Friday, February 10, 2017

WINDOWS 1980

Warning: Spoiler Alert. This is a critical essay, not a review. Therefore, many crucial
plot points are revealed and referenced for the purpose of analysis. 


“Dying is easy. Playing a lesbian is hard.”  
Fictional actress Debbie Gilchrist, co-star of Home for Purim in Christopher Guests’ For Your Consideration (2006)

I really love suspense thrillers, but good ones are extremely hard to come by. Far too often pretenders to the title come up short on both suspense and thrills because of predictable plotlines and a near-devout adherence to the structural conventions of the genre; a common pitfall suggesting one too many How to Write a Winning Screenplay workshops offering a downloadable “Surefire Suspense Thriller” PDF template upon enrollment.
Granted, not many directors understand storytelling, the language of cinema, or the rudiments of building suspense as keenly as Alfred Hitchcock, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Roman Polanski, and Claude Chabrol; but one hopes they at least try. Without such a foundation the alternative is invariably a suspense thriller that trades mystery and surprise plot twists for contrivance, coincidence, and implausibilities.
One movie to chart rather high on the contrivance, coincidence, and implausibility meter is the notorious 1980 psychological thriller Windows. A dark and distasteful example of the “What the hell were they thinking?” school of cinema I so associate with the ‘70s (which is actually when the film was in development); Windows is a movie of firsts and lasts:

Windows is the first and last film to be directed by famed The Godfather cinematographer Gordon Willis. It’s the first & last screenplay to be written by Barry Siegel (not the Pulitzer Prize winning author). It’s also the last major motion picture to feature up-and-coming The Godfather/Rocky alumna Talia Shire in the lead; Windows being the three-strikes-you’re-out, last-straw flop the industry tolerated from the actress after the poor boxoffice performance of her two previous leading lady ventures: Old Boyfriends (1979) and Prophecy (1979). Finally, Windows had the dubious distinction of being the first film to be released in 1980 (January 18th), but, seeing as it was pulled from theaters almost immediately after the near-unanimous critical drubbing it received, it's a good guess that Windows likely wound up as the last entry in year-end boxoffice tallies.
Talia Shire as Emily Hollander
Elizabeth Ashley as Andrea Glassen
Joe Cortese as Detective Bob Luffrono

Shy, stammering Emily Hollander (Shire) works in some mysterious capacity at the very picturesque Brooklyn Children’s Museum. Though we never find out exactly what she does there, we do learn that her co-worker is her husband and that they are soon to be divorced. Where Emily lives is picturesque too, her apartment being in a quaint Brooklyn Heights brownstone huddled, troll-like, beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. She shares this tiny apartment with a cat, a closet full of look-alike outfits, and several volumes of books devoted to the subject of stuttering. We're left to do what we will with all this visual backstory, for the film refuses to disclose anything which might provide a clue as to why she's so timorous or why her fashion sense runs to Italian Tzniut.
We know Emily regularly sees a therapist and that she struggles with a stutter.
What we never find out is why Emily, like Olive Oyl, has a closet full of the exact same outfit.

Returning home one evening after work, Emily is assaulted in her apartment by a man wielding a switchblade and a mini tape recorder. In a very-difficult-to-watch scene, Emily is terrorized and sexually humiliated (not raped, as many critics thought at the time) by her assailant, her frightened pleas recorded for some kind of perv posterity. This roughly 2½ minute sequence feels like it goes on for an eternity. And as you sit there squirming in your seat, wishing maybe Rocky Balboa would show up to kick ass and rescue Adrian; somewhere in the back of your mind you’ve arrived at a concrete certainty: you’re certain that nothing that follows in this film (that’s now only 8-minutes old) will ever—no matter how masterfully done—justify this scene.

