Friday, December 17, 2010

REAR WINDOW: Neighborhood Watching

Lisa's goodnight kisses keep red-blooded Jeff wide-awake!
L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) is a man on the go, a globe-trotting photographer who’s no stranger to danger. But when he breaks his leg in a speedway accident, Jeff finds there’s no place like home — for sweltering in non-air-conditioned discomfort, and discovering what just might be a murder taking place across the way in his Greenwich Village apartment complex. Who’s responsible for the sinister events over at 125 West 9th Street? Alfred Hitchcock, who else?  One of Hitchcock's most beloved and brilliant films, Rear Window (RW) brims with The Master of Suspense’s trademark wit, suspense, and romance kissed by tension, thanks to John Michael Hayes’s witty, suspenseful script. It’s also a brilliant technical achievement, one of Hitchcock’s best crafted, cleverly staged movies. In fact, even though RW is based on the great Cornell Woolrich’s 1942 story It Had To Be Murder, I can’t imagine this tale being told as effectively in any medium but film. Little details mean a lot here, like DP Robert Burks’s sinuous camerawork, and the popular tunes woven into Franz Waxman’s score, heard wafting from other apartments in the courtyard.

Upside to wheelchair: Lisa gets to sit on Jeff's lap!
According to the IMDb, RW’s utterly convincing Greenwich Village set was the biggest indoor set built at Paramount Studios at that time. The set was so humungous, Hitchcock’s crew had to excavate the soundstage floor. Ironically, this meant Jeff’s second-floor apartment was actually at street level! One thousand arc lights were used to simulate sunlight. Thanks to extensive pre-lighting of the set, the crew could make the changeover from day to night in less than 45 minutes. It was said that Hitchcock felt like he had his own giant doll house to play with.

Right neighborly of Mr. Hitchcock to drop by so late to fix Mr. Seville's metronome!
However, RW’s technical achievements (explained entertainingly in the DVD's documentaries) would be nothing without its engaging characters. Hitchcock’s gift for visual storytelling is on display from the start with Jeff’s photos telling his life story — literally, with the Life-like magazine cover (also seen in photo negatives; a touch of symbolism, no?) of the fashion spread where Jeff presumably met his soignee fashionista sweetheart Lisa Fremont. As Lisa, the luminous Grace Kelly in her gorgeous Edith Head fashions proved again why she became one of Hitchcock’s favorite leading ladies. Lisa gets one of cinema’s most sensual introductions, kissing the sleeping Jeff awake in glorious slow-motion. Of course, this being a Hitchcock thriller, we see a somewhat sinister shadow before the kiss. That Hitch—such a tease! Thelma Ritter steals her scenes as Stella, Jeff’s cynical yet lovable insurance company nurse, and Wendell Corey makes a fine foil as Tom Doyle, Jeff’s skeptical police detective pal.

Jeff, are you peeking at Lars' law exam test answers again?
Jeff’s neighbors are interesting enough to warrant their own movies, and I don’t just mean the secretive murder suspect Lars Thorwald, played with a fine blend of menace and pathos by Raymond Burr just before Perry Mason made him a TV star. Reportedly, Hitchcock deliberately made Burr look like David O. Selznick as a tiny tweak of revenge for the agita Selznick gave Hitchcock when they worked together in the 1940s on Rebecca, Spellbound, and The Paradine Case. In addition to providing a wry microcosm of New York City life (the only dated thing about it is the lack of air conditioning), they all reflect possible outcomes for the tug-of-war romance between Jeff and Lisa. There’s a hot young honeymoon couple (Rand Harper and Havis Davenport); Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy), a ballet dancer with a seemingly active love life; Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn), a lovelorn Woman of a Certain Age with a drinking problem; a couple (Sara Berner, and Frank Cady of TV’s Green Acres and Petticoat Junction) who dote on their little dog and sleep on their fire escape to beat the summer heat; hard-of-hearing sculptress Miss Hearing Aid (Jesslyn Fax); and our favorite, the frustrated composer played by Ross Bagdasarian, a.k.a. David Seville of Alvin & The Chipmunks fame. The tunesmith gets a visitor: Hitchcock in a cameo about 26 minutes in, fixing the composer’s clock!

Lisa, you vixen, you'll use any excuse for a slumber party!

Sorry, couldn't resist adding this! Besides, I liked Disturbia, so there!
It's a paranoid day in the neighborhood, a paranoid day for a neighbor; won't you be mine?
As Brent Spiner said while hosting a showing of RW on TNT several years ago, the real perversion of the film is Stewart's reluctance to commit to the irresistible Kelly! I was rooting so hard for Jeff and Lisa to stop being so damn stubborn, I felt like smacking them (but only because I cared about them). In fact, one of the things I like about the movie is the way it shows these two very different people gradually learning to compromise and work together. I love how Lisa and Jeff are all smiles and exhilaration after Lisa’s initial triumph of slipping in and out of Thorwald’s apartment. Everyone seems to have a different opinion about the piquant final shot. (Spoiler Alert!) To me, it shows that a woman can have a happy relationship with a man without abandoning her own interests or submerging her own personality; refreshing for the 1950s!


  1. I remember when REAR WINDOW, considered lost for some time, was restored and put back in circulation. When I saw the gorgeously restored, remastered version at NYC's Film Forum, the print was so crystal-clear that when I looked closely, I swear I could actually see the fine blonde hairs on Grace Kelly's bare arms in her summer dresses!

  2. Well, what can one say after all that? I'm glad to see that you did make mention of the excellent set design for the movie. Along with William Cameron Menzies, Hitchcock knew how to turn a setting into a character in its own right, and Rear Window allowed him to use this talent without reservation. I would still love to have that apartment which James Stewart's character lived in, even if it meant having to put up with the occasional murder taking place across the courtyard.

  3. Thanks for your positive feedback, Michael; I'm glad you enjoyed the blog post! Considering what people are willing to put up with in order to live in NYC, I suspect today's apartment hunters would be ballsy enough to try to tough it out if it meant getting prime real estate. (Just ask Zach Zimmerman! :-))

  4. Well yeah. At least Alafair can cook. Lisa Fremont had to cater from the restaurant (sudden mental image of Alafair going "In your FACE, Fremont! HAH!" to Grace Kelly).

  5. *Bwah-hah-hah!* Your wit and flattery are tempting me to run Chapter One of SUBURBAN OUTLAWS to whet readers' appetites. Just one taste, though; call me mercenary (or just poor), but I'm hoping people will actually spend money on my novels if/when they're published! :-) (Don't worry, my friend, you'll always be on my freebie list! :-))

  6. Glad you pointed out Burke's camerawork and Franz Waxman's music as two important components in the success of this film. I didn't know about the David O makeup job on old Lars but now that you mention it I can see it plain as day (Good old Hitch!). Okay I am hitting myself in the head! I knew Ross Bagdasarian was David Seville of Alvin fame and was going to include that in my review but totally forgot!

    thanks for the link! I love this film Enjoyed!


  7. John, thanks for your praise and for joining the REAR WINDOW conversation! Don't hit yourself in the head too hard -- your own RW review was stellar!

    Hey, folks, if by some twist of fate there's anyone here who hasn't yet read our own John Greco's top-notch REAR WINDOW review, by all means hotfoot it over to his blog TWENTY-FOUR FRAMES and enjoy it! Here's the link: