Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Essential Films: "Rear Window" (1954)

The Essential Films: A Series of Writings on Films that I feel are essential viewings for film lovers, coupled with films that are personal to me.

Spoilers Ahead

Rear Window is probably my favourite film of Alfred Hitchcock's. It takes a concept that sounds like it'd be the most uncinematic of movies, a man stuck in his apartment spying on his neighbours, and makes it in to an ultimate cinematic experience- and like Vertigo, it's a perfect metaphor for the way we watch movies, how movies represent a form of voyeurism that is supposed to make us a feel innocent. By calling attention to movies as voyeurism, Hitchcock shows us that we, as we're sitting down in a movie theatre, are not as innocent as we think we are.

In Vertigo, we, just like Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), become obsessed with the image of Madeline Elster (Kim Novak), and become accomplices in Scottie's makeover of Judy (Novak again) in to his dream image. She represents the  woman we see in a film who we know we can never have but pursue relentlessly, like a lovesick puppy- except that puppy is chasing it's own tail. Not many people can live up that image we have of them on screen. Even Cary Grant once remarked, "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant." Madeline was always an image, something Scottie couldn't grasp until it was too late, after he was already swallowed up by his obsession.

Rear Window is also about a man obsessed with the images of others. In the film, photographer  L.B. "Jeff " Jeffries (Stewart again) is stuck in his apartment after breaking his leg while taking photographs in the middle of a race track. He has nothing to do but look out his window and spy on his neighbours. He soons becomes suspicious of the salesman Lars Thorwold (Raymond Burr) after seeing him make numerous trips out of the apartment one night. He starts to believe Thorwold murdered his invalid wife. Like Jeff, we too become obsessed with the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Thorwold's wife, as well as with the lives of the other neighbours. The film is not only a metaphor for our fascination with the private lives of people in movies but in ourr fascination in the private lives of people in real life as well- even they're bored and sad people. One of the people Jeff sees in a woman he calls "Miss Lonelyhearts"- a woman who pretends to have dinner with a man. As she raises a glass to her imaginary beau, Jeff raises a glass. It's an achingly poignant scene and one that I relate to on a personal level. I also like how it shows Jeff's compassion towards her, that he does care about these people on some level.

Hitchcock's films, even when they had high concept premises such as this, always were able to ground themselves with nice character relationships that give the characters texture and personality. The emotional centre of this film is probably the relationship between Jeff and his high society girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly). I like that the main conflict in their relationship is Jeff feels she's too perfect for him. As a photographer who travels around the world, Jeff needs someone who can live the kind of life that requires you to get dirty, to live out of a suitcase and, according to Jeff, eat food you wouldn't be able to look at when it was alive. When he looks at Lisa, he sees a woman who belongs at fancy restaurants and parties. We see Jeff's point but also see that Lisa does care about Jeff and is intelligent enough to make her own decisions. We also sense a inner strength, which Hitchcock shows us later on when Lisa starts to believe and support Jeff's suspicions about Thorwold. And when Lisa sneaks in to Thorwold's apartment to leave a note, when she comes back, Jeff's face, full of pride, says it all.

James Stewart was, and I think still is, the quintiessential "everyman" actor, someone who, despite being a movie star, you could relate to and feel represented the values of normal people. That was there in the films he did for Frank Capra, Mr Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life. It's a persona that also fit perfectly in to Hitchcock's universe, which would frequently involve normal people caught up in extraoridinary circumstances. By having Stewart play Jeff, we get involved with his obsession and investigation him because we feel we are him on some level. I think that's one of the keys to Hitchcock's greatness- his films exist in a heightened reality but are populated by characters that feel real. I just rewatched The Birds and that film, while being an almost apocalyptic story about birds waging war on humans, is at its heart a character drama about two women, a mother and the woman her son may love, learning to co-exist. I like Thelma Ritter as Jeff's nurse Stella. She feels like the most wise character in the film and acts as a confidente for Jeff in certain scenes. I also like how she, along with Lisa do come to believe Jeff. Even his detective friend Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey) at first sees some validity in Jeff's suspicions. This is a nice change of pace from
the type of movie where absolutely no one would believe Jeff. Again, this helps make the characters feel more realistic. It's not just a movie one smart man (Jeff) and some not so bright people.
It's really impressive how Hitchcock, like Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Synechode New York, essentially creates an entire universe out of one set- a play with multiple little stories going on at once. Mostly everything is seen from Jeff's perspective, which puts us in his mind and allows us to put our own meaning on what we see- much like he does. In typical Hitchcock fashion, while there's plently of talky scenes, it's also a very visual film- and we get sucked in to the visual rhythms of looking with Jeff outside his apartment.

A nice detail of the film is how Jeff and Lisa want Mrs. Thorwold to be dead so their suspicions can be confirmed. It's a dark moment when Lisa tells Jeff they should be happy she's alive (after Doyle says Mrs. Thorwold picked up her bags at the train station). It's also a very human moment, especially since we realize we'd be giddy too if we stumbled upon a potential murder. Hitchcock actually uses the murder of Mrs. Thorwold to provide some signature macabre humour. Funnily enough we find ourselves sympathizing with the dog Thorwold kills because it almost uncovered something he buried.

For me, the most powerful scene is when the woman who owned the dog cries out in the middle of the night    "You don't know the meaning of the word 'neighbors'. Neighbors like each other, speak to each other, care if anybody lives or dies! But none of you do!" This scene highlights a central theme of the film, which is the disconnection in society between people. Until this scene, everyone in the courtyard is disconnected from each other, only to be finally  united by this woman's grief. The theme of disconnection is also highlighted by the fact that a murder happened right under everyone's noses and only Jeff noticed. Looking back on the film, I started to think about the story of Kitty Geneovese, the woman was murderd in the early sixties outside her apartment, while her neighbours were not quite sure what was happening or if they should help.

The final confrontation of the film occurs when Thorwold comes in to Jeff's apartment. While seemingly a straightforwars climax, what's striking about it is it's the first time someone other than a friend has come in to Jeff's apartment. Thorwold has turned the tables on Jeff, not just spying Jeff spying on him but violating Jeff's space as well. We've seen Thorwold from a distance for so long- now we see him up close.

In the final scene, we see things have changed: new dog, new paint job for Thorwold's apartment, Miss Lonelyhearts meets the musician in the courtyard- but at the same time you feel life goes on-it has to. Some people feel the need to change but for Lisa, after proving herself adventurous- and as she switches from a foreign travel book to Bazaar- she shows she's quite comfortable being herself.

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