Saturday, August 24, 2013

Rear Window (1954)

Seen: At the Harvard Film Archive on 35mm, part of their Complete Alfred Hitchcock retrospective.

This one I'd already seen a few times, but it's not like I'm going to pass up an opportunity to see Rear Window in a theater. I'm not that stupid. Hitchcock's classic tale of voyeurism and friendly neighborhood murder stars Jimmy Stewart as LB Jeffries, a successful magazine photographer who's gone stir crazy in his apartment laid up with a broken leg. He spends his days obsessively observing others in his apartment complex, all throwing their windows open in the summer heat. He begins to suspect the salesman across the courtyard (Raymond Burr) may have murdered his invalid wife, but needs to track down evidence to get the police to take action. With the help of his fashionista girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) and wisecracking nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), Jeff tries to conclusively prove a murder took place in his very backyard.

Seeming to lovingly caress every frame, Hitchcock uses Rear Window as a means to explore his love of film as a visual medium. He zooms in and out, pans around slowly, moves within and beyond an extremely detailed set, and expertly plays with focus. His protagonist is a photographer, a man who makes his living viewing life through a lens, and that fact is exploited to full effect as the story progresses. Every shot is so thoughtfully composed, you could easily watch this movie on silent and still appreciate it fully. Hitchcock is careful to keep his point of view (mostly) at the same window, either originating with Jeff looking out or an anonymous observer looking into his apartment. I love the use of a single location, with enough interesting characters and settings to easily compensate for Jeff's stationary lifestyle. There's the ballet dancer "Miss Torso", the melancholy Miss Lonelyhearts, the talented Songwriter, and a newlywed couple who cannot stop banging. These characters create equal parts comedy and drama as Jeff becomes more familiar with their personal lives, catching glimpses of their romantic trysts and arguments, their failures and triumphs, and their general day-to-day operations. I've always loved watching people out my window, and I think this movie would have been interesting to me even without the whole murder mystery thing.

But of course Rear Window is primarily a thriller, a gradually escalating nail-biter that casts doubt over who is the villain and who is the victim for a lot of its runtime. The story unfolds slowly, allowing time for Jeff, Lisa, and Stella to become fleshed out characters. They engage in witty banter, investigate their pasts, question their futures, and bond together over their deepening suspicions of the salesman across the way. Of course, Grace Kelly's outfits are the real star here, with costume designer Edith Head having a field day. The character of Lisa works in fashion and makes herself a living model, and makes sure she appears in a stunning, impeccable outfit every time she steps into Jeff's apartment. Hitchcock gives Kelly a soft glow in many of his shots of her, relishing the visage of yet another beautiful blonde, but luckily her character is well-written enough to break out of her Barbie doll mold. She's intelligent and outspoken, and truly courageous and quick-thinking in dangerous situations. Jeff sits around the whole movie while she gets all the work done, a real hero!

With wit and impressive attention to detail, Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes delve into the darker sides of human nature, the quiet things that happen when the blinds are closed. Even Jeff, supposedly the good guy, is no moral standard, as he easily gives into his voyeuristic urges and obsesses over something he can't prove, slowly cutting himself off from the "sane" people around him. It's a complex, completely rewarding film. There are a few little things that don't really work (the flashbulb bit at the end stands out as a misfire), but overall Rear Window is a near-perfect thriller.


Pair This Movie: I think another Stewart/Hitchcock pairing would be good, and Vertigo is the one I know best. Haven't seen Rope in a long time but I remember liking that one, plus it's another one-location film.