Gordon Willis is known among film nerds for being pretty much the only Hollywood cinematographer whose contributions to the field are capable of routinely inducing spontaneous orgasms. His work on iconic ‘70s and ‘80s staples like The Parallax View and Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy helped define the look of the period, and he was Woody Allen’s go-to director of photography for over a decade. Even artistic geniuses can’t be great at everything they do, though, and in 1980, Willis made the incredibly misguided choice to helm a feature himself, as full-on director rather than just DP. The result of this endeavor, now available through MGM’s DVD-on-demand service after years spent languishing in obscurity, was Windows, an unfocused and paranoiacally silly lesbian psychodrama starring Talia Shire as the hapless victim of a predatory lesbian stalker played by Elizabeth Ashley.
Shire stars as Emily Hollander, a timid city-dweller more or less identical to her Rocky persona, whosehumble life is thrown into violent turmoil when her New York apartment is broken into and she is victimized by a brutal rapist. Struggling to regain her speech after the trauma causes her to regress to a state of severe, pre-therapeutic stuttering, Emily moves to a new apartment building across town and begins a slow process of emotional and physical recovery. What Emily doesn’t realize, however, is that the real person behind the apparently random and pointless act of violence is her former neighbor Andrea, who has become sexually obsessed with Emily, and will stop at nothing to fully possess her mind and body.
Predictably, Windows is beautifully composed and photographed, and it features an understated but evocative score by composer Ennio Morricone. The cinematography is enveloping and expressionistic, totally characteristic of Willis. Unfortunately, the meticulous attention to atmosphere and stylistic flourish just can’t compensate for the film’s half-baked premise and languidly precious execution. Willis himself admitted that he hated working with actors and felt ineffectual discussing motivation with them, and his lack of finesse shows through in the movie’s underdeveloped performances. Ashley in particular is jarringly hammy as the film’s wild-eyed Sapphic psychopath, which is especially problematic considering the weight of the themes Windows attempts to address.
Aside from its inconsistent and bizarre plotting, and its awkward mishandling of sexual assault, the biggest problem with Windows is that it’s really uncomfortably bigoted. Aggressive, psychotic lesbians who prey on timid straight women have been a pernicious cultural stereotype for years, and aside from being blatantly and unbelievably silly, the movie’s conception of Ashley’s character drips with homophobic repulsion and paranoia.
As always, MGM’s on-demand DVD is without special features, which in this case is both a blessing and a curse. As mentioned above, Willis is a really neat guy, and the talent and experience he brings to Windows’ technical execution are formidable. Unfortunately, his bold and gorgeous photography fails to adequately offset the movie’s weaknesses, making it an interesting object of study, and an occasionally hilarious exercise in high camp, but ultimately a failure as a serious film.