d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 112 mins.
The Pauline Kael school of film criticism ushered in the acceptable practice of making sweeping observations on movies and passing them off as truths, which is a practice I consciously try to avoid. However, perhaps this moment requires that style of opining.
Alfred Hitchcock's greatest film is Rear Window, a 1954 masterpiece that smolders on the topic of voyeurism and then brazenly sets fire to the audience, incorporating them as a definitive statement of what we do when we think we're alone and taking in the lives of others. It might not be controversial to say it is the director's best (most agree it is surely among the best), but the conviction with which I write that is an emotion unparalleled in a typical review. I have some personal investment here; Rear Window is my favorite movie, with ninety-nine films in a tie for second-place. Hitchcock frequently brushed philosophy, and his subtle explorations of the darker side of the human psyche were continually rewarding, but there is something so explosive and exciting about the flagrancy of Rear Window. Here is a film that has no illusions as to what it is about: it is about people looking at people. The characters in the film look at people and learn things perhaps they shouldn't; but it is also about we the people – the audience – pulling apart the venetian blinds and peering through the slats at a fully realized fictional universe. It is magnificent entertainment, multi-layered art, academic fodder, and a white-knuckle thriller wound together and refracted through a lens.
This is a grand movie in the history of film, and fittingly everything about it is grand: the director, the stars, the concept, the message, and, most famously, the set. Rear Window is the story of L.B. "Jeff" Jeffries (James Stewart), an international magazine photographer set up in his Greenwich Village apartment with a broken leg in the sweltering heat of the summer. He is visited regularly by both a smart-ass insurance nurse named Stella (the great Thelma Ritter) and his model-turned-socialite girlfriend Lisa Freemont (Grace Kelly), but he is primarily restless and ready for adventure again. In the absence of such adventure, he largely occupies himself by looking out the rear window of his apartment and into the courtyard, where he has a cinematic view of the world. There is a dancer, a songwriter, an artist, a lonely woman, a couple with a yappy dog, a newly wedded couple in the bliss of their honeymoon, and finally Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), a barrel-chested salesman who Jeff, after watching a bit more than he probably should, comes to suspect has murdered his invalid wife.
John Michael Hayes, the film's screenwriter, worked on four films with Hitchcock, who by that time had become so established as a film figure that Hayes and other writers was part of a second-generation of moviegoers that joined forces with the director after having already ingested dozens of his films and absorbing his aesthetic. (Ernest Lehman famously said he wrote North by Northwest to be "the Hitchcock picture to end all Hitchcock pictures.") According to Hitchcock biographer Patrick McGilligan, while stationed in Aleutian Islands during World War II, Hayes claimed to have seen Shadow of a Doubt some ninety times. Logic might suggest that writers consciously trying to produce Hitchcockian material might dilute the powerful waters rippling around the man, but if anything, many of his films produced in this era of his career are those counted among his best (Rear Window of course, but also Vertigo, Psycho, North by Northwest, Strangers on a Train, etc.). The source material for Rear Window was a short story written by Cornell Woolrich called "It Had to be Murder," the essence of which remains the same but Hayes and Hitchcock beefed up with considerable alterations. Consider that the short story had no girlfriend character and Lisa is a Hitchcock creation, or that the short story gives us no indication of Jeff's profession, and it was Hitchcock's idea to make him into a a professional voyeur – a photographer who zips around the globe covering exciting moments.
Rear Window goes further than Hitchcock's previous films as revealing the moral trespasses of human nature, and much of that was due to Hitchcock's gracious schmoozing (he gave the Production Code officials a tour of the large set and casually said the most objectionable material would seem far away from the camera's lens) and pure luck. Joseph Breen, the straitlaced head of the Code, retired shortly before filming commenced, and the new head – Geoffrey M. Shurlock – was more in tune with contemporary values (contemporary for the 1950s, at least). This isn't to say that Rear Window gets away with murder, so to speak, but there is a surprising amount of tawdry moments that made it into the final cut, including not only the voyeurism, but the obvious implication that Lisa regularly sleeps at Jeff's apartment; the oversexed bride from the newly-marrieds who live in a neighboring apartment; and the bouncing bra and toplessness of Miss Torso, the perky and frequently sparsely dressed dancer across the courtyard.
But the real strength of the script is its wonderful suspense and mystery. David Bordwell devotes a significant amount of space to Rear Window in his film studies manual Narrative and the Fiction Film, which he considers among the most classically effective examples of how a narrative grinds against an audience and throws furniture in our way as we try to make ends out of what we are watching. (The experience of taking in a movie, or any work of art, is one of the most active tasks our brains perform.) The suspense is Hitchcock at his best, and Rear Window proves itself to be such a resounding triumph because the director knew not only how to manipulate the audience's loyalty and emotions but how to manipulate their own internalized sense of cinematic expectation. Thorwald is an archetypal film heavy, but because the limited camera flattens our knowledge to essentially what Jeff knows, the audience fluctuates up and down on the question of Thorwald's guilt even though a small voice in the back of our minds knows – it just knows despite a lack of evidence – that he had to have done it. The same goes with the film's subplot (or plot-equal?) of Jeff and Lisa's relationship. Our expectations of guy-gets-the-girl are routinely derailed by the fact that Jeff seems to be actively pushing away from Lisa, attempting to wiggle his way out of the relationship while she tries to pin him down.
