Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Rear Window (1954)

Alfred Hitchcock
1954 • 112 Minutes • 1.66:1 • United States

Principal Cast: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr
Screenplay:  John Michael Hayes based on the short story by Cornell Woolrich
Producer: Alfred Hitchcock
Cinematography: Robert Burks

Awards & Honors

Academy Awards
Nominated: Best Director - Alfred Hitchcock
Nominated: Best Writing, Screenplay - John Michael Hayes
Nominated: Best Cinematography, Color - Robert Burks
Nominated: Best Sound, Recording

American Film Institute
AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies — #42
AFI's 100 Years... 100 Thrills — #14
AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) — #48

AFI's Top 10 Mystery Films — #3

Directors Guild of America
Nominated: Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures - Alfred Hitchcock

The Essential Films
100 Greatest Films of All Time - #4
85 Best Pictures To Never Win Best Picture
20 Essential Alfred Hitchcock Films - #1

National Film Preservation Board
Entered in the National Film Registry in 1997

Writers Guild of America
Nominated: Best Written American Drama - John Michael Hayes

Why would a man leave his apartment three times on a rainy night with a suitcase and come back three times?

Spoilers ahead

Rear Window is Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece in a filmography full of masterpieces.  While some point to Vertigo or Psycho as his best, to me Hitchcock is at his absolute best in this 1954 film. That isn't to dimsiss Vertigo, Psycho or any of his other phenomenal works, it's just that Rear Window is a flawless film.  

The plot of the film, based on the short story "It Had to Be Murder", revolves around L.B. Jeffries (or Jeff), a globe-travelling photographer that's been confined to a wheelchair during a sweltering summer following work-related accident.  The broken leg is temporary and, in fact, when we join the story he's only a few days away from getting the cast removed.  For someone like Jeffries who is used to going of on adventures at a moment's notice, being trapped in his apartment is torture.  He passes the time the only way he can, by observing the lives of the people in his apartment complex by looking out his rear window.  However, one day he notices that one of his neighbors across the way, Mrs. Thorwald, has gone missing. Jeffries, having nothing to do except sit and stare out his window, begins to suspect foul play was involved and embarks on an amateur investigation from his wheelchair, employing his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) and physical therapist (Thelma Ritter) to his cause.

Hitchcock regular James Stewart plays our wheelchaired protagonist.  One of Stewarts great qualities is the "everyman" quality he brings to every role, which Hitchcock perversely plays with. After all, much can be said about the voyeuristic nature of the film and placing Stewart, someone who audiences traditionally identify with, as the observer places the audience in the very same role.  Opposite Stewart is Grace Kelly as his frustrated girlfriend, Lisa. The future princess of Monaco has never looked more beautiful in any role.  Perhaps the film's only flaw is that Jeffries would ever refuse to settle down with Lisa, probably the most beautiful woman int he world. While it does offer some amusement it is hard to believe any warm-blooded male would keep her at arm's length.  Wendell Corey plays a police detective that refuses to indulge what he believes are Jeff's fantasies while Thelma Ritter provides comic relief as the Jeff's physical therapist/conspirator.  Rounding out the main cast is Raymond Burr in a small, yet important, part:  Lars Thorwald, the suspected killer in question.  These are the main roles of the film, but of course, the film is populate by many characters that frequently appear in Jeff's rear window.  These neighbors and each of their unique lives fascinate Jeff/the audience almost as much as the sinister murder suspect across the way and help build the reality of the apartment complex.

As L.B. Jeffries is confined to his apartment, so is the audience. Other than Jeffries' own apartment, the only thing the camera sees is only what can be observed from the titular rear window.  In order to do this, Hitchcock filmed the entire movie on a Paramount soundstage and an enormous set built of the apartments and its courtyard.  There is constant activity at all times in the background as there would be in a normal apartment building.  Hitchcock uses sound masterfully (as demonstrated by the film's Academy Award nomination for sound) as the general sounds of the world drift in and out to essentially score the film. It is one of the most clever sound designs in film history.  With the exception of the opening and closing score, the film's sound is entirely digetic, including a tune played by one of his neighbors, a struggling musician.

Rear Window is one of Hitchcock's best and most suspenseful and entertaining films. However, that isn't to say that he isn't exploring many themes hidden in this little mystery.  One interesting theme is Jeff and Lisa's relationship compared to the lives of the neighbors.  Jeff's adventurous spirit is resistant to marriage, the fear of being tied down to a "boring" life (like the one his broken leg has recently forced him into) is reflected by the newlywed couple.  At the beginning of the film, the newlyweds are all love and passion, but as the film progresses they ease into a "normal" daily husband/wife routine.  The middle aged couple with the ultimately doomed dog also represent the boring routine of marriage.  Of course, Lars Thorwald and his wife is the most sinister comparison... Thorwald being so sick of his marriage that he's driven to murder. Interestingly, it's the reverse of Jeff and Lisa:  Jeff is confined to a wheelchair and Lisa takes care of him, while Mrs. Thorwald is an invalid that is a burden to her husband.  That said, "Miss Lonelyhearts" a sad spinster is at the point of suicide when her life is essentially saved when she hears the lovely tune by the frustrated (and also lonely) songwriter. The end of the film sees these two characters enjoying each other's company and the name of the song in the credits is "Lisa's Theme." Perhaps Jeff and Lisa belong together after all?  Even when their personalities are so different? As the final scene with the Dancer proves... yes.  The beautiful dancer, "Miss Torso" who could have any man she wants, entertains men throughout the movie but it's revealed that she was just waiting for her beloved Stanley(a short, skinny, unassuming man) to return home to her from the army.

