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.

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