When shooting wrapped on The Woman in the Window in October 2018, cast and crew celebrated the completion of a sure-fire hit. The film was firmly in the commercially successful psychological thriller genre, but featured the sort of heavyweight talent that might impress the critics and even garner an Oscar nod or two.
The director was Joe Wright, whose previous film, the Churchill biopic Darkest Hour, was showered with praise. The star was Amy Adams, a much-loved actress and six-times unsuccessful Oscar nominee whom the sentimental old Academy are panting to give her due. The lip-smacking supporting cast included Julianne Moore (the fabricated neighbour, Jane, who Anna thinks has been murdered), Jennifer Jason Leigh (who claims to be the real Jane), and Gary Oldman (Jane's husband).
Since then, however, the film has been beset by a succession of disasters. Poor reception by test audiences, delays induced by studio politics and the pandemic, accusations of plagiarism and bizarre scandals concerning some of the people involved with the movie have led some commentators to brand The Woman in the Window with the dreaded label “cursed”.
Once expected to pack out cinemas, the film has now landed instead on Netflix - a full two and a half years after the initial shoot was completed. The high hopes of 2018 have not been reflected in the muted way the film has been promoted, with no advance screenings for critics and little of the hoopla that usually accompanies such a star-laden project.
The reviews have largely been lukewarm. But that was perhaps the inevitable outcome for a film clearly born under an unlucky star.
It all started so well. The Woman in the Window is based on a debut novel by A J Finn, a book that seemed to attract money like a magnet. Its US publisher, William Morrow, stumped up $2 million for a two-book deal, and Fox 2000 snapped up the film rights: the company’s president, Elizabeth Gabler, gushed in 2016 that it was “extremely rare and gratifying” to find a book that “provides such an exceptional tapestry for adaptation to film”.
The pseudonymous author was quickly revealed to be Daniel Mallory, an executive editor at Morrow, the company now publishing his book. It was reported that a number of other publishers interested in the book had withdrawn on learning that Mallory was the author; at the time this was attributed to the fact that publishers are often reluctant to buy novels from other publishers.
The Woman in the Window was published in January 2018. Many critics noted that the main storyline - agoraphobic unreliable narrator Anna Fox insists that she has witnessed one of her neighbours being murdered but is not believed - seemed to fit rather calculatedly into the territory of such blockbuster psychological thrillers as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, but generally it was praised as an enjoyable read.
It became the first debut novel in 12 years to take the Number One slot on the New York Times bestseller list in the week of publication; it was also a Top 10 bestseller in the UK. Fox 2000 had clearly been right to gamble on the book’s being a hit. What could go wrong now?
Mallory was then in his late thirties, and well-known in publishing as a handsome, charismatic figure with a flair for making good deals. With the success of The Woman in the Window, he gave up his day job. “Now I write full-time, to the relief of my former colleagues,” he wrote in the biographical note on his Amazon page. But what appeared to be a self-deprecating joke turned out to be an example of a deeply troubled and difficult man hiding in plain sight.
In February 2019 Ian Parker, a staff writer at the New Yorker, published a jaw-dropping profile of Mallory in which he accused him of being a serial fantasist, who had faked serious illness repeatedly throughout his life. He revealed that the reason so many publishers had turned The Woman in the Window down was Mallory’s troubling reputation in the industry.
Parker assembled a dossier of Mallory’s fibs, both large and small. According to Parker, Mallory has claimed over the years to have been a close friend of Ricky Martin and to have modelled for the cover of Russian Vogue - assertions that do not stand up to scrutiny. His professional claims include working on the script of the horror movie Final Destination as a teenage intern at New Line Cinema (he didn’t), working with Tina Fey on one of her books (nope), and reading the manuscript of J K Rowling’s pseudonymous thriller The Cuckoo’s Calling and recommending its publication (uh-uh).
The New York-born Mallory liked to affect an English accent and claimed to have two doctorates, although he never completed his doctoral studies at Oxford and no record of another one has been found.
He was notorious for missing meetings, and Parker reported that on one occasion two colleagues rang him to ask where he was; he replied that he was doing some emergency dog-sitting for a friend. “The meeting continued, as a conference call. Mallory now and then shouted, ‘No! Get down!’ After hanging up, the two colleagues looked at each other. ‘There’s no dog, right?’ ‘No.’”