Physically unharmed but emotionally shattered, Emily reports the assault to a sensitive Italian police detective named Bob (cow-eyed Joe Cortese), but is understandably reluctant to go into details. Enter husky-voiced, over-solicitous neighbor and friend Andrea Glassen (Elizabeth Ashley), an affluent poet whose obscenely large and picturesque apartment in the same building suggests Emily must be renting her closet. (In actuality, Andrea may live miles away, but Windows, for all the time invested in painterly images of New York, is fairly lax in establishing place or proximity.) While Emily sits silently grappling with her feelings, Andrea shoots officer Bob lots of stony glances until futility (or boredom) causes him to leave.
In a departure from the usual suspense thriller gambit which contrives for a terrorized protagonist to remain at the scene of the crime in order to better facilitate encore visits from an assailant; Windows has Emily hightailing out of her apartment the very next day and moving into a picturesque (what else?) Bridge Tower apartment across the river. A place with a spectacular view, ginormous picture windows, and a convenient shortage of drapes.
Now, Windows is a curiosity for any number of reasons, but the core of its strangeness lies in what transpires at this juncture. Just when it seems as though the stage has been set for the suspense part of this low-thrill thriller to kick in (vulnerable heroine, potential love-interest/hero, motiveless assailant, suspicious characters), the film just up and reveals the identity and motive of the villain. Mind you, this is 25-minutes in. Suspense obliterated, this leaves us with roughly 60-minutes of resolution. 
(You’ve been warned, spoilers to follow.)

It seems Andrea is a lesbian pathologically and psychotically in love with Emily. Her romantic scheme to win her lady love is to hire a cab driver to sexually assault her (what did she do, look in the Yellow Pages?)  in the hope that the trauma will: (1) turn Emily off men for good, (2) send Emily rushing into her arms for protection and comfort, (3) all of the above.
*Note to straight screenwriters creating gay characters: “That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works.”

Windows is the last film appearance of Oscar-nominated Funny Girl co-star Kay Medford.
She portrays kind but apprehensive neighbor Ida Marx. Ida & Emily share a similar fashion sense

Once Emily moves away and begins a hesitant and intensely boring love affair with Detective Bob, Andrea secures herself a loft directly across the river from Emily's apartment and watches the object of her affections through a telescope while getting off to the tape-recorded cries and moans of Emily’s assault. Fun gal, that Andrea. 
With the “whodunit” out of the way, Windows has plenty of time to devote to the “why?"—a valid concern given that we've seen precious little about Emily to warrant interest, let alone obsession—but instead, the film treats us to moody dissolves and countless picturesque shots of New York (by now you've gathered that picturesque is the film's defining dramatic motif).
To remind us that we're watching a thriller there are a couple of off-screen murders and a scene of Emily discovering something unpleasant in her freezer wedged between the broccoli spears and Cool Whip; but for the most part suspense is limited to wondering just how Nutso-Bismol Andrea is going to go before the inevitable showdown. A showdown brought about by the screenwriter having the characters do the absolute dumbest thing possible at the absolute perfect time.
"Hello, Police? I just happened to catch the cab of the driver who assaulted me...what should I do?"
"Get back in the cab and have him drive you to the police station."
"Oh, OK...will do!"
The arch dialog may be mine, but I swear, this actually happens in the film!

Falling woefully short of the mark by comparison, the movie Windows most obviously attempts to replicate is Alan J. Pakula’s masterpiece of paranoid urban dread, Klute (1971);  a movie distinguished by Gordon Willis’ evocative painting-with-shadows cinematography. Like Windows, Klute’s mise en scène is New York as a claustrophobically alienating city devoid of intimacy; at its plot’s center, a romance between a detective and a woman targeted by a psychopath aroused by tape recorded assaults. Alas, outside of Willis’ photography, that’s where the similarities end. 
Whereas Klute revitalized the standard detective thriller through its subjective visual style and character-study approach to the protagonists, Windows’s screenplay feels like it’s a few story-meetings short of a completed idea. Behind the tired "scheming lesbian" trope, you keep waiting for there to be some kind of unifying statement made about the alienating character of the city or how it fosters an inability to communicate or connect. 
Andrea's therapist (Michael Lipton) questions her about the authenticity of her love for Emily
"Have you said how you feel?"
"I will. I...I mean, I can't yet...but I will."

