Harry Lime -> RE: The Empire Hall Of Fame (10/3/2009 8:20:29 AM)
REAR WINDOW (1960, ALFRED HITCHCOCK)
Nominated by homersimpson_esq
Other nominees: Aliens, Breaking News, Come And See, Goodfellas, A Matter Of Life And Death, Pickpocket, Return Of The Pink Panther, Satantango, The Shining, To Kill A Mockingbird, Three Colours: Blue.
(1954 [1 August] / 112 mins / Colour) Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Essay Cahiers Du Cinéma critic André Bazin said of Hitchcock that he was just a technician doing craftsmanlike work. To what extent is this criticism true of Rear Window? There is no doubt that insofar as the technology of the day allowed, Hitchcock was a pioneer of technology – the George Lucas of his day. However what sets him apart from that behemoth of technological achievement is the warmth, texture and emotional complexity that he brought to his films. I intend to loosely divide this study of Rear Window into two halves; the technical prowess and the creativity. I will also look at how the latter informs and enhances the former. Rear Window is, on the surface a simple film whose story unfolds in a natural manner. The tension is derived from the simplicity, the apparent absolute honesty of what is on screen – we see what Jeff sees, we know what he knows (with a notable exception). But as with so many seemingly simplistic scenarios, there is a lie to that candour – a depth of ideology and ability that seeps into the fabric of the film with such finesse that it is difficult to pinpoint it.
Such is the skill of Alfred Hitchcock that he allows the audience to enjoy the film absolutely, without concern for other considerations, on many levels. It is entirely and believably possible to enjoy the film on a purely adrenaline-fuelled level, rising to the thrill of the mystery, the intrigue of the neighbours, the growing tension, and the taut, hand-over-mouth finale. There is no room to think of any deeper considerations, but to enjoy it for the timeless thrill-ride that it remains. Simultaneously, one can take the time to look at more of the spider-web delicacy and strength of the technical innovation on show. One can look to appreciate the single-set, almost single-camera-location approach Hitchcock took as a starting challenge. Being able to discretely and absolutely enjoy and appreciate and ultimately love the film in this multilevel manner is what will form the basis of this essay. I will start with that most apparent of technical achievements. The camera never leaves Jeff's apartment, not once. Let me say that again: in the film's two hour running time not once does the location change. It barely moves around the room either – it swivels around the room, zooms in, peers over the balcony, pans across the backlot, but there are no crazy angles, no dolly shots, no crash zooms, nothing that overtly says, "look at this shot, isn't it great?”. Rear Window is more an exercise in quietly saying, 'hey, shh, watch this…' and letting the achievement be a slow realisation. What is below the surface of this simplicity is the level of preparation and planning. The careful placing of Jeff's neighbours, their activities, are all carefully choreographed so that the roving camera, taking the place of Jeff's point of view, sees things going on, makes assumptions, forms opinions: all this without a word needing to be spoken, relying solely on the mise en scene.
What does this achieve? By seeing Jeff's neighbours in this manner we are not only introduced to them, but are so through Jeff's eyes, his trapped viewpoint. We only see his limited view. Certainly a more traditional portrayal might, one supposes, have some sort of montage of the various neighbours as they busy themselves in their lives. This would remove not only the biased viewpoint which serves to enhance the paranoia and voyeurism present throughout the film but could conceivably arm the audience with more information than is necessary, effectively negating any tension otherwise present. The visual limitation allows the tension to build more naturally. What one cannot see is infinitely more frustrating than what one can. This is why, as just one example, psychological horror films are consistently more highly regarded for longer than the more graphic examples of the genre that leave little or nothing to the imagination. Not being able to cut to a different angle when the characters move out of sight is testing, but brilliantly so. Bernard Herrmann is most closely associated with Alfred Hitchcock. Vertigo, Psycho – these are recognisable, eternal themes that immediately evoke the films they accompany. With Rear Window Hitchcock's experimentalism extends to the aural tapestry. 'Aural tapestry' is often used and has become somewhat of a cliché, yet if ever that hackneyed phrase was to be accurately applied, then it is here.