Yet Hitchcock lines up this series of tropes with no intention of shooting them down; in many ways, Rear Window is as conventional as movies get, with the conflict, the humor, the romance, the mystery, and the deceptively simple resolution. But its subject matter is certainly unsettling for many people, and its craft is wholly unconventional. The staging of the camera is crucial to making the film succeed. Nearly every camera shot originates from Jeff's apartment, which naturally makes us guilty of the voyeurism perpetrated by Jeff, Lisa, and Stella. There are only a few key moments where the camera is rooted elsewhere on the gigantic set, and we spend most of our time gazing out the rear window of the apartment or even peering through Jeff's telephoto lens. The lens shots are obvious implications of placing us literally into Jeff's point of view, but the film itself contains a great deal of hidden point-of-view shots, or shots that position us over someone's shoulder. But the point-of-view shots are capable of staggering amounts of emotion. When Lisa, donned in a beautiful black-and-white dress, leans in and awakens Jeff, her radiating presence fills the frame and it is impossible to look away. But later, when Lisa is across the courtyard in Thorwald's apartment and he suddenly realizes someone has been watching him, he looks up and directly into the telephone photo lens. His eye contact and the fury across his face makes it impossible to do anything but look away. (It feels dirty to get caught, doesn't it?)
Of course, a film can be brilliant and an exasperating success in its construction, but if it isn't fun to watch, it can't go all the way. Fortunately, Hitchcock gives the audience two great reasons to watch: James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Rear Window was the second of four films Stewart made with Hitchcock, all of which are good. Stewart himself is quite good under Hitchcock's direction, but that is not an entirely surprising reality, considering he was talented actor whose kind-hearted, good-natured, all-American image often undercut just how convincing he was and how much of the emotional spectrum he was able to cover. His performance here, along with his role as the obsessive detective Scotty in Vertigo, is a testament to his ability to navigate the darker currents of human psychology. Hitchcock delighted in twisting the images of stars, and Hitchcock knows we root for Jeff because beneath those blue pajamas and that full cast, he is Jimmy Stewart. Jeff is a protagonist in every sense of the word, but not necessarily a hero. The director has planted us firmly onto the same plane as Jeff, allowed what Jeff knows to be largely what we know (and the dialogue allows him to reaffirm the details and facts for us), and transfers our allegiance to him. But Stewart's performance is unsettling in the greatest of ways because he allows Jeff to be so oblivious to the fact that he is violating the rules of society. Looking into the courtyard is similar to photographing an object, but it is the act of interpreting – or simply allowing that which you see to become more important than your own personal business – that leads him into trouble. (Yes, he breaks his other leg as a "punishment" for his actions, and he gets the girl, which can be seen as either reward or punishment for his character. But what to make of the fact that the story seems to reward the peeping by allowing Jeff's assumptions to be true?)
Hitchcock loved no actress more than Grace Kelly. She only made three films with the him, but I'm sure if it had been up to him, she'd have appeared in every one until his retirement. They came together through a bit of coincidence and his keen eye. While searching for a woman to play lead in Dial M for Murder that same year, he remembered a screen test he had seen of her, only twenty-four and still unknown, having only made impressions in High Noon and John Ford's Mogambo. It was cheap for Warner Bros. to acquire her from MGM, and with the budget being so tight on Dial M for Murder, she got the role. Rear Window is her best performance in her all-too brief career (eleven films in only five years before her royal retirement). She plays cool and seductive as well as she plays impish; Lisa never loses her steadiness as the film goes on, although she becomes surprisingly excitable and more inclined to put herself in danger at the unexpected pleasure it seems to bring Jeff. (He never seems to love her as much as he does looking through the rather phallic-shaped telephoto lens.)
Thelma Ritter is almost under-utilized as the wry insurance nurse, and Hayes gave the character many of the films best lines, including "Nothing has caused the human race so much trouble as intelligence," "Nobody ever invented a polite word for a killin' yet," and "We've become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change." (Hayes believed if you were going to rattle an audience with suspense, you first needed to bring them together with comic relief.) Raymond Burr's suspicious Thorwald is chillingly effective as Jeff's murder suspect, a chain-smoking salesman who prowls around with curly hair, glasses, and white-button down shirts. Hitchcock would claim later that Burr was selected and costumed as such to intentionally evoke David O. Selznick, the perfectionist producer who feuded repeatedly with Hitchcock over films. (Ironically, however, it is Thorwald whose life is interfered with by Jeff, the Hitchcock stand-in.) Although Burr spends most of the movie across the courtyard and in an apartment opposite Jeff's, his immense physical presence is still felt in the film and his imposing body towers over the wheelchair-bound Jeff toward the film's end; leave it to Hitchcock to turn the rather unremarkable act of a man entering through a door into a moment of shock.
