Skip to main content

He’d better get that trunk out of there, before it starts to leak.

Rear Window
(1954)

(SPOILERS) The consummate Hitchcock movie, and the one that probably best distils and displays his ongoing obsessions, certainly in terms of crowd-pleasing spectacle. Rear Window is rightly rarely far from the two or three most highly regarded of the director’s films, and it remains as quick, witty and peerlessly staged as ever.

You could claim the same of any of Hitch’s best-known movies, but there really is little left to say about Rear Window. It ties together his voyeuristic fascinations with a casually dour appreciation of romantic love. It’s also more risqué than I remembered. In a very 50s way, obviously, but still: there are no bones about Grace Kelly’s Lisa Carol Fremont staying the night with invalided (thanks to a broken leg) LB “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart). She comes complete with luxury nightie. Even on the matrimonially acceptable side, a newlywed husband (Rand Harper) is forever escaping to the window for a quick cigarette before his insatiable wife (Havis Davenport) calls him back in to give her another good seeing to. And there’s the anecdote about Dr Crippen and his secretary, getting very intimate with her dressed in a sailor uniform.

For much of Rear Window, the pace is quite sedate, safe in the knowledge that the material has an irresistible hook. Namely, the “did he? didn’t he?” murder and dismemberment of his wife by Raymond Burr’s shockingly white-haired Lars Thorwald. And like any first-rate movie of such ilk, repeat visits fail to diminish it at all. In part, because there’s so much else going on besides, and so the pleasure becomes less the destination than getting there (the picture has, of course, been much imitated, including in rip-off Disturbia and the raucously funny – even with comedy-heyday Guantanamo Hanks – The ‘Burbs).

Rear Window was adapted by John Michael Hayes – the first of a run of four mid-50s collaborations with Hitch – from Cornell Woolrich’s short story It Had to Be Murder. Hayes added all the incidental pleasures to the bare bones, everything that makes the picture so rich: the romance with Kelly; the vignettes and diversions of the peeped upon neighbours; Thelma Ritter’s deliriously straight-shooting nurse Stella.

Hitch rightly saw the visual storytelling potential and took full advantage of an elaborate set to create a Greenwich Village apartment block during a particularly sultry heatwave. The “possibility of doing a purely cinematic film” appealed, with the action taking place entirely from Stewart’s point of view; the protagonist is laid up with a broken leg. But while the picture is purely cinematic from that perspective, so much focus is on the exquisitely delivered relationships and exchanges that Rear Window could quite feasibly work as a radio play (notably, Hayes was a radio writer).

All those observed by Stewart are sketched out just enough that we find their activities as absorbing as he does, from Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn), whose suicide attempt is stalled by an inspiring piece of music, to the extremely supple Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy). Stella suggests “She’ll end up fat, alcoholic and miserable” but in one of the picture’s few genuinely cheesy moments we see her boyfriend arrive home on furlough, a near dwarf. Then there’s the couple – Sara Berner and Frank Cady – doting on their dog, the killing of which forms the picture’s emotional centrepiece. Berner harangues the act’s lack of neighbourliness (bringing everyone to their windows, except for Burr, who sits in the darkness, only his burning cigarette announcing he is even there).

Stewart’s associates are great value too, particularly in the way he gradually drags them into his obsession. He calls cop Doyle (Wendell Corey), and it’s a fine scene, even covering objections to the conceit (“It’s too obvious and stupid a way to commit murder”). When Jeff gets Doyle to show up a second time, the conversation fascinatingly becomes more about Jeff and Lisa than the detective (“Careful, Tom” he keeps saying to Doyle, as the latter pushes the innuendo).

Ritter, I’ve mentioned, and she’s a delight, at once expressing disgust and possessed of the most lurid imagination of all of them. Before protesting “I don’t want any part of it” when she is finally offered the chance to see what was buried in the garden. She also, ensuring Hitch is careful to cover his moral bases, provides the precautionary rebuke to Stewart “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside the house and look in for a change”.

Indeed, in answer to the affability Stewart brings to the part, Hitch insisted unapologetically of Jeff that “He’s a real Peeping Tom… What’s so horrible about that? Sure, he’s a snooper, but aren’t we all?” Although, as Truffaut noted, Jeff doesn’t answer when Thorwald confronts him with “What do you want of me?” Because his actions are unjustified: “That’s right, and he deserves what’s happening to him!” commented Hitch. Chris Peachment asserted in his Time Out review “this is the one that most reveals the man” and that “Quite aside from the violation of intimacy, which is shocking enough, Hitchcock has nowhere else come so close to pure misanthropy… No wonder the sensual puritan in him punishes Stewart by breaking his other leg”.