There is no original dramatic score – the tension is entirely derived from the scenes themselves. Instead, the sounds from the neighbours fills the film – the piano music from the pianist as it echoes his various fortunes, the radio of Miss Torso, the chatter of the neighbours to his left, the alarm clock of the couple immediately opposite. These are far more prevalent than might otherwise have been because of an unseasonably warm summer, forcing windows open and neighbours onto the balcony. What this does most effectively is further solidify the reality of the location, the mundane nature of existence, the to-ing and fro-ing of life and love. From these simply technical achievements, the extent of which cannot be understated, is taken a story which unfolds as a commentary on love in its many forms. Indeed, each of the neighbours can be seen as typifying a different aspect of love. The pianist has unrequited love, his outlet being his music; Miss Lonely Hearts is just that, alone in life and love. The newlyweds are representative of new love, with all that that implies. The couple sleeping on the balcony are old love, familiar, together. Thorwald and his wife are love gone wrong. Miss Torso is a lustful, assumed sexually rapacious, form of love. All of these look onto Jeff, who struggles with a dilemma that on the surface does not seem a dilemma. Should he marry Lisa, played with effortless charm by Grace Kelly, perhaps the most naturally beautiful woman to have graced (pun unintended) the silver screen, or not? Yet this seeming "no brainer” is tempered by the apparent fundamental difference – she is a society gal, used to fine living; he is an adventure photographer, used to living hand to mouth in stark, extreme conditions.
Where do their disparate lives meet, other than mutual attraction? This dilemma then is looked on by the various outlooks on love, and Jeff in turn looks back at them, seeing perhaps a reflection in one of them. It is through the events of the film, in Jeff sending out Lisa to put herself in danger that he not only sees her in a new light, but that she in turn gains a taste of the excitement which, ironically, put Jeff in the leg cast in the first place. When Lisa puts on Mrs Thorwald's wedding ring as proof to show Jeff it is far more than a case of 'we've caught a murderer', but an implied proposal, one to which Jeff is more open. While mild curiosity is strong in the early part of the film, the genuine heart-stopping tension comes when Lisa goes over to Thorwald's flat to deliver the reaction-baiting note. There are moments when, against all expectations, one physically talks to the screen to encourage Lisa to get out of there. As illogical as that is it is a symptom of the tautness of the scene. Jeff's inability to communicate with Lisa as she decides to invade Thorwald's flat for evidence becomes the audience's inability to communicate with her. This direct transmission of emotion is only possible through the skill of storytelling involved thus far. This cannot be entirely due to the technical proficiency, but the ability to effectively and efficiently put that technology to use within an engrossing and involving story. The best use of technology is not that which shows off that technology, but that which integrates it most effectively with the implicit narrative drama. It is here that Rear Window excels. But as technology dies without narrative quality, it is also true that narrative quality is undeniably enhanced through effective technological efficiency.
By limiting one aspect of the film and proving effective at technological control the story is improved through the telling of it. So is Bazin's indictment of Hitchcock's work true as far as Rear Window is concerned? As far as this writer is concerned, categorically no. The technical achievements that Hitchcock wrought in his film career are many and plentiful – Vertigo's agoraphobia-inducing dolly-zoom, Psycho's shower scene, North By Northwest's Mt Rushmore-set finale, Rope's apparently single-take entirety, The Birds' effects shots, to name but a few – but the narrative drama over which these achievements are carefully and considerately laid is already strong and sure. This is, I fear, where much modern film-making falls far short of the mark. As technological advancements become ever more accessible, it becomes a short-hand for quality to make up for poor story, acting, or both. To use a crude analogy, a pig wearing lipstick is still a pig. Used properly, on worthy films (and by 'worthy' I do not imply some higher moral purpose, but merely a film of appropriate quality) technology is a major asset – used poorly it gives advancement a bad name. Hitchcock's ability was in melding the two seamlessly into films of quality and thrills, and for this he should be applauded.