Well, many of us hate meetings and quite a few of us may have inflated our CVs a bit on occasion. But at times Mallory’s behaviour seems to have bordered on the pathological.
When he was working at Ballantine Books in New York, there were a number of incidents of plastic cups full of urine being found in or near his boss’s office: “These registered as messages of disdain, or as territorial marking,” notes Parker. Mallory was suspected of being responsible - although he continues to deny this - and the incidents stopped after he left the company. He also had to apologise for using a company credit card after he had left - accidentally, he claimed.
He subsequently embarked on postgraduate studies at New College, Oxford, after impressing one of the tutors - the eminent poet Craig Raine - with an essay explaining how his academic achievements had suffered in the past because he had had to nurse his brother and mother through terminal illness. Raine was astonished to learn from Parker in 2019 that Mallory’s mother and brother were still alive.
In 2009 Mallory got a job in London at the publisher Little, Brown, having exaggerated his academic qualifications and his level of seniority in his previous publishing job. After a while he took extensive leave after telling colleagues he was suffering from an inoperable brain tumour.
“In Little, Brown’s open-plan office, helium-filled ‘Get Well’ balloons swayed over Mallory’s desk,” Parker writes. “For a while, he wore a baseball cap, even indoors, which was thought to hide hair loss from chemotherapy.” Mallory eventually left the company after it was discovered that he had lied about a job offer to boost his salary; by then a number of colleagues had started to wonder if he had ever really been ill.
He returned to the US to work for Morrow. In 2013 he stopped coming into the office and emails started to arrive from his brother Jake, reporting that Mallory was being treated for cancer, and later that he had suffered a cardiac arrest in reaction to painkillers. Parker, with a forensic skill worthy of AC-12, notes similarities in the linguistic styles of both Mallory and Jake, including the spelling of “email” as “e.mail”, and has concluded that Mallory wrote the emails himself, although Mallory denies this. After he returned to work, one colleague asked him how his brother Jake was, to be told he had committed suicide. (He hasn’t.)
Parker’s conclusion is that Mallory faked illness to buy time to write the manuscript of The Woman in the Window. The article unsurprisingly caused a sensation, and questions were asked about how the publishing industry had turned a blind eye to Mallory’s “gaslighting, lying, and manipulation” and whether it would have been possible if he hadn’t been a well-spoken white male.
Mallory issued an apology explaining that he claimed to have cancer as a substitute for what he saw as the more shameful affliction he genuinely suffered from - depression. Mallory’s psychiatrist confirmed to Parker that Mallory had been diagnosed with Bipolar II.
Although this diagnosis hardly accounts for a lot of Mallory’s behaviour, he has received some sympathy for what has clearly been a decades-long battle with mental illness. His novel continued to sell well even after the article appeared. As “A J Finn” he still endorses the books of other thriller writers: publishers clearly think that putting his name on the front cover with an approving quote will not deter readers.
When the scandal broke his publishers insisted that they would continue to work with him, and that the second A J Finn novel would appear in January 2020. It hasn’t seen the light of day yet, but a spokesperson for HarperCollins, his UK publisher, tells me: “It’s definitely on its way.” They clearly have every reason to think that readers are happy to buy a novel written by a manipulative liar; some readers may even think it makes him better qualified as a thriller writer.
One detail rather lost in Parker’s article amid the cups of urine and fake cancer operations was his assertion that The Woman in the Window drew very heavily on the 1995 film Copycat, a thriller starring Sigourney Weaver. A few days after its publication there was another accusation of plagiarism, noting similarities between the plot of The Woman in the Window and that of Saving April, a suspense thriller by the British novelist Sarah A Denzil. (William Morrow insisted that Mallory/Finn had submitted the plot outline of The Woman in the Window some time before Saving April was published in 2016.)
Accusations of plagiarism may not be as arresting as reports that somebody goes around blithely making false claims about their parents and siblings being dead, but they are more likely to have been a headache for the producers of the film than anything to do with Mallory’s personal misdemeanours. In the event no legal action has been taken over plagiarism, but when the Mallory story broke in early 2019, more headaches were the last thing the filmmakers needed.
The film that had looked so promising at the end of 2018 was not going down well with test audiences. As Joe Wright put it recently: “There were some plot points that people found a bit confusing - I would say possibly too opaque maybe … So we had to go back and clarify certain points”.
