Sunday, July 8, 2012

Rear Window (1954) -- Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock does an interesting thing to his audience in Rear Window. While we vicariously play peeping tom with the protagonist, Jeff Jeffries (James Stewart), we don't think what the residents of those apartments he is so intent on spying on might think if the roles were reversed. What would Miss Lonelyhearts think if she could see into Jeff's apartment? Who is this creepy middle-aged fellow who ignores his girlfriend to lie around all day in his pajamas, staring into his neighbors' apartments through a telephoto lens? And why would a girl like that blond be hanging out with such a weirdo, anyway? Looks like his daughter. Surely she could do better. And where did she get those gorgeous gowns?

An accident has put Jeff, a professional photographer, out of commission. During his convalescence, he passes the time snooping on his neighbors. The resident who holds Jeff's greatest attention is dumpy-looking traveling salesman, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), who may or may not have killed his wife. When the woman suddenly disappears, Jeff grows suspicious. When he sees Thorwald handling knives, cleaning the walls, and making mysterious trips in the night, he becomes convinced, believing Thorwald has sliced up his victim with a caring knife and snuck out the body parts in a suitcase. To convince his best friend, Thomas Doyle (Wendell Corey), a police detective, Jeff elicits the help of his girl friend, Lisa (Grace Kelly), and housekeeper, Stella (Thelma Ritter).

One of the best aspects of the film is its set, a typical New York apartment house in the 1950s. All the residences have access to a center courtyard, and it's from his rear window, that Jeff engages in his voyeurism. The place is populated with a cross-section of New Yorkers: a pair of newly-weds, a struggling musician, a retired couple, the curvaceous Miss Torso, sad Miss Lonelyhearts, and the Thorwalds. All the action takes place here and Hitchcock does a masterful job capturing our attention for two hours, making us forget that it occurs in such a seemingly innocuous setting.

James Stewart doesn't like what he sees.

Through characteristic superb editing (thanks to nine-time collaborator, George Tomasini), Hitchcock tells and shows just enough of the story at a time to keep us riveted. A simple example occurs with Jeff's introduction. The camera shows him reclined in a wheelchair, one leg in a cast; it pans to a mangled photographer's camera on a table, and up to a glossy photo of an upended race car in mid air after an accident, one tire flying. With this brief sequence, we know what Jeff's occupation is and how he ended up in the wheelchair.   

Always good at infusing his films with humor amidst the suspense, Hitchcock uses most of these characters to entertain us and control the pace of the film. We only get brief snapshots of their lives, but quickly know a lot about them. For example, oblivious to what else is going on around them, the newly-wed wife slowly exhaust her husband, demanding another romp in the bedroom. Jeff and Thelma nod knowingly. And the Oscar-nominated script is full of wit and double entendres. That writer John Michael Hayes lost the award that year to George Seaton for The Country Girl is quite perplexing.

Jeff: Why would a man leave his apartment three times on a rainy night with a suitcase and come back three times?
Lisa: He likes the way his wife welcomes him home.

Stella: You heard of that market crash in '29? I predicted that.
Jeff: Oh, just how did you do that, Stella?
Stella: Oh, simple. I was nursing a director of General Motors. Kidney ailment, they said. Nerves, I said. And I asked myself, "What's General Motors got to be nervous about?" Overproduction, I says; collapse. When General Motors has to go to the bathroom ten times a day, the whole country's ready to let go.
Miss Torso titillates as she dances in her undies. 
Jeff: [Watching Lt. Doyle staring at Miss Torso dancing in her room] How's your wife?

One of the most interesting occupants is Miss Lonelyhearts, a woman on the wrong side of forty. She battles depression after one too many broken dates. Her sad life is all too common and Jeff and his co-voyeurs watch her sink in despair. For all the titillating excitement the film offers the audience, it is this character and her plight that best reflects what goes on behind closed doors in real life. It's not always happy.   

Hitchcock makes his signature cameo as a guest of the musician, winding a grandfather clock, and a cute little dog and a wedding ring play an important role in the mystery.

Did he, or didn't he? (Raymond Burr as Thorwald)

Stewart gives a great performance as the wheelchair-bound photographer, whose imagination may be getting the best of him. His best scene involves watching Lisa across the way, caught by Thorwald after breaking into his apartment. It is terrifically tense. Fear and guilt grip his face and we share his emotions. There was no better actor working in the 1950s. Ritter gives her usual solid performance, as comfortable as anyone with sarcastic one-liners; and Corey is better than usual with a bemused skepticism that matches the feeling of the audience for most of the film.

Kelly is fine too, though she doesn't need to do anything but stand there. It's easy to see why Hitchcock favored her, so stunningly gorgeous in those Edith Head costumes. Just as no man ever looked as good as Cary Grant in a suit, no gal ever matched the sophistication and glamour that Kelly radiated in a beautiful gown and pearls. If icy to some viewers, I don't see it.

The film worked so well because Hitchcock taps into his audience's own curiosity and secret wish to know about other people. It can be an unseemly characteristic, but we all have it to some extent. Thus, we can all relate to Jeff Jeffries, who serves as our alter ego. The window here isn't just the one Jeff looks out of, but one into ourselves.  

The film garnered four Oscar nominations, including one for Hitchcock for director (his fourth of five career nods), and one for Robert Burkes wonderful photography.    

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