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Thursday 25 February 2010

Rear Window (1954)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Star: James Stewart

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Nobody ever seems to be able to agree about which of Alfred Hitchcock's movies is the best, but two in particular tend to fight it out at the top: Psycho and Rear Window. Maybe it's impossible for most people to choose between these two because they're so fundamentally different. One is a cheaply produced minimalistic black and white thriller that turned cinema on its head and the other is a big budget colour movie that relished its cleverness. Perhaps some would choose the latter over the former because there's no reliance on one particular shock disclosure that nowadays everyone already knows about. Then again, watch Psycho for the nth time, even with the foreknowledge of having seen it probably a couple of times already, and see if it doesn't kick you on your ass once more anyway.

What can be agreed on by everyone is that Rear Window is a massive achievement. Every single word seems as well crafted as the huge set, which encompassed 31 complete apartments and was at the time the largest ever built indoors on the Paramount lot, so big that they had to excavate the studio floor to fit it in. Each performance seems to be exactly perfect and the direction is unmatched, especially given the restrictions that Hitchcock put himself under, something that he did often. For Rope he tried to make the film seem like one long eighty minute shot, but as 35mm cameras only handle eight minute spools he was forced to pan into something entirely black every eight minutes or so to enable seamless editing. For Lifeboat he worked mostly in close-ups to emphasise the claustrophobic nature of the boat. In Rear Window he shot almost every scene from a single apartment, that of a photographer called L B 'Jeff' Jefferies, played by James Stewart.

The reason for this is that Jeff broke his leg on assignment and is now confined not just to his apartment but also to a wheelchair and a substantial plaster cast that encases more than just his leg. Without being able to indulge in his highly active lifestyle he instead becomes engrossed with the lives of his neighbours in surrounding apartments whom he can easily see out of his window, a world into which we're invited too as the opening credits roll and the blinds on his windows are raised. In a morally intriguing casting decision, the 1998 TV movie remake saw Christopher Reeve in the equivalent part of Jason Kemp, Reeve having become a quadroplegic after a riding accident three years earlier. While Reeve couldn't leave his wheelchair, Stewart merely didn't, but he made the most of the restrictions it gave him.

Jeff isn't looking to be a voyeur, pun very much intended, though that's basically what he becomes and we join him. He wants to head out on assignment and take photos from a jeep or a water buffalo or whatever there is to hand but his magazine won't let him. So he spends his time watching everyday lives. A couple of newlyweds move into their new apartment and promptly pull their blind down; a songwriter practices his new composition while Hitch winds his clock; and an older married couple sleep out on their fire escape, at least while its not raining. It's easy to watch Miss Torso, the ballet dancer, because she doesn't wear much and she does her stretching exercises while she makes breakfast. It's certainly far more fun to watch her bend over for the camera than to watch Miss Lonelyhearts sitting down to a romantic dinner with a non-existent date.

Most of all though he watched Lars Thorwald. He's a severe looking man played by Raymond Burr who has a shock of white hair and a nagging bedridden wife. They obviously have problems, lots of problems, though of course we end up struggling to hear snippets because we're stuck with Jeff in his apartment, but before long Mrs Thorwald disappears, suddenly and without any apparent warning. We do hear a cry and the sound of breaking glass but it could have come from anywhere and Jeff was dropping off at the time. However it becomes the first hint of many that perhaps something has happened and Jeff, stuck in his fifth week of enforced inactivity with nothing to do except watch and think, decides that Lars Thorwald has murdered his wife.

There are murder mysteries galore, but they pretty much all tend to start with a corpse. Those that don't, like Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery, all owe their existence to this one. Rear Window is a murder mystery without a murder, at least as far as everyone except Jeff believes, and so it has an extra dollop of mystery just to redress the balance. There is no proof whatsoever that a murder has taken place and even when he tries, Jeff can't find any. All the leads he manages to conjure up lead precisely nowhere, but he stays firm in his belief, hooked on details. 'Why would a man leave his apartment three times on a rainy night with a suitcase and come back three times?' he asks, and gradually persuades those around him into believing too. In his way he's Juror No 8 from 12 Angry Men, merely with a different motive.

As Jeff can't leave his apartment, his legwork gets done by an obliging detective friend, with a little help from his nurse and his girlfriend. The detective, Det Lt Thomas Doyle, is played by Wendell Corey who I didn't know in the slightest, even though he took a few years out from acting in the early sixties to become President of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. I've since seen him in The Big Knife, Any Number Can Play and Sorry, Wrong Number, but I'm still waiting to see his final performance in the legendary Ted V Mikels picture The Astro-Zombies, with John Carradine and Tura Satana.