That’s true to an extent, but this is also an incredibly human film, with a real depth of feeling. Truffaut notes that he changed his initial view that Rear Window was “very gloomy, rather pessimistic and quite evil” to one where the sights seen by Stewart are “simply a display of human weakness and people in the pursuit of happiness”. Which is rather the way I see it.

More than the murder itself, I was most engrossed in the relationship between Stewart and Kelly on this viewing, though. Truffaut again (he’s mostly on the ball in his take on this one, as it was one of his favourites, with Notorious): “… the stories have a common denominator in that they involve some aspect of love. James Stewart’s problem is that he doesn’t want to marry Grace Kelly. Everything he sees across the way has a bearing on love and marriage”. It has also been suggested that one of Hitch’s obsessions was the “terrible incompatibility of male and female positions”. Which is writ large in Rear Window, but in a hugely amiable way (it has also been suggested Hitch was determinedly unconvinced by the concept of romantic love).

And Stewart is a real stinker to Kelly (“Lisa, it’s perfect. As always” he say resignedly of the feast she has laid on for him). At the same time, Lisa wants to mould Jeff into an acceptable form of photographer, one amenable to her lifestyle; his protestations give way to a thrill when she embarks on his obsession (“Tell me everything you saw, and what you think it means”), particularly in the close up when she returns from delivering the note to Thorwald. And then we see starkly that he has pushed his strange fascination too far (“Stella, what do we do?” Jeff asks impotently – one might make a case the whole picture is about impotency, and that this is the crux of his resistance to wedding Lisa – as she is caught by Burr in his apartment. Managing to steal as it turns out a wedding ring, a prize she’s had zero luck procuring from Jeff).

Stewart brings that patented effortless charm to the main protagonist, but Kelly is equally effective, and the twenty-year age gap between them never feels inappropriate the way these things often can. Rather like Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg in The Avengers, it’s sustained because Kelly is so innately mature and self-possessed. Curtis Hanson referred to her here as “one of the most incredibly idealised women in movie history”. It’s hard to disagree with that when we see someone who devotedly brings Jeff food (a Hitch hankering) and who is, by the last shot, apparently resigned to his lifestyle, such that she is reading a travel book… Until Jeff is asleep, at which point Lisa pulls out a fashion mag.

Others in Hitch’s top tier offer individual riches, from North by Northwest’s effortlessly breezy adventurism to Psycho’s shock value, but it’s Rear Window that feels like the true all-rounder, delivering an irresistible mixture of popcorn and substance. It’s one worth taking a peek at whenever possible.




Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

So, you’re telling me that NASA is going to kill the President of the United States with an earthquake?

Conspiracy Theory (1997) (SPOILERS) Mel Gibson’s official rehabilitation occurred with the announcement of 2016’s Oscar nominations, when Hacksaw Ridge garnered six nods, including Mel as director. Obviously, many refuse to be persuaded that there’s any legitimate atonement for the things someone says. They probably weren’t even convinced by Mel’s appearance in Daddy’s Home 2 , an act of abject obeisance if ever there was one. In other circles, though, Gibbo, or Mad Mel, is venerated as a saviour unsullied by the depraved Hollywood machine, one of the brave few who would not allow them to take his freedom. Or at least, his values. Of course, that’s frequently based on alleged comments he made, ones it’s highly likely he didn’t. But doesn’t that rather appeal to the premise of his 23-year-old star vehicle Conspiracy Theory , in which “ A good conspiracy theory is an unproveable one ”?

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

He doesn’t want to lead you. He just wants you to follow.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) (SPOILERS) The general failing of the prequel concept is a fairly self-evident one; it’s spurred by the desire to cash in, rather than to tell a story. This is why so few prequels, in any form, are worth the viewer/reader/listener’s time, in and of themselves. At best, they tend to be something of a well-rehearsed fait accompli. In the movie medium, even when there is material that withstands closer inspection (the Star Wars prequels; The Hobbit , if you like), the execution ends up botched. With Fantastic Beasts , there was never a whiff of such lofty purpose, and each subsequent sequel to the first prequel has succeeded only in drawing attention to its prosaic function: keeping franchise flag flying, even at half-mast. Hence Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore , belatedly arriving after twice the envisaged gap between instalments and course-correcting none of the problems present in The Crimes of Grindelwald .

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.