Friday, March 30, 2012

Rear Window (1954)

USA, 112 minutes
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: John Michael Hayes, Cornell Woolrich
Photography: Robert Burks
Music: Franz Waxman
Editor: George Tomasini
Cast: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr, Judith Evelyn, Ross Bagdasarian, Georgine Darcy, Sara Berner, Frank Cady, Jesslyn Fax, Rand Harper, Havis Davenport, Irene Winston

To say that Rear Window is Alfred Hitchcock's greatest gimmick movie, with Rope and Lifeboat and the other examples of his playful formal experimentalism embedded throughout his catalog, is to risk reducing and ghettoizing one of his greatest achievements to its self-imposed constraints—in this case, confining all the action to a small apartment and what can be seen from it. It's not just that Rear Window is a dandy (if inevitably somewhat dated) edge-of-the-seat thriller, but also it's so neatly positioned to explore one of Hitchcock's enduring themes, voyeurism and the simultaneous power and impotence of "the gaze," which we take with us to the movies every time we go.

It shouldn't be surprising how good it is—any number of Hitchcock's greatest strengths are in play. It looks good, sounds good, plays like clockwork. It was made in the '50s, when he was arguably at the peak of his various Hollywood powers. It stars James Stewart, perhaps his greatest alter ego (though I'd be inclined to put Cary Grant just a tetch ahead of him on that score), and Grace Kelly, an archetypal Hitchcock blonde (as with any of them, she is required only to hit her marks and get her lines out and anything else is lagniappe; and stiffness appears to be a plus). You almost don't need to know any more than that. The result is a picture that many flatly single out as his best.

Professional news photographer L.B. Jefferies (played by James Stewart) is laid up with a broken leg and spends his days (and many of his nights) in his tiny New York apartment sitting in a wheelchair at his living room window, which overlooks the courtyard and other windows of his apartment complex. With nothing better to do, he finds himself studying the living habits of his neighbors, naming them and making up stories about their lives based on the fragments he sees—"snooping" is the technical term. Miss Torso, Miss Lonelyhearts, the newlyweds, the songwriter: we see what he sees, watch what he watches. It's part of the movie, each one all boxed up into little frames like gifts. And no, we're not about to look away any more quickly than Jefferies, which Hitchcock effortlessly establishes.

Eventually Jefferies sees behavior in one apartment that leads him to conclude the man has murdered his wife and disposed of her body, and he sets about cracking the case, with the help of his girlfriend, high society gal Lisa Fremont (played by Grace Kelly), his insurance-company nurse, Stella (played with typical flinty poise by Thelma Ritter, her greatest role), and an old war buddy who's now a police detective, Tom Doyle (played by Wendell Corey).

These four are the principals, but you notice how lengthy the cast listing is above. That's because we see so many lives played out by fragments from Jefferies's window. Each is detailed enough to be memorable, yet the figures are so small and distant from us that their relations to the principals take on strange proportionalities, as if those observed have been slightly dehumanized simply by being observed, the finely inscribed details of their private sorrows and joys are opposed to the lumbering, oafish, rudely staring curiosities of our main players. The effect of these enclosed and circumscribed fragments has been compared to comic book panels and television screens. I'll second that, especially the latter, given that it was 1954. And I have to think there's some influence as well of Jacques Tati on Hitchcock here, with the way Rear Window breaks the frame up into tiny yet intricately busy jewel boxes of drama and activity.

Even when Jefferies's camera telescope or binoculars blows up the small people to the size of the screen they are still diminished, perhaps because they are necessarily silent, like players moving hilariously in a silent film, with the telescopic frame mimicking an iris shot. The ambient noise that pervades this picture simply continues behind them, often even when we see they are talking to one another. Sometimes their voices may drift slightly into hearing and become part of the ambience, but they're rarely easily distinguished.

Which reminds me: The sound design of Rear Window is another one of its most impressive features, and again almost iconoclastic in its way. It was decades ahead of Robert Altman in overlaying multiple simultaneous conversations into a scene, although in fairness Altman was the one who promoted it to the foreground. Here the jumble of noise—voices calling and talking, music coming from the apartment of the songwriter playing at his piano, airplanes and street traffic—is strictly relegated to the background. But it adds a fascinating and subtle texture along the edges of our conscious awareness.

We might (doubtless to disregard our own failings), but Hitchcock never loses sight for long of the voyeuristic impulse that unites us, as the viewers, with the main characters here. When the camera pans across the courtyard, stopping to look at what each neighbor is doing in turn, even as they believe they are in private, it's a very good and very chilling approximation of the thrill of the peeping tom. It works even better when done in the early evening, with the light of the day just beginning to die, as people are coming home from work and preparing their dinners, so that is one of the longest and most loving pans.

In some ways, I almost think it would be better if there actually was no crime, if it really was all just Jimmy Stewart dreaming something up out of his fevered, spying head, but that would also be a rather different movie (and it might be called Vertigo). But the whole bad guy thing works just fine too. It's somehow a real pleasure to see Raymond Burr cast against type, as a kind of silent-movie villain, brandishing a saw and butcher knife and smoking his cigars in the dark, their orange tips glowing. The first time we finally hear his voice ("hey, that's Perry Mason!") is also one of the most absolutely chilling moments of the picture.  

Rear Window is pure entertainment. It's endlessly fascinating. And it's just fun, start to finish. Do not miss it.

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