Monday, January 19, 2009

Rear Window (1954)

There may be spoilers.

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: John Michael Hayes
Starring: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter, and Wendell Corey. Featuring Raymond Burr.

Images from the 2001 Collector's Edition Universal Release.

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Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window is a film that I would posit is as close to perfect as a movie can get. It doesn't get old. Other thrillers rely on the payoff or the scare, which wears off with repeated viewings, but Rear Window uses Hitchcock's favorite tool: suspense. In fact, the film is all suspense, and there is very little action taking place (until the end, when the payoff is rewarded by the masterful buildup). It is simultaneously a top-notch thriller, an examination of relationships and commitment, and an exploration of cinema as a form of voyeurism.

Jimmy Stewart plays L. B. Jeffries, a top-rate photographer who’s resigned to sitting in a wheelchair after breaking his leg photographing a car race. He’s visited by his physical therapist Stella, who reprimands his voyeurism but eventually gets sucked into the developing yarn herself. Grace Kelly plays his girlfriend, Lisa Freemont, who is “too perfect” in Jeffries’s mind. As the story unfolds, Jeffries becomes suspicious of a neighbor having killed his bedridden wife and does his handicapped best to find out the truth. The film ends in one of the most exciting and suspenseful conclusions you come to expect from Hitchcock.

The Frame within the Frame:

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The idea of cinema as a form of voyeurism is in just about every frame, or rather, it is the frame. I like to think of every window as a movie screen, and what we see of each neighbor is like a little short film in their lives. The window is an allegory for the camera, as well. In Rear Window, the camera never moves on a dolly but simply pans and tilts. In a movie theater, we are stuck and cannot move around to see outside the screen. Characters in the film, however, can move in and out of the frame just as Jeff's neighbors move in and out of his view. Jeff's handicap fixes him to the confines of his apartment, just as the movie theater forms our own cocoon from which we cannot escape.

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The fact that Jeff is a photographer is no mistake. This is a not-to-subtle self reflexive remark on the part of Hitchcock. It's as if he's questioning just how much power a movie director has, and by an extension, how much power the movie itself has. After all, a film is nothing more than light and shadows on a screen accompanied by a soundtrack.

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Whenever I watch Rear Window, I'm incredibly self-conscious, just as Jeff and Lisa are. Just as they get sucked into the events going on in others' lives, the viewer gets sucked into the film. It's as if they are movie watchers themselves, and while the film holds their attention during the most suspenseful parts:

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Jeff and Lisa are free to pull back and discuss what they believe is going on in those windows or whatever they feel like talking about, just as we are free to pull back and discuss the movie, or whatever we feel like talking about:

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Much of the dialogue sounds as if it was lifted straight from people's conversations/postulations on the plot of a film they're watching:

"We think Thorvald's guilty."

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"Tell me everything you saw. And what you think it all means."

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By relating the audience to Jeff and Lisa, we begin realizing what a strange and potentially creepy thing movie watching is. Lisa is also aware of this obsession:

"We're two of the most frightening ghouls. You and I with long faces, plunged into despair because we found out a man didn't kill his wife."

Take a minute to digest that and consider this: Would Rear Window have been as satisfying or interesting as a thriller if Thorvald was innocent? Imagine, a thriller where nobody gets killed and all the suspicions were in our head. Something tells me Rear Window (or any thriller for that matter) wouldn't be as popular if there was no murder at all. So why is it that audiences want a murder to occur? Doesn't that make us, the viewers, sadists? Who's the bigger monster, the murderer on the screen or the people who encourage the murder for entertainment?

Every time there's an car accident, I've found that 99% of people will stop and stare out their cars, sticking their noses in what really is none of their business. Hitchcock was a master at exposing the sinister in the banal and commonplace, which is probably why so many of his films use everyday objects as a murder weapon.

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Rear Window gives us many smaller moments of sadism as well, such as Jeff's amusement at the piano composer's frustration:

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On Art, Movie Stars, and Mona Lisa

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"Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa some have named you... Are you real or just a lovely work of art?"

So the party goers sing jubilantly after Jeff and Lisa find out their suspicions on Thorvald are probably wrong.

I've noticed that many of the residents in Rear Window are artists. There's Jeff (photographer), Ms. Torso (ballerina), the sculptor, the piano composer, and of course, Hitchcock and his camera. In a way, these four (disregarding Hitch) can be seen as constituting four important elements of film:

the cinematographer,

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the actor,

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the art director,

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and the composer/writer.

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Just as Federico Fellini famously explored his own medium in 8 1/2, Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window seems to be dissecting the film medium, trying to see what makes it tick.

Jeff is opposed to long-term commitment. Here's another comparison between the movie goer and Jeff. He enjoys Lisa... but at a distance. When we go see a movie, we expect to be entertained for the duration, but it's very noncommittal. We don't expect to spend our lives inside a movie, and if we do, then we've got a problem. Similarly, Jeff likes Lisa's company, but avoids marriage and is even wary of her staying for a night. Consider the casting. Jimmy Stewart is perhaps the quintessential "every man." Likewise, Grace Kelly is the quintessential movie star. Here we have Lisa, who looks every bit like a movie star, and Jeff is still more fascinated by what's going in the neighbor's windows:

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Jeff finds every reason he can to show his disapproval of marriage. There is Thorvald and his wife, which become the center of his fascination. In a way, he is glad they exist to prove that marriage leads to unhappiness. On the other hand, he mostly ignores the couple above them, except to laugh at them when they get rained on as they sleep outdoors. Or consider the newlyweds next door, at first all love-y dove-y, but after a while, their relationship begins looking more like the Thorvalds'.

In fact, it seems like Lisa only garners Jeff's affection when she begins to help him unravel the mystery of Thorvald and his wife

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and risk her own neck:

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A Top Notch Thriller

Rear Window is, above all, a great thriller. I have never found another film that manages to grip me again and again. In a way, it's just as experimental a film as Hitchcock's Rope (designed to look like one long take). If you consider how little actually happens, and how most of the action is simply conjectured at, it's a wonder that a film that consists mostly of people just talking or watching neighbors can become so effective a thriller. I always get a jolt and feel like turning around during this:

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I wonder if the thrill of Rear Window will ever diminish, just as Jeff's flashbulbs used against Thorvald eventually wear off. I find the final scenes of Rear Window to be more frightening than any other film, even Psycho, which I didn't find as scary on the second viewing. I have seen Rear Window 6-7 times, and the feeling I get towards the end doesn't feel diluted. I feel just as helpless and immobile as I did the first time I saw it. Perhaps the film is Hitch's thesis on the idea of suspense: "A bomb goes off under the table. That's action. A bomb doesn't go off. That's suspense." I think my problem with scary movies is that they rely on the unknown generated by suspense. Once the payoff is known, the surprise is lost and it's no longer scary. The funny thing is that with Rear Window, I can never seem to remember what scene comes next, maybe because the film is almost entirely a buildup to its climactic payoff.

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The film also happens to feel more realistic than other Hitchcock films I've seen. I wonder if that's due to the ambience of New York sounds or that Jeff is such an identifiable character for audiences. As I've said, cinema is immaterial. It's a wonder that light shining through celluloid at 24 frames per second accompanied by a soundtrack can elicit virtually every emotional response a human can give. Everything about cinema is artificial. The shooting, the script, the actors, the editing... To quote Jean-Luc Godard (again): "Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world."

And yet, as I watch the end of Rear Window, I feel so helpless and Jeff's fear seems so real that I wonder about the power of cinema.

So I'll ask you: Is what's on the screen real? Or is it all just a lovely work of art?

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