Sunday, November 21, 2010

Rear Window

Year: 1954
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 48
Writer: John Michael Hayes
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Star: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter

Who hasn’t done it? Your neighbor’s windows are right there, and the lights inside their apartments and houses so well illuminate their actions. We obsess about privacy—we want it but want to feel innocent about invading other people’s on a regular basis. Haven’t you ever paused in your actions, whatever they might be, and realized the window is open and the lights are on, then hurried to pull the blinds? “Rear Window” presents us not with a hero or a saint, but with an everyman behaving in a way decent people probably would behave. We watch him as he watches others, and everyone judges everyone.

The everyman is Jeff (James Stewart), trapped in his two-room apartment during a New York heat wave with a broken leg and cast that makes him basically immobile. He’s a man of action, his walls filled with astounding photographs (one, of a crashing racecar, gives us a hint as to how he got the broken leg), and hates having nothing to do all day but watch the neighbors. But that doesn’t stop him. His apartment looks out onto a courtyard and we get to know his neighbors. Most notable are a musician, a woman Jeff names Ms. Torso who gyrates around her kitchen in next-to-nothing and has all-male parties (except for her, of course) and a middle-aged woman, Ms. Lonelyhearts, who lives up to the name Jeff bestows upon her.

Jeff is cared for by his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) during the days and his knock-out of a girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) during the evenings. Stella isn’t afraid to speak her mind and condemn Jeff’s voyeurism, even if she joins in from time to time if something interesting happens. Lisa wants Jeff to marry her, and is having one hell of a time convincing him to settle down. She pampers him, bringing him expensive dinners from Twenty-One and dressing in the most expensive fashions to please him, only to have him pull further away. Their first scene together is a bombshell of barely-concealed anger. We find out that Lisa has graced the cover of a magazine and Jeff took that picture, but instead of framing the finished image Jeff has frames the negative, which says everything about the relationship. He fell in love with the idea of her, not the finished product. Stewart was graying by this point in his career, and though the age difference between him and Kelly is not commented on in the film, one has to wonder if Jeff’s character sees his handicap now as a sign of things to come in the future, and doesn’t want to hinder Lisa twenty years in the future, when she’s still beautiful and he will be prone to hip-breaking.

Jeff takes interest in another neighboring apartment, this one inhabited by a bickering couple that seems to have an odd parallel to his relationship with Lisa. This time the woman is laid up with an unnamed sickness and the man (Raymond Burr) must care for her. Their apartment is the most boring one in the courtyard, with small windows and few decorations inside, just like the man must view his life. Then, one day, the woman is gone and the man is wrapping saws in newspaper. Uh oh.

Jeff takes this and several other small clues, puts them together and comes to the conclusion that the man murdered his wife. Both Lisa and Stella dismiss this at first. Jeff tells Lisa his suspicions while they kiss one evening in a scene reminiscent of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in “Notorious” and she just wants to get back to necking. Stella is more blunt, saying “What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.” What do the neighbors think of Jeff, who they must see watching them? What do they think of his knock-out girlfriend, who only comes over at night (with an overnight case to boot!) and never seems to sweat despite the heat?

Strange things begin going on in the courtyard, like the death of a cute dog, and Jeff’s suspicions seem confirmed even if there are witnesses who allegedly saw the possibly dead wife climbing onboard a train. We learn the man’s name is Thorwald, and any man with that name must be guilty of something. Since he is incapable of doing anything himself, Lisa and Stella take the investigation mobile. The best, most suspenseful sequence in the film happens when Lisa and Stella unearth a small patch of earth they think a stray finger might be buried in and, when they find nothing, Lisa climbs up a fire escape and through an open window in Thorwald’s apartment. There is a harrowing moment where she is about to be arrested then turns toward Jeff (watching helplessly from his apartment) and begins to point toward a wedding ring on her finger—Mrs. Thorwald’s ring! Our hearts leap…until Thorwald sees this and looks out into the courtyard, making eye contact with Jeff. I still get shivers every time I see that moment, and it’s one of the best pay-offs to a sustained suspense sequence ever.

For my money, “Rear Window” is the best-written thriller ever made. Of course, since this is a Hitchcock movie he gets most of the credit for the film’s success, but special attention should be paid to John Michael Hayes’ screenplay. The characters are very, very smart about how they approach the situation and use a mix of logic and women’s intuition (which are often the same thing) to deduce more than your average Joe ever could. More than that, the dialogue Hayes uses to bring the characters to life is witty and wonderful, something you never see in thrillers today. Lisa, who could have easily been the token two-dimensional heroine is given some crackerjack lines (my favorite being “Preview of coming attractions.” Anyone who has seen the film knows exactly what I’m talking about). Ritter is given one of the best black-humor moments ever at the conclusion, where she tells a police officer “She doesn’t want any part of it.” It being the hunt for Mrs. Thorwald’s missing bits and pieces. The lines seem ordinary to readers unfamiliar with the story, but Hayes has a gift of finding the perfect straightforward dialogue to bring out the best of the story.

Then, of course, there’s Hitchcock’s direction. He manages to make Jeff’s apartment seem cramped and small yet still finds endless new ways to shoot it, and until the finale every shot (except for two during the death of the dog sequence that are done for extra impact) is from the vantage point of the apartment. It’s beautiful and adds significantly to the suspense when the time comes for it.

“Rear Window” is my favorite Hitchcock film, and considering the competition that is a huge compliment. Stewart so convincingly plays a normal guy caught up in a extraordinary situation where he cannot do more than watch and conjecture, Kelly is his perfect Girl Friday and Ritter is magnificent as the third member of the investigation team.

As I write this my eyes are drifting out my own windows, looking across the street into the windows of my neighboring building. Perhaps I should pull the blinds. Perhaps.

My Score (out of 5): *****

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