With Emily there’s her stutter, her inability to talk to her ex-husband, the wariness of her new neighbors, and her assailant threatening only her throat and mouth with his knife. As for Andrea, she has trouble communicating with her therapist, expresses herself emotionally only through poetry, engages in voyeurism and ecouteurism (sexual arousal by listening), and clearly has a problem landing a date. 
As friends, Emily and Andrea seem unlikely from the get-go, yet both appear to be damaged in some way you'd think the film would make use of to explain how they became friends in the first place. No such luck. 
Add to this the visual echoing of windows, glass, lenses, reflective surfaces, and the themes of watching and being watched, and you’re positive Windows has a distinct point to make. 
Yet it never materializes. Windows is all style and no content.  And by the time it limps to its conclusion, it actually comes as something of a surprise that all this curated and weirdness has failed to add up to anything substantive.
Every move you make, every step you take, I'll be watching you
The hit song by The Police was released in 1983, but it fits Windows to a T

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I saw Windows in Hollywood on the day it opened. Although it was released in a flurry of controversy (William Friedkin's Cruising, another film featuring a homicidal homosexual was slated to open the following month) word-of-mouth about the film was so poor that picketers didn't even bother to show up.
I was less concerned about the controversy than I was overwhelmed at the prospect of what I was about to see. Anticipation was at an all-time high for I had worked myself into a frenzy thinking that Windows was going to be as scary as Klute, gritty as Looking for Mr. Goodbar, and as stylish as Eyes of Laura Mars. I had thoroughly convinced myself that this was going to be something really special. Advance word-of-mouth be damned.
Did Windows measure up to my expectations? Well, I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy it. Indeed, I sat through it twice. But it wasn't because it was such a great thriller; I was riveted to my seat by the sheer weirdness of it all. It reminded me of that scene in Young Frankenstein when Igor drops the genius brain resulting in an abnormal brain ("Abby someone...Abby Normal") being inserted into the monster by mistake. Windows feels like the studio assembled an A-list cast and crew, sunk a lot of money into the budget, but at the last minute somebody slipped in a script for a low-rent, mid-'70s, grindhouse rapesploitation flick.
The release of both Cruising and Windows within a month of each another in 1980 looked at the time as though Hollywood was bracing to trade one negative stereotype: the scary urban Person of Color of the Dirty Harry-'70s, for another: the homicidal homosexual. Putting it into context: to do so in the progressive climate of  the post- sexual revolution/gay-liberation era felt offensive enough, but it certainly wasn't helped that the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic was looming on the horizon of 1981, contributing to the proliferation of the kind of rampant homophobia that characterized the latter part of the decade.
I don't know that filmmakers will ever "get" it, but no matter how well a part is written, there is something contextually problematic with a narrative which casts a member of a demographic routinely the target of hetersosexual violence in real life, as figures of villainous and homicidal threat to poor, victimized straights in films.
As the '70s came to a close, gay characters in films were still largely depicted in either comic or derogatory terms, so the gay community was right to protest this rare instance in which two major films with large roles for gay characters depicted both as pitiable psychopaths. Windows was so widely panned and dismissed that I honestly don't think it was still in theaters by the time Cruising opened just four weeks later on February 18th.

For me, the distancing of time has made Windows considerably less sensational, and in turn, the character of Andrea far less offensive (largely because she's so sketchily drawn she's less a human being than a plot contrivance). But seeing Windows again after so many years made me aware of one of my personal pet peeves: How very much I wish contemporary independent gay cinema (especially gay-themed rom-coms) would lay to rest the VERY tired wish-fulfillment trope of having gay guy developing crushes on straight guys (straights who somehow ALWAYS wind up coming out as bisexual by fadeout). Zzzzzz. Talk about something being done to death.
The film's windows/lenses motif is carried over to Andrea's brobdingnagian eyewear

PERFORMANCES
Years after having made the film director Gordon Willis expressed that he felt the film was a mistake. One big mistake I can attest to was the decision to have Talia Shire more or less reprise her Oscar-nominated performance from Rocky. Shire’s Emily is a veritable portfolio of self-conscious gestures, downcast eyes, halting whispers, and fleeting half-smiles tucked into a knit hat. As much as I like Talia Shire (and I like her a lot) her Xerox performance here had me feeling, at least the first twenty minutes or so, that Windows was the darkest, most surreal Rocky sequel ever made.
I think the cautious romance between Emily and Detective Bob is supposed to be touching,
but at times they seem like they're mere moments from pledging a suicide pact 