Stella, the nurse, is Thelma Ritter who I was more than happy to discover again and again in other films as varied as The Misfits, How the West Was Won and Pickup on South Street. The big title I've yet to see is All About Eve, which will come later in this project. Here she gets most of the lines dealing with home truths and she relishes each of them, including the one about us becoming a race of peeping toms who should get outside our houses and look in for a change. She's a gem, one with a dry sense of humour. 'Intelligence,' she says. 'Nothing has caused the human race so much trouble as intelligence.'

The girlfriend is Lisa Carol Fremont, played by Grace Kelly, who I found cropping up as often as Jimmy Stewart in the films I was working through in 2004, so much so that she became the first real star whose filmography I completed. Asta, the dog from The Thin Man, really doesn't count, right? Then again he has six credits at IMDb and appears in more Top 250 movies than Bette Davis. That ought to count for something. Anyway this review completes Grace Kelly's filmography in reviews at Apocalypse Later. Kelly was an Oscar winner for The Country Girl, appeared in another Top 250 movie, High Noon, and made two other Hitchcock films, Dial M for Murder and To Catch a Thief. Those six years were busy ones.

While I may be biased by knowing that she was soon to become the widely adored Princess Grace of Monaco, it seems obvious watching her films that she had so much genuine class and charm that it's a shame that the film world had to lose her so soon. Here she's a classy socialite who wants to marry Jimmy Stewart while knowing that she may yet lose him because they lead such different lives. She's happy to be with him but sad that she may not be with him for much longer, because she feels correctly that he's waiting for someone who will go everywhere with him and do everything rather than someone to come home to. As he tells Stella, 'She's too perfect, she's too talented, she's too beautiful, she's too sophisticated.' Kelly portrays those descriptions and that conflict as magnificently as her growing interest in the supposed murder. It's a shame I have no more Grace Kelly films to discover.

Raymond Burr, alone of the many occupants of the nearby apartments, actually gets to act in something other than distance shots. We do get to follow the lives of Miss Torso and Miss Lonely Hearts and the songwriter and the newlyweds and the couple who sleep on the fire escape while their dog lives inside, but always only from a distance, through Jeff's apartment window. Burr's character, Lars Thorwald, is the focus of Jimmy Stewart's attention as the potential murderer and so we get to see him a little closer up. Burr is still probably best known in the States for the TV shows he made later in life: Perry Mason and Ironside, the latter of which saw him appropriately confined to a wheelchair given that this film was both the most prominent picture he ever made and the biggest film to feature a wheelchair bound lead character.

He began as a film actor though and made a slew of movies going back as far as 1940. He always looks a little different in early films like San Quentin, Key to the City and A Place in the Sun, let alone something like William Castle's Serpent of the Nile in which he played Mark Antony. His best known film other than this is probably Godzilla, King of the Monsters, the American version of Gojira, with all the Hiroshima and Nagasaki scenes cut out, but though he was highighted as the star, all his scenes were shot in a single day for contract reasons and edited into the original picture for US release. He looks utterly different here with scary eyes and white hair. Hitchcock apparently chose him for the part entirely because of a physical resemblance to the producer he had clashed with most, David O Selznick, but whatever his reasons he chose well.

And then there's Jimmy Stewart. Already in this project I've seen him in Vertigo, Harvey and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, three thoroughly different movies, ones that amply highlighted how he became one of the most beloved actors Hollywood has yet produced. He certainly had one of the most distinctive voices but that's not really what makes him special; it's the magical way he can connect with his audience. He could be a cop or a drunk or a senator, but whichever he was at the time, he always made us feel as if we could just walk up and say hi. However many great films he made though, he may not have ever played a better role than this one. He is the lead character around whom the entire film revolves, yet he spends the entire time in a huge plaster cast unable to move.

Above everything else, it's this immobility that makes the film. We become as stuck in Jeff's apartment as he is and we join in his voyeuristic addiction. Filmgoing by nature is a voyeuristic experience: we, the audience, sit there doing precisely nothing except watching the action unfold. In Rear Window, the lead character is doing exactly what we're doing, yet the way he does it is morally dubious. The way Hitch put himself under the same restriction as Jeff, and by extension us, was a stroke of sheer genius. To take it even further, he had all the apartments in Thorwald's block made fully functional with working water and electricity; and Georgine Darcy, who played Miss Torso, spent the entire month long shoot living in the apartment she occupied in the film.

Having started my IMDb project in 2004 with only four Hitchcocks behind me, most of them consequently became first time treats, but I had seen Rear Window before. It does say a lot for a suspense film that I loved it not just first time round but second time too. Because of the inherent suspense he conjures up and the stunning surprises that he hits us with, some Hitchcocks ought to be lessened by necessity on further viewings, such as Vertigo or Psycho, but even knowing the surprises that Rear Window had in store, it was still awesome to watch. It was listed as the 14th greatest film of all time when I grabbed my working copy of the IMDb Top 250 in 2004 but even after dropping a few spots to 20th over the last six years, it holds its place as the highest Hitchcock on this list.

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