June 25, 2011

Rear Window (1954)

I'm sorry to say I only had room for one Hitchcock picture on this list, and Rear Window seemed like it would be the most representative.  He is the "master of suspense" after all, and in Rear Window - a movie in which basically nothing happens for one and a half hours - he very nearly succeeds in producing suspense devoid of context, right out of thin air.  This he manages through the meticulous presentation of information; taking care in what we know, and when, and how.  Sometimes James Stewart will take a moment to brief another character (and us) on the story so far, but initially we are allowed to discover almost everything on our own, just by watching.  Soon his questions become our questions, and we are drawn in through participation.  And as the benign alternatives are gradually eliminated, suspense is not built by shadows or scary music, but by logic.  The movie would never work if Hitchcock didn't trust us to draw our own conclusions, or if we were too lazy to draw them.

Since basically nothing happens, I can't really summarize the plot.  Stewart plays L. B. Jeffries, a photojournalist stuck in his apartment while he recovers from a broken leg, which leaves him little to do but gaze at his neighbors out the back window.  It all seems harmless enough until he begins to suspect that he's witnessed a murder.  And... that's really all there is to say.  If you've seen it, you don't need me to remind you, and if you haven't, there's nothing I could say that wouldn't be a spoiler.  Joining in on Jeffries' voyeurism and watching all the various stories unfold in the courtyard is the entire fun of the movie.  Sadly, I suspect that makes Rear Window one of those films that's never going to get better on repeat viewings.  I'm sure it has its delights stuffed into the corners, but the main thrust is entirely about playing on what we know and what we don't, which you can only do once (oh, what I wouldn't give to see Dark City again for the first time...).

As is typical for later Hitchcock, the film has its visual gimmicks.  In this case, it is entirely shot from within Jeffries' apartment: the neighbors are only ever seen from his point-of-view through their uniformly large and conveniently placed windows.  To accommodate this, the entire courtyard is one big set, not a real world location.  It looks like a set, too.  Not because of a lack of detail, but it just feels that way because it is all so strategically arranged.  The film feels a lot like a stage play, but uniquely it's not because everything happens in the same location, but because every location is viewed from the same angle.  I remember noting in Birth of a Nation that every location was usually shot from exactly the same camera angle, no doubt as a vestigial stage convention, but that concept was quickly dropped going forward.  So it was amusing to see it again here, under totally different circumstances.  Anyway, I actually liked this subtle artificiality.  I think a real location - and this is totally backwards from how these things usually work - a real location would have felt rather generic.  Like it could have been anywhere.  The set and its cast of somewhat broadly drawn characters created a very specific personality to the location.  It quickly came to feel familiar, even endearing, as if these were my own quirky neighbors.  Trying to generalize the situation would have been a mistake.

It's also worth noting that the movie is not only in full Technicolor, but also 1.66:1 widescreen - the first film on our list not to use a standard full frame image.  Of course both of these advancements are spreading like wildfire through the industry at this time in order to compete with the new television market, but I still thought it was a bit odd considering Rear Window is not exactly Ben-Hur, or even North by Northwest or some other visual spectacular.  But in fact, because of the heavy emphasis on voyeurism, I can see how it benefited greatly from a big, wide, colorful "window" for the audience to gaze through.  Unfortunately, the DVD we watched was made from an obviously old and slightly dirty transfer (yet still the best version available) - a full Blu-ray restoration will be a great service to the film.  Hopefully we won't have to wait too much longer for that.

Stewart is not alone in his apartment.  Along the way he gets loving discouragement from his police detective friend, his somewhat brash nurse (Thelma Ritter), and his girlfriend (Grace Kelly).  Kelly is described even before she appears as irritatingly perfect, and that's pretty much spot on.  She's talented; beautiful; charming; quick-witted and sharp-tongued when she needs to be; strong and capable, but not willful or rash; generous, considerate, understanding, but not without self-respect... it's really quite easy to see how daunting it might be to be in love with her, which is something Jeffries struggles with.  He can see how far he is from perfect, and how far love is from perfect in all the rooms outside his window.  In the end, he never really finds a solution to this problem, but I think he finds the will to dive in anyway.  At the very least, it is better to be another melodramatic story in a window than to just watch from an empty room.

This theme of romantic struggle goes on to inform everything else (even the apparent murder).  In the courtyard Stewart sees old couples, young couples, incomplete couples yearning for their other half, and, in the biggest and most frequented window, good old-fashioned sex on a stick.  Overall, I was surprised how light and cheeky the movie was.  It's definitely entertainment first, not a biting analytical work or psychological horror, and when it's not ultimately affirming, it's cynical only in that eyes-rolled sort of way people use when talking about marriage over a beer.  It's like your neighbors.  You just... well, you gotta love 'em.

NEXT TIME: About as many science fiction firsts as you can stuff into a movie.  It's Forbidden Planet.  (Yes, this means no The Day the Earth Stood Still on the list.  I've seen it.  It was o-k.)

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