now housing projects from along north sidewalk of E.103rd Street northward, and. parallel to Park Avenue..

    Figured you all would enjoy the scene locations !

    If you GOOGLE these two street locations (E.105th & 3rd Ave and E. 103rd ST at Lex. Ave) as I did, the most of same buildings are there today. And check the GOOGLE aerial view.

    regards – Joe


  10. Hello Tony and All–

    In the line of 10 B&W photos seen in the column-row above on this page – I have exactly location-identified the 4th, 6th and 9th photos down from the top.

    4th PHOTO – Where the boy Driscoll is shown running west, (the the E.67th St. Police Station) the view is East along the south sidewalk of East 67th street towards 3rd Avenue and the Downtown E. 67th Street Local Station House of the 3rd Ave. EL. The S/B Station only had ONE stairway located on the southerly sidewalk, as is seen near 3rd Ave.

    6th PHOTO – View S/W thru opening between buildings on the east side of Lexington Ave., towards the west side of Lexington Ave., towards East 103rd Street. A southbound Bus passes by on Lexington Ave. The Building whose side is at left foreground, is the corner tenement on the N/E. corner of Lex & 103rd. It is still there today.. The flat roof store at bottom was removed by 2008 and was replaced a modern apartment house. The Church at the SW corner is still there today, as are those buildings seen across Lexington Avenue behind the bus.

    9th PHOTO – View west down to the south sidewalk of E. 106th St., from near top of the stairway of the 3rd Ave. EL’s Southbound E.106th St. Express Station station-house, where the boy (seen at stairway bottom) ran up and thru the station and platform.

    Hope these additional locations are enjoyed.



  11. Hi IRTELman Joe,

    Wow some nice models of the 3rd Ave. El you have there Joe. It’s a shame the city didn’t keep at least one standing, Too bad there wasn’t any Historical site/Landmark preservation back then. Can you imagine the tourist draw it would be today? I believe my mother took me on the El once when I was baby but I don’t remember it. When I used to go to school in Manhattan I’d ride the Astoria line. At the Queensboro Plaza Station on the upper level at the West end of the platform for many years there used to be a small section of curved track that curved towards the Queensboro Bridge it was actually the last section of track left of the 2nd Ave, El.

    I get a kick out of seeing the old El in the movies, In a movie called “The Catered Affair” Ernest Borgnine is a cabbie who in the opening sequence drives over the Queensboro Bridge and then to 3rd Ave. where you can actually see a shot of the active demolition of the El, check it out if you haven’t seen it.


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