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.




Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

I hate natural causes!

Body Bags (1993) (SPOILERS) I’m not surprised Showtime didn’t pick this up for an anthology series. Perhaps, if John Carpenter had made Coming Home in a Body Bag (the popular Nam movie series referenced in the same year’s True Romance ), we’d have something to talk about. Tho’ probably not, if Carpenter had retained his by this point firmly glued to his side DP Gary Kibbe, ensuring the proceedings are as flat, lifeless and unatmospheric as possible. Carpenter directed two of the segments here, Tobe Hooper the other one. It may sound absurd, given the quality of Hooper’s career, but by this point, even he was calling the shots better than Carpenter.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

Hey, my friend smells amazing!

Luca (2021) (SPOILERS) Pixar’s first gay movie ? Not according to director Enrico Cassarosa (“ This was really never in our plans. This was really about their friendship in that kind of pre-puberty world ”). Perhaps it should have been, as that might have been an excuse – any excuse is worth a shot at this point – for Luca being so insipid and bereft of spark. You know, the way Soul could at least claim it was about something deep and meaningful as a defence for being entirely lacking as a distinctive and creatively engaging story in its own right.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

Why don't we go on a picnic, up the hill?

Invaders from Mars (1986) (SPOILERS) One can wax thematical over the number of remakes of ’50s movies in the ’80s – and ’50s SF movies in particular – and of how they represent ever-present Cold War and nuclear threats, and steadily increasing social and familial paranoias and disintegrating values. Really, though, it’s mostly down to the nostalgia of filmmakers for whom such pictures were formative influences (and studios hoping to make an easy buck on a library property). Tobe Hooper’s version of nostalgia, however, is not so readily discernible as a John Carpenter or a David Cronenberg (not that Cronenberg could foment such vibes, any more than a trip to the dental hygienist). Because his directorial qualities are not so readily discernible. Tobe Hooper movies tend to be a bit shit. Which makes it unsurprising that Invaders from Mars is a bit shit.

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.