Documentary about Rear Window, made by students at the University of Central Florida. (Approx 9-10mins.) Click the image to play. [url=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJGaRyQhk5M][image]http://daily.greencine.com/archives/hitch-profile.jpg[/image][/url]
Alfred Hitchcock - Mini-bio Alfred Hitchcock was born on 13 August 1899 in Leystonstone, London. The son of a greengrocer, the young Alfred was raised as a Catholic, went to a school run by Jesuits, and got a job with the Henley Telegraph and Cable Company in 1915. It was around this time that his interest in films first developed. He started his life in film as a title an set designer. Fate stepped in as the director of a film he was working on (Always Tell Your Wife, 1923) fell ill, and the young Hitchcock stepped in. Suitably impressed, studio heads gave him other directing work. Hitchcock continued to rise in provenance, directing 62 films, some of a lesser quality, but a great deal more masterpieces. (excerpted from imdb.com)
Hitchcock Quotes Ÿ "There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” Ÿ "Drama is life with the dull bits left out.” Ÿ "I am a typed director. If I made Cinderella (1937), the audience would immediately be looking for a body in the coach.”
Hitchcock's salary for Rear Window: $150,000 + 10% of the profits +film negative ownership
Rear Window Trivia: Ÿ The size of the set necessitated excavation of the soundstage floor. Thus Jeff's apartment was actually at street level. Ÿ The love affair between war photographer Robert Capa and actress Ingrid Bergman is believed to be Alfred Hitchcock's inspiration for the film's romantic aspect.
Quotes: Ÿ "A woman never goes anywhere but the hospital without packing makeup, clothes, and jewelry.” Ÿ "Intelligence. Nothing has caused the human race so much trouble as intelligence.” Ÿ "Nobody ever invented a polite word for a killin' yet.” Ÿ [regarding Jeff's telephoto lens] Mind if I use that portable keyhole?”
Other Critical Appraisals Roger Ebert The hero of Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window" is trapped in a wheelchair, and we're trapped, too--trapped inside his point of view, inside his lack of freedom and his limited options. When he passes his long days and nights by shamelessly maintaining a secret watch on his neighbours, we share his obsession. It's wrong, we know, to spy on others, but after all, aren't we always voyeurs when we go to the movies? Here's a film about a man who does on the screen what we do in the audience--look through a lens at the private lives of strangers. The man is a famous photographer named L.B. Jeffries--"Jeff" to his fiancée. He's played by James Stewart as a man of action who has been laid up with a broken leg and a heavy cast that runs all the way up to his hip. He never leaves his apartment and has only two regular visitors. One is his visiting nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), who predicts trouble ("the New York State sentence for a Peeping Tom is six months in the workhouse"). The other is his fiancée, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), an elegant model and dress designer, who despairs of ever getting him to commit himself. He would rather look at the lives of others than live inside his own skin, and Stella lectures him, "What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change." Jeff's apartment window shares a courtyard with many other windows (all built on a single set by Hitchcock), and as the days pass he becomes familiar with some of the other tenants. There is Miss Lonelyhearts, who throws dinner parties for imaginary gentleman callers; and Miss Torso, who throws drinks parties for several guys at a time; and a couple who lower their beloved little dog in a basket to the garden, and a composer who fears his career is going nowhere. And there is Thorvald (Raymond Burr), a man with a wife who spends all her days in bed and makes life miserable for him. One day the wife is no longer to be seen, and by piecing together several clues (a saw, a suitcase, a newly dug spot in Thorvald's courtyard garden), Jeff begins to suspect that a murder has taken place. The way he determines this illustrates the method of the movie.
Rarely has any film so boldly presented its methods in plain view. Jeff sits in his wheelchair, holding a camera with a telephoto lens, and looks first here and then there, like a movie camera would. What he sees, we see. What conclusions he draws, we draw--all without words, because the pictures add up to a montage of suspicion. In the earliest days of cinema, the Russian director Kuleshov performed a famous experiment in which he juxtaposed identical shots of a man's face with other shots. When the man was matched with food, audiences said the man looked hungry, and so on. The shots were neutral. The montage gave them meaning. "Rear Window" (1954) is like a feature-length demonstration of the same principle, in which the shots assembled in Jeff's mind add up to murder. I sometimes fancy that various archetypal situations circled tirelessly in Hitchcock's mind, like whales in a tank at the zoo.