Two frequent Hitchcock collaborators play critical supporting production roles in Rear Window. The impeccable Edith Head, who costumed many of Hitchcock's leading ladies and gentlemen, designed a series of dresses almost as memorable as Kelly herself. This was also the first time Hitchcock worked with editor George Tomasini, who be involved with every Hitchcock production between Rear Window and Marnie except one. In order to insure he could obfuscate the censors if necessary, Hitchcock filmed many sequences two or three times (or more), and Tomasini's work with him is flawless, which is no small task considering the necessary steps of linking together all of the point-of-view shots and pushing the boundaries of the film's intensity with such a limited operating position of the camera.
Although Hitchcock could work wonderfully within the constraints of a tight budget (the 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much comes to mind), while with Paramount Pictures in the 1950s he had access to hefty amounts of cash. For Rear Window, he capitalized on the available construction funds (about $100,000) by building what was at the time the largest indoor set at Paramount Studios. There is Jeff's apartment, an entirely functional courtyard, and the neighboring apartments – thirty-one total, a dozen fully furnished and some with running water. Hundreds of lights were necessary to create the illusion of day and night, and Hitchcock directed everything from the position of Jeff's apartment. (A bit of technical innovation was required for the film so Hitchcock could communicate with all the actors on the large set; those not in Jeff's apartment were fitted with microphones and earpieces.)
Noting the film's clear and self-conscious invocations of how we watch and make movies is nothing new, and there aren't any points to be earned writing about it in a new way. Rear Window so obviously conjures both of those subjects that it was clear in 1954 what Hitchcock wanted us to notice, and it's clear today. Jonathan Rosenbaum, who also can be considered among those who think of Rear Window as Hitchcock's greatest film, has written eloquently that the film is most closely associated with Hitchcock's general philosophy because "it sums up so many of his ideas about filmmaking": voyeurism, technical challenges and constraints, certain actors and actresses, the manipulative editing that draws the audience in. Few films create the fidgeting that Rear Window does, and like a frame within a frame within a frame, the audience is driven crazy with fear that is spread among all the characters. When Lisa breaks into Thorwald's apartment and is trying to find the proof that his wife's wedding ring has been taken off her finger, we are nervous for her that she will get caught; but we are more nervous for Jeff, who knows on one level that is wrong to send his girlfriend into harm's way but answers to a more primal urge that realizes how satisfying it is to experience a thrill vicariously through her dangerous actions, the sort of thing he cannot do with a broken leg. It's not difficult to imagine Hitchcock wanting us to experience what it must have been like to be him, standing slightly off-camera and putting characters in dangerous situations, curling with fear and anxiety as we watch them worm their way out.
Rear Window was the forth of Hitchcock's five best director Oscars nominations, and the second of eight Director's Guild of America nominations. (In a heavy crowd of sixteen in 1954, he was nominated at the DGA twice that year – separately for Rear Window and Dial M for Murder.) At the Oscars, Burks was nominated for color cinematography, Hayes for screenplay, and the sound recording was also nominated. (Today it is almost unthinkable that it was not considered for best picture, art direction, or editing.) That year was a big one for On the Waterfront, and no one from Rear Window took home anything; Kelly won in the lead actress category for The Country Girl, but it is noteworthy to say she also appeared in Rear Window and Dial M for Murder in the same year and were lauded for those performances.
Time has been more favorable to the film, as far as critical appreciation is concerned. (Time has been slightly unkind to it to the extent that an apartment without cable television, air conditioning, and digital music feels remarkably alien, although the same skepticism of our neighbors remains as true as ever.) Rear Window was unavailable for three decades until the Hitchcock estate re-released first in 1984 and then again in 2000, after a careful and miraculous restoration; the print was, and it makes me shudder to write this, literally on the brink of ruin. But how lucky we are to have DVDs, knowing you needn't wait for a cinematic re-release and can acquire a movie today on a whim. Thinking this touchstone film was unavailable to an entire generation of moviegoers in the 1960s and 1970s is sad, and thinking about it being beyond a state of repair is even more terrifying. Even now, despite its retro setting (this is one of those films that you can say, "That never would have happened if they had mobile telephones or Google"), Rear Window is essential because it functions so transparently as a simple-premised mystery and as a holy act of sanctifying the purpose and creation of film. It manipulates the audience, implicates the audience, and satisfies the audience; it is suspenseful, glamorous, and universal.
And that might just be the reason Rear Window is the title I give whenever someone asks me what my favorite movie is.
17 December 2008
d. Alfred Hitchcock / USA / 112 mins.