I like Elizabeth Ashley a great deal, but it surprises me to think that outside of a TV movie or two, I've only seen her in this, Coma, and Ship of Fools. She has an intensity which makes her always interesting to watch, plus a kind of Susan Hayward propensity for overacting that challenges the believability of her characterizations. Playing a can't-win part, Ashley is really not that bad. Short of resorting to that "unblinking stare" thing that movie lesbians have been doing since Candice Bergen trained her gaze on Joanna Pettet in The Group her stereotypically written role is mercifully devoid of grand "I'm a lesbian!" acting indicators. The screenplay does her no favors in the final scenes (where she's left to go right over the top without a net), but she definitely has her moments and her performance looks better to me now than it did in 1980.
"Why don't you ever smile? You almost never do."
I think Elizabeth Ashley is very good in her moments with her therapist, as well as in this scene near the end where an opportunity is missed for Emily and Andrea to interact in a manner this is not just advance/retreat. Had the screenwriter seen Andrea as a flesh and blood person instead of just a gimmicky villain, perhaps he would have found a way to make this meeting between two women- emotionally damaged in vastly different ways -represent something deeper other than a genre payoff.

Although Windows has an impressive pedigree and the odd cult cachet of being a film few people have, liked, heard about, or seen; it's not, for me anyway, an undiscovered classic. What it does have is the stamp of being a visually stylish '70s-into-the-'80s curio which manages to be, by turns, engrossing and off-putting.


BONUS MATERIAL
In 2007 Talia Shire appeared in a series of commercials for GEICO.com in which she portrayed a therapist to one of those cavemen that were so popular for 15-minutes then- even getting their own ill-advised short-lived sitcom.  Shire playing the silliness absolutely straight is really rather marvelous.
Commercial #1
Commercial #2
Commercial #3


Paperback tie-in novels adapted from screenplays were once a popular part of movie marketing. The novelization of Barry Siegel's screenplay for Windows was written by H.B. Gilmour. Gilmour carved out quite a career novelizing screenplays, a few of her many other paperback adaptations being: Saturday Night Fever, All That Jazz, and Eyes of Laura Mars

THE AUTOGRAPH FILES
Gordon Willis died in 2014 at the age of 82. This autograph is from 1984 when I was a dance extra in the awful John Travolta/Jamie Lee Curtis aerobics movie Perfect (1985), for which Willis served as cinematographer. Some of his other more distinguished films are: Annie Hall, All the President's Men, The Parallax View, Pennies from Heaven. Considered one of the most influential cinematographers of the '70s, he was nominated only twice (Zelig, The Godfather III), and was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2010.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

8 comments:

  1. Hi Ken.

    Now I really want to give this movie a try again. I haven’t seen it since it was run out of town back in 1980, and all remember is “scary lesbian.” And I’d forgotten that it was released back-to-back with Cruising! I’m actually a defender of Cruising, though, after seeing half a dozen times. I think it’s a much more complicated movie than it’s given credit for. And the novel it’s based on is wild (and I would have thought, unfilmable) told from the POV of the killer, the cop, and a victim—yet you’re never sure whose mind you’re in.

    I agree about the glut of gay-themed “indie movies” and while it’s great, I suppose, that there are hundreds of them, for the most part I find them interchangeable. Of course there are exceptions. And many great ones! I find the whole subject fascinating, though. I wonder if gay characters will ever allowed to be villains again? Maybe only if it’s a queer director? Like the dreadful gay slasher movie Hellbent? It’s not that I’m craving to see a gay villain, but we just seem relegated for the most part to either (as you say) getting a crush on a straight boy, losing a lover to AIDS, or trying to find love in the “bar scene.”

    It’s funny, when I saw Xavier Dolan’s terrific Tom at the Farm, I thought “Oh! A violent gay psycho-sexual thriller! How refreshing!!” But I guess we needed three decades of love stories to get to this point.

    Anyway…Windows! Thanks so much for recognizing it. I’m very anxious to see it again. Thanks!!

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    1. Hello Max
      So you've seen this one! At the time it certainly was one of those where you'd briefly describe the film's premise to someone and you'd immediately see their eyes darken. It struck people as THAT offensive.
      Time and a (marginal) increase in the diversity of gay characters depicted in film has made it possible to see "Windows" from a distance, and, at least to me, it's problems extend far beyond its sketchy themes.