One of them was fascination of voyeurism--of watching people who do not know they are being watched. Another, famously, was the notion of an innocent man wrongly accused. And many of his films illustrate male impotence or indifference in the face of cool blond beauty. Much is said of Hitchcock's blonds (Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint, Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren), but observe that they are not erotic playmates so much as puzzles or threats. Lisa, the Kelly character, has a hopeless love for Jeff, who keeps her at arm's length with descriptions of his lifestyle; a fashion model wouldn't hold up in the desert or jungle, he tells her. But perhaps his real reason for keeping her away is fear of impotence, symbolized by the leg cast, and we are reminded of the strikingly similar relationship between Scotty, the Stewart character in "Vertigo," and the fashion illustrator played by Barbara Bel Geddes. She, too, loves him. He keeps his distance. She sympathizes with his vertigo, as Kelly nurses the broken leg. Both observe his voyeuristic obsessions. In "Vertigo," Scotty falls in love with a woman he has spied upon but never spoken to. In "Rear Window," he is in love with the occupation of photography, and becomes completely absorbed in reconstructing the images he has seen through his lens.
He wants what he can spy at a distance, not what he can hold in his arms. Stewart is an interesting choice to play these characters. In the 1930s and 1940s he played in light comedy, romances, crime stories and Westerns, almost always as a character we liked. After the war, he revealed a dark side in the fantasy scenes of Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life," and Hitchcock exploited that side, distant and cold, in "Rope," "The Man Who Knew Too Much," "Vertigo" and "Rear Window." To understand the curious impact of these roles, consider Tom Hanks, whose everyman appeal is often compared to Jimmy Stewart's. What would it feel like to see him in a bizarre and twisted light? In "Rear Window," Jeff is not a moralist, a policeman or a do-gooder, but a man who likes to look. There are crucial moments in the film where he is clearly required to act, and he delays, not because he doesn't care what happens, but because he forgets he can be an active player; he is absorbed in a passive role. Significantly, at the end, when he is in danger in his own apartment, his weapon is his camera's flashgun; he hopes to blind or dazzle his enemy, and as the man's eyesight gradually returns, it is through a blood-red dissolve that suggests passion expressed through the eyes. Kelly is cool and elegant here, and has some scenes where we feel her real hurt. She likes to wear beautiful dresses, make great entrances, spoil Jeff with champagne and catered dinners. He doesn't notice or doesn't like her attention, because it presumes a relationship he wants to elude. There is one shot, partly a point-of-view close-up, in which she leans over him to kiss him, and the camera succumbs to her sexuality even if Jeff doesn't; it's as if she's begging the audience to end its obsession with what Jeff is watching, and consider instead what he should be drinking in with his eyes--her beauty.
The remote-control suspense scenes in "Rear Window" are Hitchcock at his most diabolical, creating dangerous situations and then letting Lisa and Stella linger in them through Jeff's carelessness or inaction. He stays in his wheelchair. They venture out into danger--Kelly even entering the apartment of the suspected wife killer. He watches. We see danger approaching. We, and he, cannot move, cannot sound the alarm. This level of danger and suspense is so far elevated above the cheap thrills of the modern slasher films that "Rear Window," intended as entertainment in 1954, is now revealed as art. Hitchcock long ago explained the difference between surprise and suspense. A bomb under a table goes off, and that's surprise. We know the bomb is under the table but not when it will go off, and that's suspense. Modern slasher films depend on danger that leaps unexpectedly out of the shadows. Surprise. And surprise that quickly dissipates, giving us a momentary rush but not satisfaction. "Rear Window" lovingly invests in suspense all through the film, banking it in our memory, so that when the final payoff arrives, the whole film has been the thriller equivalent of foreplay.
Empire (Kim Newman) A news photographer, a restless man of action, is confined to his apartment and a wheelchair by a broken leg. He spends weeks looking out of his window at people who live in the apartments across the courtyard. Afraid of committing to his high-class girlfriend, he takes refuge in the petty lives of the semi-strangers who are his neighbours. The camera stays with the leading man inside his flat, and supporting characters appear only in long-shot, joys and miseries glimpsed and half-understood.