Of course the major theme in the film is voyeurism.  Even in the most unexpected and unexciting settings, we can get a thrill from just observing.  Upon first glance there is nothing particularly interesting about this apartment complex. As the story unfolds and the audience is drawn into the enticing murder plot, we are also drawn into the lives of the other residents:  the sad state of Miss Lonelyhearts, the passion of the newlyweds, the frustration of the Songwriter, and so on.  We become L.B. Jeffries. He is not only our conduit to the story, we, the audience, become him. While Jeff using a telephoto lens to spy on Thorwald makes sense from a plot perspective, it's hard not to notice the phallic symbolism. We are excited and thrilled by the mystery and the lives of strangers and we cannot look away.  When Thorwald confronts Jeff at the end of the film, he's looking straight at the camera... he's looking at the audience.  We feel guilty for spying, because in essence, we have been.  This is a brilliant film.

Rear Window is the greatest thriller ever filmed. It is as suspenseful in 2014 as it was 60 years ago in 1954.  The essential masterpiece of essential Hitchcock masterpieces.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Godfather (1972)

Francis Ford Coppola
1972 • 175 Minutes • 1.85:1 • United States
Warner Bros.

Principal Cast - Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard Castellano, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden
Screenplay - Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola based on the novel by Mario Puzo
Producers - Albert S. Ruddy
Cinematography - Gordon Willis

Awards & Honors

Academy Awards

Winner: Best Actor in a Leading Role - Marlon Brando
Winner: Best Picture - Albert S. Ruddy
Winner: Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium - Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola
Nominated: Best Actor in a Supporting Role - James Caan
Nominated: Best Actor in a Supporting Role - Robert Duvall
Nominated: Best Actor in a Supporting Role - Al Pacino
Nominated: Best Costume Design - Anna Hill Johnstone
Nominated: Best Director - Francis Ford Coppola
Nominated: Best Film Editing - William Reynolds, Peter Zinner
Nominated: Best Music, Original Dramatic Score - Nino Rota
Nominated: Best Sound - Charles Grenzbach, Richard Portman, Christopher Newman

American Film Institute

AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies – #3
AFI's 100 Years... 100 Thrills – #11
AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes:
•"I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse." – #2
AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores – #5
AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – #2
AFI's 10 Top 10 – #1 gangster film

The Essential Films
#2 - 100 Greatest Films of All Time
#6 - 100 Greatest Movie Villains - Michael Corleone

I'm going to make him an offer he can't refuse.

Vito Corleone is the aging don of the Corleone Family, a local New York mob.  His son Michael, who has never been a part of the family business, has just returned from World War II for his sister’s wedding.  After Don Corleone refuses to get involved in drug trafficking, he gets gunned down by his rivals.  Slowly Michael assumes more and more responsibility in the family and he is soon involved in a violent mob war with the rest of the “Five Families.”

This film is literally perfect.  It is one of the essential masterpieces in all of cinema. Everything in this film from the direction to the costume design, from the acting to editing, from the writing to musical score… everything works in complete harmony.  Very few films are as completely and utterly flawless as The Godfather. It is one of the rare films that works as beautiful work of art, a spectacular piece of entertainment, a huge commercial success, has significant cultural impact and continues to influence filmmakers to this very day.

Francis Ford Coppola is one of the greatest directors of all time, even if his most recent filmography Apocalypse Now, The Conversation and of course the two Godfather films.  With The Godfather, Coppola cemented his name alongside other greats like Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick.  Francis Ford Coppola up to this point had mostly done a handful of B horror movies, which makes this film all the more of an impressive accomplishment.  The movie is an epic, spanning many years over the lives the characters and its story is highly intricate.  But Coppola handles it beautifully.  Never once is an audience bored, despite its 3 hour run time.  In fact, the opposite… one is so highly engrossed in this film that the time goes by too quickly.  His shots are beautiful and poignant and show more promised than any of his earlier work.
doesn't quite reflect that.  Every film he made in the 1970s is a masterpiece:

Coppola, interestingly, was not Paramount Pictures' first choice to direct. They approached Peter Bogdanovich and Sergio Leone (who went on to direct his own gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America), who both turned the film down. Legendary producer Robert Evans insisted he wanted an Italian-American at the helm, and eventually Coppola, a young up-and-comer, was chosen. Coppola had only directed a few small features and served as a producer on American Graffiti and THX1138. In fact, Coppola was deep in debt to Warner Bros. for going over budget on THX and took The Godfather job on George Lucas' advice.  As legend has it, the studio and Coppola were constantly fighting.  Paramount didn't like Coppola, the cast and were constantly worried about going over budget. Paramount reportedly was not financially stable and needed a big hit to save it... The Godfather would prove to be that hit.