      While not exactly a fan of "Cruising" like this film, I find it is far more interesting to watch today than I did during its original release. In both instances I feel the gay characters are hampered by a kind of blockheaded heterosexual outsider's prism. They feel less like real people than the fervid creations of straights; but the films themselves I can't help but find intriguing.
      Very interesting point you make about indie gay films (I too find many to be interchangeable, far too white male in perspective, with a flash of the occasional brilliance now and then)and villains. I have no answer, but I suspect the gay villain can remerge is a clever, rather than a derivative, writer can devise a way to present them in ways that don't embrace cultural homophobic stereotypes to depict "evil."
      It's like when I see black villains in movies: I'm bored if (like in "the Deep" or "Live & Let Die" their evil is wrapped up in their alien otherness and the film plays on white fear of blackness.
      But if a character is just rotten internally, based on a warped character (hmm...no examples come to mind), I think that can work.
      Personally, I think there should be a moratorium on gay villains until we are saturated with a glut of gay heroes...and I don't mean the gay "sacrificing himself for the straights" martyr type. I think when there is a balance of gays depicted as narrative leads of virtue and heroism, then I think the gay villain can remerge. As it stands, the overriding hetero perception of gays as "other" or "outside the norm" still makes them too conveniently ripe for villainy.
      But who knows? As cable TV and online streaming makes possible more films to be made that don't need to cater to mass tastes, I think more authentic depictions of gays in all our complexity have a chance to emerge. I hope so. The thriller genre is too interesting to be excluded from.
      Thanks for introducing so many intriguing discussion points, Max! (Never heard of "Tom at the Farm"...maybe I'll check it out.)

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  2. Dear Ken: Hi!
    I've heard reference to this film before but have never seen it. I enjoyed your essay immensely, but I think you know I will probably give this one a pass. :)
    You raise a number of interesting incidental points in your essay. Like you, I'm surprised how the "new freedom" of 1970s cinema seemed to lead to portraying homosexuality almost always in a negative light. (So much for "liberal" Hollywood!) When even Barbra, in 1972's "Up the Sandbox," uses the word "f*g" to disparage another character, you know gays were going to have a long, uphill climb to see themselves portrayed in anything like a positive light.
    A lot of people despise the 1982 film "Making Love," but my husband and I both enjoy it. I agree it's perhaps too "tasteful" and tame in its approach, but it also has two gay male characters who are fully rounded and sympathetic. And when has a major Hollywood studio, before or since, made a film about a gay man’s journey toward self-acceptance?
    Like you, I also admire Elizabeth Ashley, even in her "ingénue" phase in "Ship of Fools." I suspect she does the best she can in "Windows" with the role she was handed.
    I don't generally see a lot of contemporary gay films (or contemporary films, period!), so I'm not sure what of quality has been released in recent years. But I, too, am tired of the whole "gay guy falls for straight (and of course, hot) friend" scenario. It smacks of internalized homophobia to me (why not fall in love with someone who is unapologetically gay?).
    As a final note, I loved your using the quote from “For Your Consideration.” I don’t understand why that film got such bad notices—to me it ranks right up there with the other Guest mockumentaries. Could it be that Hollywood is not so comfortable laughing at itself as it is with mocking dog shows, PBS reunions and small-town community theatre? :)