Sounds like an art movie, doesn't it?
Depending on the degree of wry comedy or domestic tragedy, it could be a delicate French comedy, an Italian neo-realist masterpiece or a despairing slice of Swedish miserabilism. All the hallmarks are there: a technical gimmick (staying on one set throughout), thematic complexity (a voyeur whose involvement in human stick figures is exactly that of a cinema audience), an unconventional mode of narrative (the hero and his few visitors discuss the stories they observe, like a chatty group at a hard-to-follow movie).
But one of the neighbours is a murderer. And the director is Alfred Hitchcock. The rotund Englishman was already well-established in America, but this was the first of a run of huge hits or true masterpieces that would last ten years. Having won long-sought independence from a contract with tyrannical producer David O. Selznick (the murderer of Rear Window is made up to look like Selznick), Hitch was declaring himself an auteur. Well before the craze for possessory credits, the title card boldly announces "Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window". So it's a thriller, with big Hollywood stars.
In 1954 they didn't come bigger than James Stewart, a real-life ageing juvenile who had surprised fans by becoming an authentic war hero and showing real depth in It's A Wonderful Life (1946) and a run of outstanding Westerns. Grace Kelly, a few years away from transformation into a genuine princess, was so beautiful and blonde she could only be convincingly cast as a fashion model. Rear Window is a murder story with big stars from a famous studio director. All of which doesn't mean it's not an art movie.
The first third contains not a mention of crime, as L.B. "Jeff" Jeffries (Stewart) grumbles at enforced confinement and tries to worm his way out of engagement to Lisa Fremont (Kelly). She wants him to remain permanently crippled (as he sees it) by switching from photographing wars and disasters to a life of moneyed ease shooting fashion spreads. Stella (the marvellous Ritter), a sour but funny nurse, comes every day and gossips with Jeff about the neighbours as if they were keeping up to date with a soap opera.
All the characters around the courtyard keep Jeff thinking about love, sex and marriage. "Miss Torso" jives in underwear and fends off wolfish young men while "Miss Lonelyhearts" prepares romantic candlelight meals she eats alone. Newlyweds pull down the blinds and spend the whole film having sex. A middle-aged couple sleep on the fire escape because of the New York heatwave, their dog a substitute child. A songwriter struggles with a melody, getting drunk or elated as a hit ("Lisa") coalesces. And weary jewellery salesman Lars Thorwald (Burr) is nagged by his shrew of a wife.
One night as Jeff dozes and watches, Thorwald struggles out with his sample case. The next morning, his wife is gone. In his apartment, Thorwald wraps used knives and saws for disposal. The dog digs at Thorwald's floral border, and Jeff notices some zinnias have shrunk. The dog is killed. Keen to switch the subject from marriage, Jeff tells Lisa he thinks Thorwald has murdered his wife and Stella fills in the gruesome details. Scenarist John Michael Hayes, like original author Cornell Woolrich, is a master of the horrid hint: the problem has been disposed of "in sections", the deed would have had to be done in the bathroom, under the zinnias is buried something "in a hatbox".
It is a measure of Hitch's genius that the murder story doesn't completely take over. At a crucial point, Jeff and Lisa are distracted from snoopy sleuthing when Miss Lonelyhearts seems on the point of suicide only to be dissuaded by the songwriter's piano-playing. When Thorwald realises he is being watched and comes to Jeff's flat, he is not a fiend in human form but a pitiably trapped little man who has found no relief in escape from his intolerable marriage, who has no money to pay off a blackmailer, and is puzzled that anyone would care about him and what he has done.
Rear Window ends with all stories resolved: the song is finished, Miss Torso welcomes home her tubby soldier boyfriend, the couple have a new puppy, Miss Lonelyhearts is with the songwriter and Thorwald's apartment is being redecorated. But Hitchcock doesn't let up: Jeff now has two broken legs and is asleep in domesticity with Lisa, who still thinks of taming him; and the sex-happy honeymooners are starting the whole cycle again, the wife having turned into a nag.