Rear Window / Constance Howes
Film Reviews | August 30, 2007 | Comments ()
There is a lot of gooey, effusive praise I could throw at Alfred Hitchcock, but it seems silly to state the obvious. I could repeatedly scrawl Mrs. Constance Hitchcock in cutesy cursive; découpage light switch covers with screenshots from his movies; or have his famed profile inked onto my inner thigh, and it still wouldn’t make an iota of difference: Alfred Hitchcock is the best director there ever was and quite possibly, ever will be. Not only did he direct over 50 flawless features spanning six decades and form one helluva directorial framework for future filmmakers to follow, but his very name is synonymous with obsessively-crafted camera work, manic audience mood manipulation and superlative storytelling. Rear Window , a universally acknowledged classic, is arguably the strongest film in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, since it embodies the nearest and dearest of the maker’s mark.
Rear Window (1954) was shot in a film studio construct of a Greenwich Village apartment complex. Twelve of the 32 fabricated spaces were fully furnished to look inhabited by a believable bunch of New Yorkers. The script sets the stage: The neighborhood is not a prosperous one, but neither is it poor. It is a practical, conventional dwelling place for people living on marginal incomes, luck — or hope and careful planning. Hitchcock hated filming on location; he preferred total control of lighting and weather conditions, which explains why he typically limited himself to small sets. Each of his films exist as unflappable evidence of a meticulous, professional personality. Why, the first few minutes of Rear Window alone prove Hitchcock’s trademark ability to pin-up a plot with a simple array of object clues and careful camera angling — descriptive dialogue need not apply.
So, Rear Window starts. We get a glimpse of a sweating, wheelchair bound man. His leg cast bears the epitaph: Here lie the broken bones of L. B. Jefferies . Hitchcock measures out Jeffries’ life in visual coffee spoons; a shattered flashbulb here, a telling film negative there. The camera pans over a hot-as-hell thermometer reading, a thick stack of magazines bearing the portrait of a beautiful woman, and several action-packed photographs decorating the stifling, shadowed walls of the room. Despite the appeal of Jimmy Stewart in PJs, his character isn’t the only person Hitchcock brought to show and tell. The rear windows of Jeff’s home are flung wide to reveal a colorful cast of courtyard characters. Across the way, other open spaces see Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy), a buxom, blonde dancer prancing panty-clad around her studio; a comically bedraggled couple asleep on their fire escape, presumably to beat the sweltering heat; a passionate piano player (who provides the majority of Rear Window’s realistic and resonant musical score); a bed-ridden shrew nagging her husband; a newlywed couple; and Miss Lonelyheart (Judith Evelyn), a middle-aged spinster.
It is understood that Jeff’s current obsession with his neighbors is an effort to ease broken bone boredom, but his profession — photography — also centers around a kind of voyeurism. Featuring a heavy, telephoto camera lens or “portable keyhole” as Jeffries’ leitmotif, Hitchcock provides a physical frame for the ironic endeavor of watching a film about a person who … watches people.
That’s a secret and private world you’re looking into out there. People do a lot of things in private that they couldn’t explain in public.
No other setting would have been better for Rear Window’s empathetic entertainment than a jam-packed city residence that … generally brought the neighborhood life into a sweltering intimacy. Yet, people born and bred to life within earshot and eye glance of a score of neighbors have learned to preserve their own private worlds by uniformly ignoring each other, except on direct invitation.
Stewart’s character is bored with his sedentary life and longs to be on photo expedition in Kashmir. His insurance company has provided him with sassy caretaker, Stella (Thelma Ritter) to make him sandwiches, and make us laugh, for the duration his recovery. While Jeffries is busy bearing witness from his window, he seems to mostly miss that his own struggles mirror what he’s been watching. After a few nights of window-surfing snippets of his neighbor’s lives, our temporarily handicapped hero becomes convinced that nagged husband, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) has killed his invalid wife and, as Stella reasons, disarticulated her body in the bathtub. That’s the only place he could wash away the blood. Yuck. Jeff fixates on his murder mystery suspicion to sidestep marriage pressure from his socialite-cum-model gal Friday, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly). While it’s understandable that a murder might shake things up, it’s not as obvious why Jeff is so hesitant to lock things down with Lisa. (I mean, Jesus, it’s Grace Kelly! Has he seen her outfits?!)
Jeff: She’s just not the girl for me.
Stella: She’s only perfect.
Jeff: Too perfect. Too beautiful, too talented, too sophisticated, too everything — but what I want.
Stella: (Cautiously) Is what you want something you can discuss?
Jeff: It’s very simple. She belongs in that rarefied atmosphere of Park Avenue, expensive restaurants, and literary cocktail parties.
Stella: People with sense can belong wherever they’re put.
Jeff: Can you see her tramping around the world with a camera bum who never has more than a week’s salary in the bank? (Almost to himself) If only she was ordinary.
The smart, emotional, funny and sexually-charged conversations between Stewart and Kelly are the best of the movie. I suppose you could go and read them but spying on, I mean watching, the couple is a world of interesting. Especially since Jimmy Stewart seems more taken by the various stories playing out within his line of vision than with the hot blonde in his lap — whether she tries her double-damnedest to make out with him or not.
The last 20 minutes of Rear Window are a testament to the pulse-pounding, heart-thudding, mind-racing power of Hitchcockian movie craft. By building a mostly cerebral experience for the audience and confining all action to four comforting walls, a sudden repositioning of characters or breach of the safe environment by an outside element is akin to tossing both Linus and his blanket into a wood chipper. You know, really, super scary. Oddly enough Rear Window was only nominated for four Oscars, though it has not only stood the test of time, but remains a unique cinematic achievement worthy of repeated viewings.
Constance Howes is a book critic for Pajiba and a graphic designer living in Philadelphia. Her hobbies include making out and messing shit up. In short, she’s a firecracker. She blogs over at I Love You in the Face.