Thursday, April 06, 2006

Film Review - Rear Window (1954)

Based on the Cornell Woolrich short story ‘It Had to be Murder’ (penned under the name William Irish), director Alfred Hitchcock takes his long-time obsession with sexual voyeurism to an entirely new level. This time it revolves around a man left impotent, so-to-speak, from an accident (shown in the beginning in a photo from a car accident at a race track) which has left his leg broken and confines him to a wheelchair. The man’s sole source of amusement and pleasure during the day (and occasionally in the evening) is intruding on his neighbors’ privacy from the comfort of his apartment window and observing their daily lives. There are three frames in which the brilliant cinematography of the film is shaped. The first comes from the point-of-view of Mr. Hitchcock’s motion-picture camera. The second is from Stewart’s binoculars (only briefly) and his high-powered telephoto lens (meant of course to be sexually suggestive). And the third is straight from the window itself. Nearly every shot in Rear Window, with the exception of a few, are seen entirely from the point-of-view of James Stewart’s character, Jeff. While confined in this solitary apartment building, the audience sees exactly what he sees; nothing more and nothing less. The audience is placed in the same emotional element as Jefferies, whether it is frustration, excitement, or fear. We are craning our necks just as he is to get even the tiniest glimpse of what we assume is taking place inside Thorwald’s apartment – murder.

Yet at the same time we the audience struggle with ourselves. We are all fully aware that human beings are not infallible and therefore are easily susceptible to jumping to conclusion for whatever reasons or motives, whether it stems from prejudice, ignorance, or something else entirely. This makes Lars Thorwald a sympathetic villain in a way. Ironically, Jefferies who jumps to the conclusion that Thorwald is guilty of murdering his own wife without any circumstantial evidence to prove it cautions Detective Doyle “Careful, Tom”, as he glances at the contents of Lisa’s suitcase which contains pink lingerie as if to suggest that she will staying the night at his place. All the same however we are still left with a sense of uneasiness. The scene in which Lars confronts Lisa and physically assaults her in his apartment before the police arrive on the scene is the precise moment which proves his guilt to us. Some may suggest rather that it is the death of the ‘dog who knew too much’ but there was no direct proof he committed this violent crime, though audiences are meant to believe he did.

Alfred Hitchcock brings up through the course of the film the analytical topic of ‘rear window ethics’. Is it right for a man or woman to spy on one’s neighbor even if it turns out that the person is indeed guilt of murder? Jeff’s girlfriend, Lisa, brings up this exact argument just when it seems as though their little investigation into the mysterious disappearance of Mrs. Thorwald has hit a dead-end. Then, moments later, a woman’s scream is heard outside. The little dog which belonged to the couple living on the fire escape is found dead with its neck broken as if strangled. The distraught woman who owned the dog cries out, “Which one of you did it? Which one of you killed my dog? You don't know the meaning of the word 'neighbor.' Neighbors like each other, speak to each other, care if anybody lives or dies, but none of you do”, as if to directly counter Lisa’s argument a few minutes ago.

Nearly as entertaining and enthralling as the murder mystery which ultimately shapes the main course of the picture, the distinctive subplots of the assorted neighbors surrounding L.B. Jefferies’s apartment building stands as one of director Alfred Hitchcock’s finer touches in Rear Window. The set itself is simply breathtaking. An impressive feat of engineering and filmmaking, it was built entirely within the confines of a Paramount studio soundstage with several of the apartments themselves fully furnished. Georgine Darcy, for example, who plays the exquisitely sensual Miss Torso, used her apartment as if it were her real home, relaxing in between takes. Her character of course was the most blatant examples in Rear Window of Hitchcock willfully taunting the Production Code, although there were plenty more besides this one background character. The director nonetheless enjoyed nearly every minute of it. In order to get around the complication of filming a leering depiction of Miss Torso, Hitchcock shot her scenes in three ways – one topless, one with her wearing white undergarments, and the other with her wearing black undergarments. Playing all three versions off the Production Code, he was able to keep intact all the scenes he intended for her by making it appear as though one version was less sexually suggestive then the other two.

In addition to Miss Torso, there is one scene in particular in which Lisa proposes to Jeff that she be allowed to spend the night in his apartment is oozing with double entendres. While proving to him that she can live out a suitcase like he can she retorts, “I'll bet yours isn't this small?” And as she exposes the contents of her little suitcase, “Compact, but, uh, ample enough”, pink lingerie is revealed. The daunting eloquence of Grace Kelly makes this scene all the more erotically charged.

