Back to the Alfred Hitchcock boxset (hey, I might have seen it all by 2010!), and to one of its absolute gems, an all-time classic that sits currently at #14 on the IMDb’s top 250, and possibly higher still in the minds of many who have seen it.
Rear Window (1954)
To be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to commenting on this movie. What is there really to say about it, apart from ‘It’s good, very good?’ There’s barely a frame of its length that isn’t beautifully weighted. Its suspense is cranked up gently and neatly, generally by performers who are all masters of their craft and at the top of their game. As James Stewart says at one point, ‘It’s perfect.’ But then, you all know that.
I imagine the meeting where this film was pitched, and wonder how Hitch did it. ‘Well, you see, it’s set entirely in a block of flats. The main character is recovering from a leg break, and spends his time observing his neighbours. One day, he sees what he believes to be a murder, and ropes his girlfriend and nurse into finding out if it’s true.’ ‘And then what happens, Mr Hitchcock?’ ‘Er, that’s it, really…’ What nobody could have predicted is that Rear Window would turn out to be Hitch at his finest, using the claustrophobic setting to explore his world in great detail, fleshing out the most minor of characters, and proving that suspense and danger can take place anywhere, even next door.
Through the eyes - and sometimes lens - of Jimmy Stewart’s hero, LB Jefferies, his small apartment block is transformed into a microcosmos of life itself. There’s Miss Lonelyheart, ever searching for a nice guy. The Newlyweds enter a flat and pull down the blinds. Miss Torso entertains a succession of men, but does she actually like any of them? In its extended first act, the camera settles lazily on the block, drifting from window to window and introducing each character in their enclosed, usually non-speaking little enclaves. It also gives us an opportunity to share Jeff’s boredom. Fed up with his injury and exile from the world of war photography, the main character has little to do but stare out of his window. The movie starts with little tension. Jeff’s main concern is whether he should marry Lisa (Grace Kelly), or break things off with her. It’s clear he doesn’t really want to do the latter, yet he’s preoccupied with the wildly different lives they lead.
Soon enough though, something happens to really get him started. Across the tenement, Lars Thorwald’s bed-ridden wife vanishes after Jeff hears a scream in the night. Has she gone away? Or has Thorwald (Raymond Burr) done murder? Jeff begins to suspect the latter, and draws both Lisa and nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) into his amateur sleuthing. It’s at this point the plot begins to kick in nicely, little clues and occurrences being added to the mix to keep everyone guessing. Jeff’s detective friend doesn’t believe him. Neither should we. One evening, as our hero sleeps, a woman leaves Thorwald’s apartment, presumably Mrs Thorwald, and clearly we’re supposed to think that Jeff’s detective work will lead to naught once the truth emerges. But what is the truth? And is Jeff right all along?
Naturally with Hitchcock, the murder device is only part of the reason for watching Rear Window. Featuring a small, neat cast and one location - virtually the entire story takes place from Jeff’s flat - the movie turns into a tight little affair. It’s entirely character driven, and the claustrophobic setting gives us an opportunity to study everyone in Jeff’s world. As we move from apartment to apartment, we get to peer into the lives of a variety of people, most of whom have nothing to do with the main plot and have no interaction with Jeff, but become characters for whom we care. Is it just me, or does everyone’s heart sink when Miss Lonelyheart invites a man into her flat, and what looks like being a promising date becomes a moment of horror and sadness? Miss Lonelyheart is a tangential character, but we see enough of her to be concerned in her seemingly endless search for love.
None of it would work without the leads being note perfect, and fortunately for Rear Window it has James Stewart and Grace Kelly on the books. This is my favourite film starring the Princess, and by some distance also. I think in this one Hitch really captures her almost unearthly beauty better than at any other time. It helps that she makes the ideal entrance, appearing before Jeff ethereally and in silence as she moves in for a kiss. As for Stewart, Vertigo remains my ultimate choice as his best performance for Hitchcock (and where virtually anything else is concerned also), but he’s still fantastic in Rear Window. Always a reliable lead actor, here he’s grumpy, irascible, cheeky, and showing worrying signs of developing a ‘Peeping Tom’ syndrome. He’s also very good fun. The camera is either focused on him, or watches what he watches all the time. He needs to engage us, and he does without, it seems, a flicker of effort.
And as ever with Hitch, the ‘little things’ in Rear Window are what make it truly great. This is the fourth time I’ve watched it, and even now I’m picking up on new elements that perhaps didn’t strike me on a previous viewing, the mark of a genuine classic. One scene in particular stood out. It’s dusk, and Jeff is studying Thorwald’s apartment. He’s using binoculars, and at one point he stops and stares at them, a look of disgust on his face. Aha! we’re supposed to think, he’s suddenly realised how stupid he’s being, the idiocy of surveying another man’s flat. He should just do something else instead. And then of course Jeff picks up his telescopic camera lens intstead because it provides sharper focus…
I was prepared to offer a revisionist view of Rear Window, to perhaps suggest it isn’t as good as it’s cracked up to be. But it is. The film is magnificent, delightful, and much better fun than its slim story surely deserves. The vast majority of you will know all this already, but if you haven’t seen it, you must stop what you’re doing and find a copy immediately. Rear Window is film making at its finest.
Christmas present alert! I handed my forty quid over in HMV the other day for a copy of the Ultimate Hammer Collection, and was then made to wait until Christmas to receive it - boo! Anyway, I can’t wait to sink my teeth into that set of classics, decent efforts, utter tosh and Valerie Leon, and record the results on this here blog. But that’s for 2008, when I might - and should - sort those bloody categories into something that makes sense.