Friday, April 8, 2011

Rear Window (1954)

I noticed a great migration heading towards the theater.  As I took my seat I recognized a few people from the train.  Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo was playing before the feature, and there was a lot of talk about film and specifically about Hitchcock.  The lights came down and Rear Window started.  This is one of the most romantic experiences I’ve ever had at the movies.  We were all here to see the master’s work.

On the surface, Rear Window is a movie about someone looking outside of his window.  Jimmy Stewart plays Jeff, a photographer temporarily bound to a wheelchair.  He has a fabulous view of the apartments across the way and each window is, if you will, a movie screen.  Each screen is a different show.  His would-be girlfriend Lisa grows impatient as Jeff refuses to settle down, alluding to his “characters” for examples of why not to marry.  He soon comes to suspect that a man has done away with his wife.  He tries to convince everyone in his life, Lisa, his nurse Stella, and his friend, Detective Doyle, but Jeff is the only one with the knowledge of all the strange comings and goings of Mr. Thorwald across the way and the unexplainable disappearance of the man’s wife.  People simply refuse to believe that someone would commit murder in plain sight.

Hitchcock’s films are almost always art.  All are entertaining, but his skill elevates many of his pictures into another realm.  Rear Window’s central theme is looking, not just Jeff looking but we the audience watching the film are exposed to the way that the cinema looks objectively and subjectively into its own world.  Hitchcock’s editing style throughout his career was simple.  Using only three separate shots, the man could display, purely pictorially, the psychological process of his characters.  “The look” is an objective shot, a shot from no particular point of view.  This shot orients the audience, and is the image of the character looking, in this case Jeff looking out his window.  “The POV—what is seen” follows, and this shot is the character’s point of view.  With Hitchcock, these shots always align to the eyesight of the character in the previous shot.  A lesser director would take the POV from an objective angle but in the language of cinema this shot has to be subjective.  Hitch knows to put us into the perspective of his characters, making us implicit in the story.  “The reaction” is a follow-up on the first shot.  Having seen whatever, the character reacts.  It seems simple, almost preposterous, but this three shot technique encompasses what I refer to as the psychology of the cinema.  We know how characters see things, and their reactions tell the story.

Hitchcock was not the great innovator of this technique.  It was apparently set forth by the Russian film theorist and director Lev Kuleshov.  As described by Hitchcock, you take a shot of a man looking, then cut to a shot of a baby.  Now cut to a shot of the man smiling.  What is he?  He’s a kind hearted figure.  Now, take the middle piece of film out and replace it with a shot of a woman in a bikini—keep the same shots of the man.  Now what is he?  A pervert.  Kuleshov went darker, suggesting the image of a dead baby, still with the man looking and smiling.  He now becomes a sadist.  This idea is unique to cinema.  No other art form can encompass the human thought process so clearly and artfully.  It is proof that movies can be art.  This technique is why Rear Window remains one of Hitchcock’s most important films.  It is the clearest, most definable example of his artistic technique.

The director is almost cheating because the set-up of Rear Window—Jeff confined to a wheelchair looking out his rear window—leaves little directorial options for a master filmmaker.  Even when bricks between window panes block our view, we use our imagination to fill in the gaps.  A less talented director would have used an omniscient point of view.  Throughout the film, it is Kuleshov's technique that builds suspense and generates so much of our understanding of these characters.

Hitchcock breaks his own editing rules several times throughout the picture.  Some breaks are logical to create suspense.  Jeff beings suspecting Thornwald at night, and he keeps watch as long as he can but falls asleep around 6am.  We are now given a piece of info unknown to the main character: Thornwald leaves his apartment with, for all intents and purposes, his wife.  When later Jeff accuses Thornwald of murder we somewhat doubt him.  The next time Hitchcock takes us out of sync is after a neighbor’s dog is murdered.  By now Jeff, Lisa, and Jeff’s nurse Stella believe Thornwald has done something wrong.  While everyone is paying attention to the dog’s owner’s impassioned speech about neighborly relations, Hitchcock shows us Thornwald in his darkened apartment coldly, almost erotically, enjoying a cigarette.  It’s arguable if Jeff saw this or not.  I don’t think he did because the last we saw of Jeff he was looking at the grieving woman.  Hitchcock makes numerous curious decisions in this scene.  We see the characters of the various apartments from angles not possible in Jeff’s.  We see close-ups, high and low angle shots, perspectives previously unavailable to us.  I was jarred.  Having become accustomed to the rhythm of editing in Rear Window, I was taken aback by these unusual images.  I don’t know why Hitchcock chose this.  If I had to guess he needed different kinds of shots to carry over the neighbor’s dialogue.  But we even see Jeff and Lisa inside his apartment from a viewpoint across the way.  Their shots had all been objective, and this particular shot felt like someone was looking into them.  We can forgive Hitchcock who is like the Shakespeare of cinema.  His reasons need not be known to us; they are studied and revered.

