Synopsis: A shy woman and her police protector are watched by her admirer, a weird woman with a telescope.
Stars: Talia Shire, Elizabeth Ashley, Joe Cortese, Kay Medford, Michael Gorrin, Russell Horton, Michael Lipton, Ron Ryan, Linda Gillin, Tony DiBenedetto, Rick Petrucelli
Director: Gordon Willis
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Over time, plenty of films earned their reputations for being critically reviled and justified box office bombs. Even the benefit of time and a new critical analysis can’t save hopeless movies like 1964’s The Creeping Terror, 1979’s Caligula, 1987’s Leonard Part 6, or 2003’s Gigli, but it has happened for others. Movies now considered classics like Psycho (1960) originally received a chilly reception in their write-ups, and there’s even an example from 1980, the year Windows was released. Released ten months after Windows opened and closed quickly was The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel that first got mixed notices but has become a cult, and now mainstream, genre classic.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say Windows has been wholly vindicated over the past 40 years, nor was its initial demise without some reasonable defense. Arriving in an era when homophobia was rampant in the public sphere and discrimination essentially went unchecked, its lesbian villain is problematic. In much the same way Basic Instinct would come under fire a decade later, the onscreen representation left much to be desired. Yet to reduce the film to merely that is shortchanging some top-of-the-line filmmaking and terrific performances centered around a story that was likely ahead of its time. That Windows was unwilling to push its subtext further made it seem weak, and that it introduced its subtext at all was its first “mistake” in the eyes of the public.
It’s impossible to discuss Windows without giving away a few high-level plot points that may be considered spoiler-y (even if the poster gives one away already). If you want to go in completely unaware of what’s going on in Barry Siegel’s screenplay, bookmark this review and come back later.
On reflection, the opening shot of Windows has multiple meanings on more than a strictly visual level, and it’s a credit to director Gordon Willis that he lingers on it long enough for it to stick in your mind. Willis was the longtime cinematographer of Woody Allen, creating the fantastic views of New York in Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979), not to mention his stunning work in all three films in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy. Windows was his only foray into directing, and that’s a shame. Perhaps it was because the film was so poorly received, or he could have preferred the singular role behind the camera, but pulling double duty here showed that he could easily do both.
After this first memorable shot, the movie turns ugly quickly. A timid woman named Emily (Talia Shire, Prophecy) comes home late from work and is violently assaulted in her home. Her attacker records this encounter while holding a knife to her throat, instructing her along the way and threatening harm if she disobeys. While the violence here and throughout Windows is not graphically shown (i.e., no blood is seen), this scene is incredibly visceral and stomach-churning to watch. Shire’s character, who we learn later is working on controlling a stutter, is rendered nearly speechless, and we’re holding our breath for her.
The next day, the police question Emily when her neighbor Andrea (Elizabeth Ashley, Coma) stops to see what’s happening. We get the sense she’s taken a motherly interest in Emily, but this is an incident newly divorced Emily must deal with alone. Deciding quickly that she needs to move to a more safe building, Emily secures a new high-rise apartment and moves out within days. Surprising even himself, the detective assigned to her case (Joe Cortese, Green Book) falls for Emily, and soon they are hanging out and getting to know one another over dinner and old movies.
What Emily doesn’t know, and what we find out before the first thirty minutes is over, is that Andrea has developed a fixation on Emily and hired the man to attack her. She paid him to record the violence and listens to Emily’s fear as a way of fantasizing about being with her. Once Emily moves, Andrea also finds a loft nearby and trains a telescope to peer into her former neighbor’s new apartment, where she spies on Emily with the detective. As her obsession grows, so does her boldness in keeping Emily for herself and isolating her from anyone that may keep them apart.
Movies like Single White Female and Fatal Attraction learned a thing or two from Windows; that’s obvious. As flawed as the film can be, and it is broken in places, it’s a fascinating watch once you get past its deeply uncomfortable opening. Maybe it’s because we’ve seen the LGBTQ+ population portrayed so much worse in the years since (ouch, but true) that it doesn’t come across as repellant as it did in 1980, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. It helps that the cinematography from Willis draws you in and keeps you fixed from edge to edge with beautiful views of the city and NYC skyline that aren’t there anymore. His use of shadow and light is unparalleled, especially as Windows approaches the soft landing finale, which is all about moving in and out of dark places.
If not for anything else, watch the movie for the performances of Shire and especially Ashley. Shire has always been an underrated actress, strongly showing in supporting roles for her brother (The Godfather films) and Sylvester Stallone (the Rocky films), but she rarely got a chance to lead pictures. The work here speaks for itself and proves she can hold her own confidently starring in a film. I’d argue that Ashley performs better but only because it has to go deeper into the layers of deception, doubly hiding who she is. First downplaying her lesbianism, then her obsession with Emily. Her acceptance of both proves a breaking point, and that’s when the danger begins. I almost wish the film allowed her to go further because it’s the holding back at times that makes the movie, and character, seem milder than they are at their core. Ashely was rewarded for all this with a nomination at The Golden Raspberry Awards, celebrating the “worst of cinematic under-achievements”…blech. It’s a bonkers, but equally unforgettable performance.
I can only recommend Windows to you based on my experience of hearing all the negative things said about it and then viewing it myself. And I liked it. As a gay man, I always have my antennae up for inadequate representation and don’t mind dinging movies/directors/actors for it. Making a gay person a villain isn’t reductive, and I find it offensive that movies like Windows are dismissed because it does. Numerous films have had this same set-up with male-female relationships, and no one has done a double-take. It’s time to take the kid gloves off and accept movies like this, including the evil deeds people can do, regardless of whom you share your bed with.