Perhaps Wright and the producers would have been better off holding their nerve and believing in a film they had initially been pleased with. As Tracy Letts, the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist who wrote the screenplay, observed in 2019: “we shot that film and we all looked at it and we were all pleased with it. And then they showed it to an audience in Paramus, New Jersey, and they didn’t like it. And so there have been some rewrites and re-shoots that I didn’t have anything to do with.”
The producer Scott Rudin hired the Bourne movies screenwriter Tony Gilroy to do the rewrites, and the original release date of October 2019 was postponed. The finished version does contain scenes in which characters rattle off great swathes of plot exposition; but with its patchwork Frankenstein’s Monster of a screenplay, the film still registered as too complicated for test audiences when the rejigged version was shown.
The good news was that when the first trailer was released late in 2019, there was a generally favourable reception, and social media seemed more interested in discussing Amy Adams’s Oscar chances than in rehashing the A J Finn allegations from earlier in the year. The new release date was announced as May 2020.
I need hardly say what happened in that month to keep the film out of the cinemas. But unlike, say, the Bond film No Time To Die, The Woman in the Window had a chequered history even before the pandemic struck, which may have made executives nervous of delaying it further until cinemas reopened.
In the meantime, 20th Century Fox sold Fox 2000 to the Walt Disney Company in 2019. In August 2020 Disney announced that they were selling the film to Netflix, on the grounds that “an adult-themed thriller isn’t a good fit for the family friendly Disney+ streaming service, and release calendars are going to be overloaded when movie theaters reopen and audiences return”.
It was emphasised that this decision had nothing to do with the New Yorker article on Daniel Mallory, but the revelations about him can hardly have helped to steady nerves in the most difficult climate for new movie releases on record. And then there was one more twist - in terms of the damage one single person could do to the film, Scott Rudin came along and said to Mallory: “Hold my beer”.
Last month The Hollywood Reporter ran an article on Rudin, detailing multiple accusations of bullying and bad behaviour that made Mallory look positively well-adjusted. Rudin is alleged to have made a specialism of throwing anything he has to hand at underlings, from a teacup to a stapler. On one occasion he threw a baked potato at an employee who couldn’t answer one of his questions (“Well, find out - and get me a new potato”). On another he launched a glass bowl at somebody, leading to one witness of the incident suffering a panic attack and permanently leaving Rudin’s company.
He is also reported to have slammed a computer monitor on to an assistant’s hand, and to have abandoned a colleague on the highway after an argument in his car. He is said to have been vindictive to those who choose to leave his company, having their credits removed from his films on IMDb. The novelist Michael Chabon, a frequent collaborator, has now written a mea culpa article, apologising for enabling Rudin: “I regularly, even routinely, heard him treat his staff … with what I would call a careful, even surgical contempt, like a torturer trained to cause injuries that leave no visible marks.”
Rudin has now issued a blanket apology and stepped back from many of his film and theatre projects. His name remains on the credits of The Woman in the Window, however.
The Rudin affair may well have been a contributing factor to the decision to release The Woman in the Window with little fanfare. One might have described it as the final blow - if it were not for the fact that the critics are providing the coup de grace. “Curiosity might bring you here but boredom will drive you away,” says the Guardian. “The movie is a pallid, dull slog of bad acting and worse storytelling” in the view of Vanity Fair. Our own Tim Robey calls it “a deliriously vapid Hitchcock homage”. One reviewer called for Gary Oldman to hand back his Oscar.
Others have enjoyed it more - especially connoisseurs of unintentional camp - but it’s not a reception that is likely to make investors feel that the numerous hypertension-inducing setbacks on the long road to release have been worth it.
I have to say that for most of the two hours I spent watching The Woman in the Window, my mind kept wandering to thoughts of a much more tantalising project. Last year it was announced that Jake Gyllenhaal was slated to star in A Suspense Novelist’s Trail of Deceptions, a miniseries based on the Mallory revelations.
“What may have started out as my dog ate homework turns into my mother died of cancers, my brother took his life and I have a double doctorate,” Janicza Bravo, the director, has said. “Our protagonist is white, male and pathological. There is a void in him and he fills it by duping people. He’s a scammer. The series examines white identity and how we as an audience participate in making room for this behavior.” I wouldn’t bet against this series, rather than The Woman in the Window, being Daniel Mallory’s enduring screen legacy.