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    1. Hi David
      Ha! Yes...I know from the get-go that this will NOT be a film you will be checking out any time soon!
      But movies like this do make fascinating kickoff points for film discussions. As you note, the sexual freedom of "New Hollywood" when reviewed was indeed more explicit, but in many ways, just the same old sexism, misogyny, racism, and homophobia.
      People are starting to "get it" now, but having EVERY film written by heterosexual white males, no matter how liberal or well-intended, results in a very narrow focus. Gays remain a mystery to filmmakers today, but especially in the 70s and 80s when their inclusion was largely int he service of shock value or superficial "frankness."
      Very funny that you bring up Streisand's anti-gay slur in "Up the Sandbox" because (as a Streisand fan) I can think of similar comments in "The Owl & the Pussycat" ostensibly attributed to the crudeness of her character) and "For Pete's Sake" (a low-blow Froot-Loops joke). When it comes to gays in film, just as it is with blacks in film, many assume visibility alone is progress. It's a step, to be sure, but perhaps just as much backward as forward.
      i haven't seen "making Love" since it came out, and I think you make a good point. In my mind it perhaps fits with those "Noble Negro" Sidney Poitier films of my youth: it gets points for its positive depiction, but because that is primarily it's narrative thrust, it feels not to be made for MY eyes so much as for those most in need of reminding that gays/blacks are human beings.It's complicated.
      Elizabeth Ashley is an always interesting actress and both the script and direction of "Windows" leaves her out to dry a bit. Writers sometimes forget that is a character is comprised of just a single motivation and defining character trait, they quickly become boring.
      Her character in "Windows" exists for one purpose only, ans since we know nothing of her except as stalker extraordinaire, there's nothing emotional at stake here. She's as much of a plot device as a bomb planted in the engine of a bus.
      I think The whole "gay falls for straight" trope is near-epidemic in straight depictions of gay, but one day needs to be addressed by gay culture itself (in it's porn, indie films, and literature). Like you, I think its a by-product of internalized homophobia; and a socially harmful by-product, at that.
      Thanks for taking note of the "For your Consideration" quote. Because I know the film world more than I know music ("This is Spinal Tap") or even regional theater ("Waiting for Guffman"), "for Your Consideration" has always been the funniest ofthe Chris Guest collaborations to me. Very pointed. But you may be right...not a lot of Hollywood parodies or satires ever do well. I always assumed it was because the jokes are too inside to be well-accepted, but Hollywood isn't exactly known for being cool with having it's pomposity deflated. (Oscar Night self-seriousness)
      Thanks for the thoughtful, idea-filled comments, Michael. You always have something interesting to contribute even when you haven't seen a film. Much appreciated!

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  3. Hi Ken, It's been a while but it's nice to be back, reding your thoughtfull and entertaining reviews! You always have a good mix och films from different periods and genres.

    I love that you've written about this unknown flop. It was interesting to read about this thriller with so many talented contributors. The cinematography depicting New York and the chance to see Annie Hall-like fashions of 1979 seem like the only two reasons for me to see this film that you describe as disturbing and homophobic. It reminds me a little of another disturbing New York set thriller "The Sentinel", but without the ghosts.

    Elisabeth Ashley seems like an intense actress. I saw her in a terrible 60's thriller called "The Third Day". It's so bad it's almost worth a look, if you ever find it. I liked her small part in "Coma" too. Talia Shire seems like a very dull and dowdy actress. Wouldn't it have been better giving the part to Shelley Duvall?
    Thanks, Wille

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    1. Hi Wille
      Isn't it fascinating when obvious talent can still contribute to the creation of something so misguided? I could speculate for days about what went wrong from the outset, but my biggest guess is that a bunch of heterosexuals (male and female) collaborated on a project with a premise none of them personally thought was problematic.
      You see it in boneheaded films about race like "Soul Man" where someone actually thought it was a good idea to have a character appear in blackface in 1986.
      Certainly not everybody is going to be offended by the same things, and I'm with Ricky Gervais when he says "Just because you're offended doesn't mean you're right"...but there is a context to everything, and one ignores sexual and racial context at their own peril.

      "Windows" remains a curiosity to me, and, like you, it's fascinating for its Manhattan locations and period style. But as human drama...it is lacking.
      I never heard of the film THE THIRD DAY, I'll look for it. I love so-bad-it's-good movies.
      I laughed at your description of Talia Shire! Did you ever see her in GODFATHER III? She drops her meek persona and is quite the force. She's so good.
      Lastly, I think our dear Shelley Duvall is too smart and sensitive an artist (I would hope) to ever want to be associated with a film like this!
      Thanks for commenting, Wille! If you ever get a chance to see this, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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  4. Nice piece on WINDOWS. I recently read an early draft of the script that was even more bizarre than the final film. The climax reveals that Andrea is actually a male who is undergoing a sex change. The lead character (called "Corky" in this draft) escapes by kicking him/her in the balls.

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    1. Oh my god. When writers strive for an original "twist" for a suspense thriller, the results can sound positively surreal. That's for passing that info along. The mind boggles at what can be green-lit in Hollywood, and what can slip by at story meetings. I'm hard pressed to imagine "Windows" ever had any story meetings at all.
      Thanks for commenting! We're all indebted to you for adding another layer of bizarreness to the legacy that is "Windows."

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