Thursday, February 16, 2012

Rear Window - 1954

"Rear Window" - 1954
Dir. by Alfred Hitchcock - 1 hr. 52 min.


by Clayton Hollifield

"Rear Window" definitively proves that creepiness and voyeurism never go out of style.  Sixty some odd years later, this film is still gripping and thrilling, and that's at least partially because the idea of peeping on your neighbors is a pretty timeless idea.  But also, it's because Alfred Hitchcock knew how to make a film.

The set-up is both simple and elegant: L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) is an adventurous, even daring photographer.  But his last assignment left him injured and confined to his (at that point in time, non-A.D.A. compliant) apartment.  He's in a wheelchair and leg cast that goes all the way up to his waist, and just one week away from getting the cast off and resuming work.  Understandably, he's a little stir-crazy, and to pass the time watches his neighbors (there's a shared courtyard that gives him view of several different apartments).  Jeffries watches each neighbors' situation play out mostly silently.  One night, Jeffries sees one of his neighbors, Lars Thorwald (a pre-Perry Mason Raymond Burr), acting in a suspicious manner, and with his bed-ridden wife nowhere to be found.  Is it murder or Jeffries' hyperactive imagination running wild?  And how to prove a murder took place, with Jeffries' not being able to leave his wheelchair or apartment?

That's only half of the story, there's also a sizable amount of time devoted to Jeffries' relationship with Lisa (Grace Kelly).  Jeffries is resisting Lisa's attempts to domesticate him, perhaps over-romanticizing his vagabond photog-at-large lifestyle since he's spent the last seven weeks of his life being deprived of it.  He resents her high-society life and her perfection (which is about the only way to describe Grace Kelly in this role - she's like a ray of light, illuminating the screen every second she's on it); she loves him and wants to spend her life with him.  Hitchcock's treatment of female characters is a fertile subject for analysis, and "Rear Window" is no exception.  But rather than literally torturing his leading lady (like in "The Birds"), it's all emotional turmoil.  Lisa tries and tries to find a way to really get into Jeffries' heart, while he deflects and sometimes pokes at open wounds - after she comments about how the detective always has his Girl Friday, Jeffries notes dryly that the detective never ends up marrying her.  There are a number of instances of these painful verbal jabs, and Lisa doesn't try to play them off.  They register, and as a viewer, I was conscious of Hitchcock deliberately burning through the good will that audiences offered Jimmy Stewart in any role.

I'm not sure about how to go about describing how this film is one of the best films I've ever seen.  Part of it certainly is the set-up.  "Rear Window" would almost be achievable on-stage; the entire thing plays out from the confines of Jeffries' apartment.  There are interior shots, but the views offered of all of the other characters in the movie come from Jeffries' viewpoint.  Through the windows of these apartments, mini-plays play out.  We get Miss Lonelyhearts, a middle-aged single woman so desperate for company that she acts out dates in her apartment.  There's Miss Torso, a beautiful young dancer who frequently has company over.  There's a couple that sleep on the fire escape to mitigate the crazy summer heat, and lower their dog down to the courtyard below to do it's business in a wicker basket tied to a rope.  There's a newlywed couple offering Jeffries a glimpse into his potential future with Lisa, there's also a single songwriter who plays piano constantly.  There's an sculptor living on the floor level.  These characters all have their own stories, and that's before we even get to the main intrigue involving Thorwald and his missing wife.  All this in a compressed environment is a real achievement in structure and storytelling.

There's also the gripping main story.  The attempt to figure out what exactly Thorwald has done through glimpses across the way is fantastic mystery material.  It's no fun when you have everything available to you as a viewer, and Jeffries' imprisonment (of a sort) is frustrating and spellbinding.  In the mystery part of the story, the character serves as a proxy for the viewer.  Much in the same way that a moviegoer has no control over what happens in the movie itself, Jeffries is unable to act in any meaningful way unless he's able to piece together the fragments of what he's seen.  The movie goes from great to all-time great when the voyeur loses his anonymity.  When Thorwald figures out who's been watching him, and Jeffries is alone in his aparment, unarmed, it's one of the tensest, most suspenseful scenes I've ever seen play out.

The thing that grounds this story and keeps "Rear Window" from being just an excellently-executed whodunnit is the story between Lisa and Jeffries.  We've been treated to probably thousands of movies where the schubby guy has to woo a girl that's probably way out of his league, but here Hitchcock turns the tables.  Despite Jeffries' infirmity, despite her station, despite her absolute perfection (seriously, look at her in this movie and tell me you didn't fall in love with her a little bit), Lisa ends up having to figure out how to woo Jeffries.  He resents the things that should be her assets - her radiance, her connections, her perfection (the word comes up a lot in the movie, it's not entirely my choice of words).  He's used to flying by the seat of his pants, and assumes that she wouldn't be able to keep up.  So how's she supposed to win in this situation?  Jeffries' treatment of Lisa during the film is at times harsh, and there are points where I both wanted her to walk out on him, but knew that it would be awful if she did.  Lisa is the emotional heart of the film, not Jeffries, and the real story is her trying to figure out how to be a part of his life without robbing him of what makes him unique.

It's a thrill to see a movie like this: at the conclusion, I felt something that I haven't felt since seeing "Pulp Fiction" for the first time.  It's the sort of giddiness that comes from seeing a film that literally could not have been better.  It's the thrill of seeing a master filmmaker at the height of his ability.  I've seen other Hitchcock films, and have been deeply impressed with some of them.  But none of them prepared me for the experience of watching "Rear Window" for the first time.

5 / 5 - TV

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