Two subplots which ultimately converge, to quote the insurance nurse Stella, like ‘two taxis on Broadway’ and shift from agonizing heartbreak to emotional euphoria are those of the Composer and Miss Lonelyheart. Miss Lonelyheart’s introduction is truly lamentable with her enacting a scene in which a gentlemen caller pays her a visit, complete with fine wine for toasting, while in the distance Jefferies raises a glass of wine toasting her as Lisa prepares an intimate dinner in the background. This of course is all perfectly ironic, demonstrating Jefferies’s emotional distance from Lisa and his inability to commit to her, choosing instead to immerse himself in his ‘rear window’ world as he has done for the past six weeks. Adding to the paradox, Bing Crosby’s ‘To See You Is To Love You’ plays in the distance as Miss Lonelyheart snaps back to reality, realizes she is alone, and buries her head in her arms and weeps.

The next we see of both the Composer and Miss Lonelyheart, alcohol is heavily involved (the Composer staggers into his apartment drunk and Miss Lonelyheart takes several stiff drinks before leaving her apartment searching for male company). In yet another slight tinge of irony, Lisa starring out the window of the apartment listening to a tune on the wind says, “Where does a man get inspiration to write a song like that?” The Composer is playing the tune called ‘Mona Lisa’ just as Miss Lonelyheart is sexually assaulted by a man who she proceeds to toss out of her apartment and then collapses on her couch weeping. The scene and tune itself can be interpreted two ways – for the Composer it is instantly identified with the famous painting by Leonardo Da Vinci (considered his muse) while for Miss Lonelyheart it is linked with the lyrics of the Nate King Cole song of the same name which references sexual assault.

Her suicide attempt (complete with suicide note, Bible, and an overdose of sleeping pills) at the precise moment Jefferies is calling Thorwald’s apartment to warn Lisa of his impending return make Jefferies next move (should he call the police in order to stop Miss Lonelyheart from killing herself or try and save the woman he supposedly loves by warning her of Lars Thornwald’s return to the apartment) all the more intense. It culminates with Miss Not-So-Lonelyheart paying the Composer a visit whose song he has been composing all this time and what ultimately stopped her from taking her own life.

Of course there is nothing humorous about a cute little dog having its neck broken but if one could find some amusement in this scene then it would have to be Lisa’s line upon realizing that the dog was digging up something in Thornwald’s garden, “Maybe he knew too much”. This of course is a jab at Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Much (Stewart in interviews referred to the little pup as ‘The Dog Who Knew Too Much), a remake of which he was currently working on to start James Stewart.

As Jefferies explains to Stella, his insurance nurse, he’s not ready for marriage and that Lisa, his girlfriend, is too ‘Park Avenue’ for his lifestyle, as he puts it a ‘camera bum who never has more than a week's salary in the bank’, he stares into an apartment where a newlywed couple has just moved. From this moment on until the end of the film, every time Jefferies looks toward their apartment window either the shades are closed or the husband in his underwear sticks his head outside to get a breath of fresh air only to be called back by his sexually unquenchable newlywed wife. The irony of this couple is that when the husband announces to his newlywed wife at the end of the film that he is quitting his job, the honeymoon is officially over, both literally and figuratively, leaving her to exclaim to him, “But if you'd told me you quit your job, we wouldn't have gotten married”. In contrast to the relationship between Jefferies and Lisa, it leaves their future together rather open ended, especially if these two lovebirds are already having marital troubles.

Whether or not Jefferies and Lisa wind up together and the rest of their neighbors find some sort of happiness is entirely irrelevant. Hitchcock believed (or so he said in interviews) that the characters and the story ended when the film ended. What is for certain however is the brilliance of this film. The performances are top-notch (easily the best in Grace Kelly’s sadly short-lived film career and one of the best in James Stewart’s lengthy career as an actor), the script is intricately woven with meaningful subplots and wrought with tension and excitement, and director Alfred Hitchcock is at the top of his game. You couldn’t ask for anything more. Rear Window is without a doubt Alfred Hitchcock’s best motion picture of his career, if not the best of the 1950s.

My Rating: ***** out of 5 (Grade: A+)