Friday, June 9, 2017

Hitchcock’s 'Rear Window' Still Thrills

Rear Window remains one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best Technicolor blockbusters. The suspense classic combines the thrills of The Man Who Knew Too Much and North by Northwest with the twisted undercurrents of Vertigo.

A huge hit in '54, much imitated, never equaled. 
The much-imitated 1954 movie begins with risk-taking news photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries, sidelined with a broken leg. During a hot New York City summer, the bored patient has taken to spying on his Greenwich Village neighbors for entertainment. Wheelchair-bound, Jeff follows their lives like a favorite reality TV show: “Miss Torso” is a dancer always in motion and various stages of undress; “Miss Lonelyhearts” is desperately seeking romance; the newlyweds keep house mostly in the bedroom; the aspiring songwriter is looking for a hit; and there are several other neighbor archetypes, whose behavior figures into the storyline. One neighbor piques peeper Jeff’s interest in particular: Lars Thorwald, a brooding jewelry salesman with a nagging invalid wife. Late one rainy night, Jeff hears a scream. Later, he notices Thorwald leaving his apartment several times, into the wee hours. This lifts Jeff out of his lethargy. The next day, the lensman notices that the salesman’s Mrs. seems to be missing.
A chain of events leads Jeff to assume the worst. He even calls upon detective pal, Tom Doyle. When nothing incriminating is found, Jeff’s suspicions are still aroused and he decides to flush Thorwald out. Soon enough, the neighbor is on to Jeff, as well.

Good guy Jimmy Stewart shows a dark side as the voyeur in 'Rear Window.'
Director Hitchcock found in James Stewart the perfect common man, the ideal stand-in for audiences. Stewart, open, relaxed, is the perfect film actor—a great reactor. Even at his best, James Stewart may always seem to be playing “Jimmy Stewart,” the homespun hero, but Hitch also gave the folksy actor some darker traits. In Vertigo, Stewart is obsessed with Kim Novak; in The Man Who Knew Too Much, Stewart is a controlling doctor, whose life spins out of control. And in Rear Window, Stewart’s character is a voyeur. While scolding Jeff, his nurse declares that people are becoming “a nation of Peeping Toms.” Jimmy’s inherent decency gives his character empathy, and makes his questionable actions palatable.
Jeff likes to people-watch a little too much for his own good—and yet also has a problem with paying proper attention to his girlfriend. According to nitpicky Jeff, Lisa Fremont, played by Grace Kelly, is too perfect. Stewart’s character seems irritated at having a gorgeous girlfriend twenty something years his junior, who tries to seduce him with sexy negligees and gourmet takeout food. Sounds like male menopause movie star problems to me!

Grace Kelly has one of the most perfect movie entrances ever in 'Rear Window.' Helps when you look like this!
Grace Kelly is great fun here, not to mention subtly sexy and blindingly beautiful. Kelly is self-assured, intelligent, and romantic—plus, Grace gets a chance to react to Stewart’s criticism of her already princess-like persona. Unlike Hitchcock’s painstaking efforts regarding Tippi Hedren’s acting, Hitch merely got Grace to tone down her acting school mannerisms and just act natural. Pat Hitchcock, the director’s daughter, said all Hitch had to do was say a few words to Kelly, and she knew just what to do. How about a shout-out for Kelly’s introductory scene? Leaning in to kiss her awakened photographer prince, Grace in a huge slow-motion close-up—is movie magic.

Thelma Ritter as Stella, a nurse who dispenses medical and marital advice!
The great supporting cast is led by the inimitable Thelma Ritter as Stella, the nurse who alternately tends to Jeff’s leg while tossing off pragmatic romantic advice. Ritter is wisecracking yet warm, as always. Ritter and Kelly are especially endearing together when they do the legwork for Jimmy’s wheelchair detective, which provides some of the more hair-raising moments. It’s always a jolt to see Raymond Burr, usually on the right side of the law in Perry Mason and Ironside, as the villain. Burr, with his glowering eyes, is a most unnerving neighbor to have. And Wendell Corey, who practically invented the word laconic, is the deadpan detective who’s skeptical of Stewart’s character.

Hitchcock truly took advantage of the slowly eroding censorship code. I was amazed at what slipped by, but Hitch cannily put in salacious content that he knew wouldn’t get by the code, while the scenes and dialogue he really wanted to keep slipped by. All the voyeuristic titillating bits were filmed from Jeff’s point of view at a discreet distance. Hence, Miss Torso is undressing with her back to the camera, Miss Lonelyhearts fights off lotharios, and The Honeymooners are mostly seen between sexual rounds in the sack. 

Raymond Burr, usually on the right side of the law, is the very scary neighbor.
This film has the trademark Hitchcock thrills but effectively mixed with his take on humanity. The scenarios played out in the other apartments are a slice of life, but shaken when one of their neighbors displays aberrant behavior. For a stylized filmmaker, Alfred Hitchcock had a realistic view on life: the good and the bad intermingle together, and there are no safe havens.
Rear Window is unique because, unlike most thrillers of the era, it doesn’t rely on a scary musical score. The soundtrack is spare, mostly jazzy, but is filled with incidental sounds of city life and from the neighbors’ homes. Music occasionally wafts from the various apartments. Also pleasing is that Paramount films from the ‘50s have lush crisp color, unlike MGM’s grainy MetroColor or WB’s unflattering hues, or Fox’s gaudy color, for example.

The elaborate apartment complex set for 'Rear Window.' The lighting had timers, to depict different times of the day.
Paramount gave Hitch free reign for Rear Window, and the “apartment complex” was one of the biggest sets ever constructed…and deepest. To allow for the proper amount of apartment “floors,” the Paramount construction crew cut out the floor soundstage and turned the basement into the courtyard.

Hitch was at the height of his powers and sensationally in sync with studio style filmmaking during its last hurrah. The sets were stylized but in keeping with the era; the sexy elements of the story were highly charged, but implied, not explicit.
What’s amazing about Rear Window is that the storytelling is so engaging, while ratcheting up the suspense, you don’t realize until it’s over that the whole story took place in the apartment complex. And that’s a perfect example of why Alfred Hitchcock was called The Master of Suspense.
Grace Kelly, picture perfect in one of Hollywood's most perfect romantic suspense films.