Monday, April 14, 2014

On the Big Screen: REAR WINDOW (1954)

The old tricks still work. Sixty years after its original release, Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window is playing this week at my town's repertory house, the Madison Theater. I've seen it many times on TV but wanted to see that amazing multi-story set on a big screen at long last. You might assume that everyone's seen this picture by now, but there are fresh gasps and shouts as Raymond Burr lumbers back to his apartment door while Grace Kelly rifles through his bedroom for evidence of murder, her warning system across the yard having failed as Jimmy Stewart and Thelma Ritter were distracted by the imminent suicide attempt of "Miss Lonelyhearts" a floor below. Hitchcock's ability to manipulate an audience is undiminished by time, it seems. But while Rear Window works as a pop thriller it's also an art film in many ways and an astute commentary on spectatorship, if not on voyeurism as many say.

Adapting a story by noir author Cornell Woolrich, Hitchcock casts Stewart as a news photographer laid up with a broken leg. Casts! Broken Leg! Get it?  Sorry, couldn't help myself there. Anyway, despite plenty of TLC from an insurance-company nurse (Ritter) and his high-society girlfriend (Kelly), our hero's going stir-crazy and that's hurting his romance. He obsesses over the activities in the building across the courtyard, from the miseries of "Miss Lonelyhearts" to the daily dance practice of "Miss Torso." Somewhere in between live a salesman (Burr) and his invalid wife, who disappears one morning after a rainy night spent by her husband taking repeated trips outside with his sample case. Stewart deduces murder and wins an initially skeptical Kelly to his theory. He has a harder time convincing his old war buddy, now a police detective (Wendell Corey) that something is rotten across the way. A now gung-ho Kelly invades Burr's space as described, and while she escapes the big man's wrath the salesman now knows he's being watched, and by whom.

Until that moment Lars Thorwald has been an abstraction, as much a construct of Stewart's bloody imagination as a real man and, indeed, a real murderer. Raymond Burr certainly would have gone down in history as one of cinema's greatest villain specialists had he not been lured to TV heroics soon after this picture. Here, however, Burr gives probably his most naturalist performance. Audiences were already familiar enough with Burr to identify him as a menace, and Hitchcock adds a level of strangeness by dyeing the actor's hair gray and putting glasses on him. Otherwise, denied audible dialogue until the final act, Thorwald is more object than character. Hitchcock has it both ways with, filming Burr's movements through the apartment and on the street (as seen only through an alley in an Ozu-like bit of framing) in documentary style with the actor doing nothing like conventional emoting, but also reducing him at times to no more than a red dot -- the light of his cigarette -- in the black rectangle of his unlit room framed by his window. When Burr finally makes eye contact with Stewart, who watches the scene with Kelly and the police through a telephoto lens, and with the audience, it's like a fourth wall breaking, or the abyss looking back at you. It's almost like Sadako coming out of the TV set in Ring when Burr crosses the yard to confront Stewart at the climax, the observed turning on the observer in a way that shouldn't be. Yet Burr really shines as he conveys that Thorwald is as much confused and even scared himself -- Stewart had earlier sent him a message hinting at blackmail to come -- as he is the aggressor in the scene. There's an almost rightfulness if not righteousness to his indignation at Stewart's violation of his privacy and presumed exploitation of his weaknesses.

The identification of Rear Window with voyeurism is only indirectly valid.  While Stewart is probably turned on by the daily sight of Miss Torso and salaciously amused by a young couple initiating their new home, the really erotic element of the story is the way Stewart and Kelly strengthen their bond by jointly constructing a story of spouse murder that just happens to be true. While Grace Kelly is an arousing sight normally, her own arousal is channeled into daredevil detective exploits like her invasion of Burr's locked apartment by climbing in through his second-floor window. She's acting less as an extension of Stewart than to reconnect with him -- make what you will of Ritter's nearly-equal enthusiasm for solving the mystery. Kelly's hostility toward Corey's professional skepticism is also on some level the girlfriend's jealousy of her boyfriend's buddies. Strangely, the film ends by suggesting that victory for Kelly means Stewart becoming more crippled -- he breaks the other leg when Burr dumps him out the window. I suppose you have to read something into how violent and damaging the hero's belated departure from his cocoon is, but I hadn't really thought about that aspect of the picture before I started writing this review. Speculate away if you haven't already.

Is it weird if I think that the Rear Window set looks like a Norman Rockwell cover come to life? Well, it does -- check out his Saturday Evening Post work from the period and slightly before to get what I mean and how the set design and Robert Burks's cinematography reflect it. Yet at the same time it's an abstract grid that carries out its illusion of reality by denying the audience details it usually gets from movies. Stewart can see Burr in his apartment only when Thowald passes by open windows, and from his distance he can't hear normal spoken dialogue. Stewart is surrounded by music from the other apartments but the Thorwald apartment is a silent movie. Likewise, when Kelly and Ritter go on their errands in the courtyard and street, they can only communicate with Stewart by pantomime. I think of all this as spectatorship rather than voyeurism because there's no sense of omniscience except what Stewart fills in with his imagination. The audience, of course, is doing the same thing. Most of them won't think much about the deeper issues raised by the film, but Rear Window's special virtue is its ability to satisfy viewers on several different intellectual or psychological levels -- like floors of an apartment building, maybe. Psycho probably remains Hitchcock's most beloved film, and Vertigo has recently been crowned the greatest film of all time, at least for the next ten years, but Rear Window is my favorite Hitchcock, and in my opinion his best.


Sam Juliano said...

Well, I am thrilled to hear the Hitchcocks made there way up to you as you speculated they might, Samuel. And superb point there methinks that the film can only 'partially' be identified with voyeurism. As you may recall the voters at WitD named this the greatest film of the 1950's back when that poll was conducted, and ironically enough it narrowly edged out VERTIGO, which gave Hitch the top two spots in a decade dominated by some of the treasures of foreign-language cinema. For me (and these feelings were enhanced by the recent Film Forum screening) it comes very close to VERTIGO as does PSYCHO and NOTORIOUS and one or two others. REAR WINDOW is master class entertainment that holds up as well as any film on re-viewings. For all its lurid implications the aspect that bothers me the most as a lifelong animal lover is the death by strangling off screen of that poor little dog who so adorably was elevated in the cart from the high level to the ground.

The comparison of the set with a Norman Rockwell canvas is a brilliant proposition for sure. Great review, and nice to read this kind of effusive praise for a bonafide screen masterpiece. To identify a favorite scene in this film would be foolhardy as the entire running time is riveting. The flashing lights when Burr confronts Stewart in that cliff hanging climax though is especially unforgettable. Fabulous performances by all involved.

Samuel Wilson said...

Sam, the Madison has four Hitchcocks this week but I probably won't see the others due to my schedule. There's one show per night for Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, North by Northwest and The Birds. Depending on the weather (winter has an encore tonight and tomorrow) I may try to shoot out for one more. I wasn't following Wonders in the Dark during the Fifties poll but I'd agree with the consensus that there's more going on in RW than in Vertigo, though that's my second-favorite Hitchcock.