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Godfather Cinematographer Gordon Willis Directed One Movie, the Creepy and Strange Windows

The touching remembrances of Gordon Willis in the wake of his passing have focused, correctly, on his enormous achievement as cinematographer on the Godfather films, Manhattan, All the President’s Men, The Parallax View, and other seminal American movies. (Read our own brief piece that looks at some of his most memorable shots here.) One curious corner of Willis’s filmography, however, rarely gets discussed — his one foray into directing, the weird 1980 thriller Windows. Willis himself reportedly called the film a “mistake,” and it was not well received. Critics hated it, the public dismissed it, and it was nominated for five Razzie Awards — though, admittedly, this was in 1981, when the Razzies also famously nominated Stanley Kubrick for The Shining and Brian De Palma for Dressed to Kill, two films now generally considered masterpieces.

Windows is no masterpiece; not even close. But it is uniquely strange and disturbing — a film that, for all its bizarre missteps, you can’t quite shake after you’ve seen it. It gave me nightmares for a week when I first saw it years ago. Revisiting it again the other day, it promptly gave me another one. Willis may not have been happy with his work as a director on the film, but he brought something genuinely unusual to this seemingly generic material. Unavailable in any form for many years, it can now be seen on YouTube in its entirety here:

The film is a sparse, grim little effort. It follows Emily (Talia Shire), a recently-divorced woman who is sexually assaulted one night by an intruder in her apartment, in one of the most unsettling scenes you’ll ever see. (The scene goes on for an uncomfortably long time, Willis alternating between close-ups of Emily and her attacker.) Afterwards, the film dissolves to a shot of the Brooklyn Bridge. At first, it feels like a simple establishing shot showing us that it’s now the following day. But it’s also an early indication of the director’s stylistic strategy here, and maybe a hint at why the film is so effective at getting under your skin.

Windows is a movie about someone whose sense of security is shattered by the big city, and Willis constantly cuts between private moments with wide urban cityscapes. Emily feels open, alone, and terrified, and every cutaway to an iconic bridge or the Manhattan skyline feels like another blow to her psyche. She eventually moves across the river, to a safer, bigger apartment building. But even there, she feels exposed. And with good reason: It turns out she’s still being watched. The city — the night sky, the bridges, the lit windows of buildings — is the spectral presence that haunts this movie. And despite the fact that this is a city that teems with life, we rarely see that side of New York. No, Emily feels totally alone, and the dramatis personae of Windows is so spare that if you inserted a line about a neutron bomb having wiped out most of the population, it would make total sense. What a remarkable contrast to the Queens-born Willis’s romantic shots of New York landmarks in Woody Allen’s Manhattan (which he shot the year prior). It’s like the love poem of Allen’s film has become the poison letter of Windows.

The rest of the film feels at times like it should be a standard-issue procedural/mystery, but — frustratingly, and also somewhat fascinatingly — it winds up being neither: Detective Bob Luffrono (Joe Cortese), the cop who begins to show an interest in Emily’s case, is pretty much useless and utterly devoid of charisma, delivering his lines in glacial mutterings. Similarly, there’s little actual mystery here: The film reveals early on that the culprit behind Emily’s assault is actually her neighbor Andrea (Elizabeth Ashley), who turns out to have paid off a cab driver to attack Emily and get an audio recording of the incident. Emily doesn’t know this, of course, so she continues to trust Andrea, who begins to insinuate herself further into our heroine’s life. In other words, it becomes an unfortunate thriller about a crazed lesbian stalker. Released the same year as William Friedkin’s controversial Cruising, Windows understandably angered the gay community.

It’s easy to see how Windows could offend, but Willis seems a lot less interested in sexual orientation or even in the mystery-thriller aspects of his film than he is on depicting the psychology of someone who has lost all sense of privacy and security. It often feels like we’re inside someone’s mind: Emily, we’re told, is a stutterer, and when she gets nervous, her stutter comes back. But nobody in the film acts or talks smoothly: Everyone moves and speaks haltingly, slowly, in starts and stops, giving the whole film a weirdly dreamlike feel. In that sense, in its refusal to give us the ordinary satisfactions of a thriller and in its unique, discomfiting atmosphere, Windows seems strangely ahead of its time. For all its problems — and it has many — it suggests that Willis could have done some interesting work if he had continued down the directing path. Instead, he went on to shoot such marvelous films as Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories and Broadway Danny Rose, Herbert Ross’s Pennies from Heaven, and Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather Part III. Ultimately, not a bad trade-off.