Did you spot the Hitchcock cameos in 2021 suspense movie The Woman in the Window?
What is The Woman in the Window about?
Anna Fox (Amy Adams) lives alone in a sprawling Manhattan townhouse. This is handy, because Anna is agoraphobic and can’t go outside.
When new neighbours move in across the road, spying on them gives her a new source of entertainment – until she witnesses a murder through the window.
Thanks to her habit of mixing booze and medication, the cops won’t believe Anna’s story. Anna isn’t even sure if she believes herself. Then someone starts sending her threats. Is she next?
Hitchcock movies referenced in The Woman in the Window
Alfred Hitchcock made a point of taking a cheeky cameo in the movies he directed (something M. Night Shyamalan also does). It’s like a hidden signature, as well as a bragging rights.
But there are traces of Hitchcock all over The Woman in the Window, too, as a nod to the legendary director’s continuing influence on modern cinema.
Most obvious is the parallel with 1954’s Rear Window, which has wheelchair-bound James Stewart spying on his neighbours and suspecting a murder.
The concept has been re-used by so many films that it’s hard to miss it here. But did you spot a clip from Rear Window in The Woman in the Window? It flashes up in the film’s opening credits, and signposts how the film will end (the killer tries to throw the main character to his / her death from a height).
The other Hitchcock classic that gets an airing is The Lady Vanishes. In the 1938 film, a young woman travelling on a train believes another passenger has gone missing, but her fears are written off as hallucination.
This is something Anna Fox struggles with, too. And both movies also make use of a ‘second woman’ standing in for a missing person.
Finally of course there’s Vertigo, in which a fear of heights stops James Stewart catching a killer. To-ma-to, to-may-to / vertigo, agoraphobia … let’s call the whole thing off.
Hitchcock’s Vertigo famously features a stand-in wife. In The Woman in the Window, this concept ends up becoming a red herring.
When Anna meets the real Mrs Russell, she’s shocked to find it’s not the woman she had drinks with. Anna then suspects the husband must be to blame (again drawing on that Vertigo influence). In fact, the mistaken identity is Anna’s error.
Women who drink
It’s not just Hitchcock that The Woman in the Window pays homage to (ahem, or borrows from).
The female agoraphobic who must catch a serial killer in her own home has been done before. See Sigourney Weaver in Copycat.
So too has the unreliable female narrator. Ashley Judd’s drunk protagonist can’t trust herself in 2004’s Twisted. More recently, British TV drama Marcella features a female cop who frequently blacks out from booze, medication and mental illness.
And there’s Black Swan’s Nina Sayers, who has us all doubting what we see on screen.
Mental illness and booze are common shackles for women on-screen. Both are used as a shorthand to cast doubt on the veracity of female stories, and to get them doubt themselves.
If this seems unfair, compare James Stewart’s male protagonist in Rear Window, who can at least get the cops to investigate when a woman goes missing. For Anna Fox, they only turn up to take the moral high ground and tell her she’s a lunatic.
Big house syndrome
The boozy woman movie trope has been around for decades. But its contemporary counterpart is little woman, big house.
Seriously, so many recent thrillers rely on sprawling, cavernous houses. Er, see also Inheritance.
Instagram, influencers and endless property TV shows have a hand in this, though their relentless diet of big, beautiful houses and aspirational lifestyles, to counter the shrinking of personal and public spaces.
But the other reason is practical. What if Woman in the Window didn’t take place in a multi-story building with a basement (handy for the plot) and a roof (also handy)?
Big houses mean women can scamper around them helplessly while trying to evade a killer. A 1-bedroom apartment with paper-thin walls and nosy neighbours has fewer options for drama.
In story terms, wealth affords privacy, or at least when it’s convenient. For instance, Anna is able to look directly into her neighbour’s homes, thereby seeing a murder no one else appears to witness or even hear.
Later on, her huge home makes it impossible for others to notice when she’s at risk. She’s hidden from the outside world, much as she hides away from it.
The twist – and the film’s ending explained
The Woman in the Window features a couple of dramatic reveals.
The first is the plot twist that explains the murder. Ethan, the neighbour’s son isn’t as bashful and awkward as he first appears. The kid’s actually a serial killer who’s already bumped off at least two women … including his birth mother.
Ethan says she deserves it for being a bad mom. Unsurprisingly, this is also why he thinks Anna ‘deserves’ to die: she too has been judged a second-rate mother.
The other twist is the psychological revelation that Anna isn’t separated from her family at all. They’re dead, and the conversations she’s been having with them are either memories or hallucinations.
The film implies Anna is responsible for their deaths. She was having an affair (often an unpardonable sin for women in movie land). And she was driving when the car flipped, killing her husband and daughter instantly.
Much of the film is a meditation on grief. Anna is the sole survivor, but is barely living. The revelation about the car crash is a plot twist for the audience, but also a wake-up call for Anna about the elephant in the room (or rather, the smashed up car in the living room).
Later, it’s only when Ethan tries to kill her that she realises she wants to choose life (Liam Neeson film The Grey features a similar choice).
Crime and punishment
Agoraphobia isn’t just a fear of open spaces. In the UK, the NHS say:
“Agoraphobia is a fear of being in situations where escape might be difficult or that help wouldn’t be available if things go wrong.”
People with this condition might face crippling anxiety about using public transport, or leaving home, or something else entirely.
As a plot device, agoraphobia puts The Woman in the Window firmly into the category of house-bound detectives. It’s a ‘convenient’ way to invert the usual mechanisms of crime and killer storylines. It also avoids (expensive) multiple locations.
It’s also telling in a broader sense. Female characters are often reduced to victims on screen. They’re killed, attacked, and abused, and sometimes ONLY feature in plots for this reason.
Anna Fox’s agoraphobia mirrors the limitations of the perpetual female victim in thrillers. They run into danger. Or take wrong turns. They find themselves in abandoned houses and empty streets. They make friends with the wrong person.
The warning is that women on the edges of society (and on the edges of society’s watchful eye) take a risk. If you drink – or live alone – you might be attacked or disbelieved or generally end up in trouble.
Anna of course is paying a much bigger punishment. She’s an unfaithful wife and a crap mother. Her resulting mental state, the agoraphobia, is a kind of prison, and plays out a warped style of justice and vengeance.
The film’s true escape doesn’t happen on the roof when Ethan tries to kill her. It happens when Anna finally leaves the house. This marks a victory over her agoraphobia, but it’s also a goodbye to guilt, grief and the ghosts of the past.
Until now, Anna has been barely alive. The house represents a tomb that she can’t step out of. When she finally does, it’s a sign that grief can fade, and life can and will go on.
The Woman in the Window (2021), directed by Joe Wright
Other films similar to The Woman in the Window
- Black Swan (unreliable female narrators)
- Copycat (agoraphobia, serial killers)
- Disturbia (also inspired by Rear Window)
- Shutter Island, Split (psychology, mental illness, twists)
- Girl on a Train (female witnesses)
- Inheritance, I See You (the rise of the big house in modern thrillers)
- The Grey (unreliable narrators, grief)
Picture credit: Oleksandra Bardash