Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Classic Movie Review From My Collection: Rear Window

I never fully realized before, but only just accepted it on face value, that Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is one hell of a movie. The two or three times I’d seen it previously I guess I sort of accepted its status as a classic great movie. This time I absorbed it fully and saw in it how its technical prowess supports a great story and ironic commentary on both marriage and on watching other people’s lives unfold on a screen from a darkened movie house.

Voyeurism as a theme runs throughout much of Hitchcock’s work, of course, but Rear Window is the one time he’s thumbing his nose at the audience for being so interested in the lives of others. The image that plays behind the opening titles is of the shades going upon on L.B. Jeffries’ windows onto the back courtyard, like the curtain rising on his personal theatrical stage or movie screen. Jeffries (James Stewart) spends the next 100 minutes or so observing his neighbors or thinking about their actions. But what begins as casual observing becomes obsessive watching and a paranoia about possible dirty deeds committed by Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) across the way. In the end Jeffries ceases to be a passive audience member and becomes what no member of a movie audience can be: an actor in the real life (to him) drama playing out.

Hitchcock’s brilliance as a filmmaker is both emotional and technical. He gets a lot of ink for the creation of suspense – an emotional reaction to scenes he builds, elicited through instinctive understanding of the human condition. We know this because when we watch his movies we feel uneasy and queasy. But he was no less adept at the technical aspects of visual story construction and in his films more than many others’, the union of the two modes is essential. The suspense is present, as it usually is, in the doubt we experience as to whether or not Jeff’s hypothesis of murder is accurate and then later when his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) bravely, but foolishly, enters Thorwald’s apartment in search of evidence. It is there tenfold when Jeff sits alone in the dark when Thorwald enters to do who knows what to him.

The technical demands of the story are met perhaps better than any other film he made. Hitchcock liked setting technical challenges for himself in choosing a story, whether it’s something like Lifeboat, which takes place in a small boat on open water, or Rope, which is likewise self-contained in a single setting with the added challenge of being shot in a “single” take. Rear Window is also confined to one set: the courtyard and connecting apartments behind Jeff’s apartment. Hitchcock sets it up so that all the action is viewed from his perspective so we see all the ancillary stories play out through his eyes. Our introduction to the neighbors is facilitated by his prying eyes. This is, after all, Jeff’s chosen profession. He’s a photographer, a man who gets paid to view other people and actions through a lens. Now being confined to his chair, laid up by a broken leg, his window becomes his lens until it is no longer sufficient and he has to use an actual photographic lens or binoculars to get even closer to the action. He gets right in there the way a director’s appropriate use of close-ups puts the audience right in it.

Hitchcock lays out great detail with incredibly astute attention to the visual scheme. In the opening shot of the film, without a single word spoken, we learn who the main character is, what he does for a living, that he’s got a broken leg in a cast, and how it happened. He accomplishes this marvelous feat by panning the camera along the cast leg to a broken camera, a framed negative portrait of a woman, the positive of the same photo on a magazine cover, and photos of a wrecked racing car hurtling toward the camera. He uses this technique again and again in the film to convey information about the neighbors. This is clearly a film made before the age of smart phones. Look away for a moment and you could miss a crucial detail.

Take for example the night Thorwald presumably murders his wife. As Jeff spies we see Thorwald leave and come back a couple of times with his sample case in the middle of the night in the rain. Jeff dozes off and we (though not Jeff) see Thorwald leave the apartment a final time with a woman. We don’t see her face. Is it his wife? The shot lasts a few seconds at most, but it is essential for establishing audience doubt of Jeff’s insistence that a crime has been committed. Miss that shot and you’ll be right along with him until the end, never doubting for a second that he’s right. That is both technical know-how and emotional connection between director and audience.

If Rear Window were all murder suspense story it might grow tedious for the fact that it never leaves Jeff’s apartment. To this end, John Michael Hayes’ screenplay is endowed with some great macabre humor, mostly delivered by Jeff’s nurse, played by Thelma Ritter. She’s a stand-in for the common audience member. She doesn’t have an extraordinary job like Jeff’s and she’s not a New York socialite like Lisa. She’s the down-to-earth mature woman who comes bearing sensible advice about love, marriage, and minding your own business. Of course, she’s as curious as anyone when push comes to shove. She and Lisa become the instigators whereas Jeff, even if only due to circumstances, remains an observer.

Then there are the little stories that play out in the other windows. There’s a newlywed couple who spend all day with the shades drawn. By the end, he’s already grown tired of his new bride. Upstairs in the studio is a bachelor musician who drinks. Downstairs is a lonely spinster driven to the brink of suicide. There’s also a hot young blonde dancer who can have the pick of all the gentleman callers she has (the closing moments provide an ironic twist to her story) and an older childless couple who dote on their little dog as if it were a child. Finally, there’s Thorwald and his ailing and nagging wife, who gets to be more than he can bear. All these little vignettes are little movies of their own and also serve as extensions of Jeff’s ambivalence toward making Lisa his wife. He has all kinds of excuses about their lifestyles not meshing, but his is an age-old concern about losing the life he’s accustomed to. He sees all his neighbors as various manifestations of what his life could become in the future whether he marries or not.

Jeff is so proud of his girl when she gets heavily involved in their amateur sleuthing and after all is said and done, she’s lounging in his apartment reading a magazine he might approve of. But that sly Hitchcock throws in a final moment to suggest she hasn’t really changed. She’s just found a way to ensnare her man. If everything that came before with regard to marriage and relationships was a reflection of Hitchcock’s reputed misogyny and disdain for marriage, then this is his icing on the cake – the final kick in the pants to everyone who thought maybe he’d changed. Nope, same old Hitch.

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