I realize I’m not critiquing the film.  When talking Hitchcock I have a tendency to speak more formally, often in the third person, and discuss his technique more as a scholar.  I have a long relationship with Hitchcock.  Even before graduating college I had seen all of his movies several times each, and even took a class called Hitchcock and American Experience, examining Hitchcock’s view of American life via his films.  I’ve written extensively about him, and now find it difficult, being so familiar, to give an honest reaction to how I feel about a particular Hitchcock picture.  I find myself, like many movie snobs, praising even bad Hitchcock films, though there are only a few.  Most of his silent films are unbearably slow and horribly conceived, being adapted from talky stage plays.  To Catch a Thief is boring and incomprehensible (though I should watch it again before being so definitive), and regarding Rear Window, I’ve always preferred Hitchcock’s previous film, Dial M for Murder.  Both are cinematically and atmospherically confined in a stage-like way and feature terrific roles for Grace Kelly.  Truth be told I’ve not cared as much for Rear Window as I did seeing a 35mm print with an audience.  Perhaps it was the romantic movie experience, or the energy of an audience watching a taut suspense film filled with humor that allowed me to loosen up.  Regardless I saw a perfect movie.

With each successive viewing I’ve noticed faults towards the middle of the picture.  I always felt the scenes with Detective Doyle were distracting and stopped the movie dead.  Today I realized Hitchcock’s and screenwriter John Michael Hayes’ reason for a detective character.  The story is allowed to continue with ease.  With his character known to the audience, Jeff doesn’t constantly need to be calling the cops to explain the plot.  We get it once and the detective becomes a witness to many things, and adds a bit of humor and puts, by his doubts, Jeff and Lisa closer together.

In fact, the real story of Rear Window is not whether or not Thornwald killed his wife but if Lisa and Jeff will marry.  I really focused on this romantic tug-of-war more so than on any of my previous viewings.  Jimmy Stewart and Kelly are fantastic, but Hitchcock always got terrific performances, and Stewart did his best work for Hitch.  So did Kelly, and she was Hitchcock’s definitive leading lady, though I prefer Ingrid Bergman and Kim Novak.  Their relationship is unique among classic Hollywood films because there is real bickering and disappointment in their conversations.  They get mad and react realistically.  Whenever Lisa makes a move, like bringing a warm dinner from New York’s popular 21 restaurant, Jeff bitterly comments that everything is too perfect.  A rugged photographer, Jeff can’t be tied to a classy fashionista.  Lisa, for her part, can only prove Jeff right by her disgust at the thoughts of not bathing and eating raw foods.  It is their interest in Thornwald (Jeff’s being genuine, Lisa’s possibly encouraged for Jeff’s affections) that begins to change the tone of their relationship.  When Lisa returns to Jeff after breaking into the Thornwalds’ apartment, he gives her such a serine look of love; it is one of the most effective images of love in movie history.  The more adventurous Lisa is, the more Jeff is allocated the dominated figure in the relationship.

It’s interesting to note that each of the windows Jeff watches concerns a different stage of marriage.  Let’s begin with two lone figures, the frustrated Composer and the lonely Miss Lonelyhearts.  They represent Jeff and Lisa respectively.  The Newlyweds represent the impulse for many to marry, at least during the 1950s: the sex!  The Newlyweds draw the shades and make love for several days.  This is the euphoric stage of marriage.  The couple that sleeps outside on the terrace to escape the heat has come to a physical and emotional impasse.  The Thornwalds despise each other.  Obviously.  These two stages are blurred, but concern the disillusionment of the idea of marriage and the resentment that follows begin trapped by your spouse.  It’s quite sadistic of Hitchcock to paint perhaps the grimmest picture of marriage in film history.  The next “phase” as seen from outside Jeff’s window is murder.

Logically not all marriages end in murder, but not all marriages end happily ever after.  While Miss Lonelyhearts and the Composer find each other and love, the Newlyweds now fight over money.

In the end Jeff and Lisa come to a compromise.  They are together, and Lisa is reading up on the Himalayas, a sign she is becoming more adventurous.  But not quite; as Jeff sleeps Lisa picks up her trusty fashion magazine.  This relationship is doomed.

P.S. Thelma Ritter cannot be over praised.  She always brought something to the films she co-starred in.  In Rear Window she isn’t relegated to comic relief, though she is funny.  Ritter’s persona had always been a street wise woman with a sharp tongue and honest insight.  Her character Stella offers all this.  Ritter always gives an easy performance.  Even in lesser films like The Mating Season, in which she stars, she is excellent.  Under Hitchcock’s hands she is allowed to be great in a great film, and though often not talked about in connection to Rear Window she adds to it something extra and steals every scene.

Rear Window (1954)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: John Michael Hayes
Stars: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter and Wendell Corey
In English
Runtime: 112 minutes

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  1. "It’s arguable if Jeff saw this or not. I don’t think he did because the last we saw of Jeff he was looking at the grieving woman."

    I'd have to re-watch to be sure, but I don't think it IS arguable. He explicitly refers, in the dialogue, to Thorwald's having his lights off and being in his apartment while all the other neighbors are out looking. It's a plot point. So that would seem to indicate he was looking at Thorwald's apartment when you say he was looking at the grieving woman. When he says this about Thorwald, he doesn't just think his lights are off, he seems to know Thorwald is inside the apartment sitting there not reacting, which would indicate he can see the cigar. Plus it doesn't make sense that he would miss the cigar since he's spying so well all the rest of the time. It's conspicuous in the dark.

  2. Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
    thank you :)