Marlon Brando’s iconic performance as Don Vito Corleone will always go down as one of the most lasting images on film.  Brando almost didn't get the role because of his notoriously difficult reputation and the studio wanted Ernest Borgnine for the role. Thankfully for cinema history, Brando's screen test won executives over and a pop culture icon was born.  Even if one hasn’t seen it, they know the performance and can mimic it.  Brando’s portrayal of an aging mob boss does something previously not done on film… it humanizes a mobster.  Yes, he is a ruthless gangster, but he is also a devoted father and a generous family man.  The rigors of his job have clearly fatigued him and he no longer wants to be in control, yet he doesn’t trust the heir apparent, Sonny, and he doesn’t want that life for his youngest, Michael.  He must, then, stay in control until he is gunned down.

Here in lies the brilliance of the screenplay.  After Don Vito is gunned down, his family needs to step up while he recovers.  Sonny’s temper flares up a violent mob war, while Michael, who had his whole life resisted the Family now truly becomes a part of it.  As Sonny leads the Corleone Family to the brink of destruction, Michael ascends and then surpasses his brother with his cunning, instincts and intelligence.  Robert Redford, Ryan O'Neal, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Dustin Hoffman, Martin Sheen and even James Caan all auditioned for the role of Michael Corleone, but Coppola insisted on an unknown Italian actor.  Al Pacino, who was almost an unknown at this point in his career, delivered a star making performance as Michael Corleone. Pacino’s performance as Michael is only topped by his performance in The Godfather Part II.  While we’re on acting, the supporting cast including Caan, Robert Duvall, Sterling Hayden and Diane Keaton also all pull their weight as well.  John Cazalle also appears as the dim-witted Corleone brother, Fredo. While Cazalle is brilliant in this role, his ability is better showcased in the sequel.  

The best sequence in the film is clearly the Baptism of Carlo and Connie’s son.  As Michael is becoming the godfather to his nephew, but this scene is intercut with images of Michael’s henchmen committing acts of violence.  As he becomes the spiritual godfather, he is literally also becoming the Godfather of the family.  It’s the most well-executed (no pun intended) sequence ever put together.

Perhaps the credit for that sequence should be given to the screenplay, which Coppola co-wrote with Mario Puzo, the author of the book the film was based on.  The writing in this film is without equal.  Not only is the story structured well, not only do the main characters have compelling arcs… but the dialogue!  ”I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.”  ”Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”  ”Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes.”  I could go on and on.  These are classic lines that everyone knows.

The Godfather is also one of the most beautifully photographed movies of all time.  Gordon Willis, nicknamed "the lord of darkness" shot the film and earned that name due to his ability to photograph black so gorgeously. There is no better example of this then in the "I believe in America" sequence that opens the film.  The black is so rich and gives the viewer a taste of the dark underworld of crime they are about to enter.  Amazingly, even though the film was nominated for multiple Oscars, the Academy failed to recognize Willis' work with a nomination.  All do respect to Geoffrey Unsworth and Cabaret (1972's winner), but Willis' cinematography is now the stuff of legend. In addition to Godfather Part II and III, Willis also delivered beautiful work forWoody Allen.  Allen hired Willis to work on Annie Hall, Manhattan, Stardust Memories, The Purple Rose of Cairo and Broadway Danny Rose... all wonderful examples of Willis' unparalleled excellence. 

And how can we talk about the Godfather without mentioning the score?  Nino Rota’s amazing score is now so ingrained in pop culture, that it’s hard to even think about Mafia activity without humming a few bars of that music.

The Godfather's impact on pop culture cannot be understated. Even though Hollywood has a long history with gangster pictures like Public Enemy, White Heat or Little Caesar, those films, while excellent, tended to be very theatrical and over the top. It is very obviously what Hollywood thinks gangsters are, usually with very little empathy for the main characters.  The Godfather did something different. It humanized the mobsters, brought you into their family, made you care about them... made you LOVE them.  Once the viewer is hooked with empathy, it is easier for them to believe anything. Many people see the film and assume they know exactly what organized crime is like, even though an extremely small percentage have no idea. The film is really a film about family, using the world of the Mafia and mobsters as its framework.  Michael's descent into organized crime, after all, is not about greed and power (though it eventually ends up this way), but about trying to protect his family. Michael rejects the lifestyle in the beginning of the film, but after his father is shot, his love for his family takes over.  This focus on family is something that resonates throughout the Godfather series.  Its success paved the way for other major entries into the gangster canon and its influence can be seen in everything from Goodfellas to "The Sopranos."

The film was nominated for eleven Academy Awards, winning three, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Marlon Brando (who refused the award.)  It's the second greatest film of all time according to the American Film Institute, right under Citizen Kane, which isn't a bad spot to be in. It broke box office records and  was the highest grossing film of 1972 and for a short time was the highest grossing film of all time until Jaws was unleashed on the world in 1975.

The film is an all-time cinematic classic, pop culture legend and it’s a movie that everyone should experience. It is truly a flawless, epic masterpiece without equal.