8/26/09

Hitch on the Hump: Rear Window (1954)

Benjamin Franklin once said “Love your neighbor-- but don’t pull down your hedge.” Tonight’s selection for Hitch on the Hump examines what happens to a man who could have used a hedge or two in his life. James Stewart is L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies, the famous globe trotting, risk taking photographer, who's been sidelined by a broken leg, Left in a two room apartment, he watches his neighbors out his courtyard window, creating his own narrative for their lives and becoming more involved by the day. He only breaks away for visits from the insurance company nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter), and his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly). Then one night, as Jeff fades in an out of sleep in front of his window, he sees the traveling salesmen across the courtyard acting strangely, making odd trips out and brandishing a saw. The next morning the salesman’s sick wife is gone, and Jeff becomes convinced there has been a murder perpetrated just beyond his Rear Window.

Hitchcock’s film has its roots on the 1942 a short story by Cornell Woolrich. “It Had to Be Murder”, one of eight stories Woolrich’s agent sold for $5000. Woolrich was never perturbed by the money he lost when Hitchcock made a successful film version, but that’s not to say he didn’t get angry at the director. Woolrich griped about not being invited to the New York premiere saying, “He knew where I lived. He wouldn’t send me a ticket.” Rear Window was the first of four adaptations Hitchcock collaborated on with Jon Michael Hayes. They expanded the narrow focus of Woolrich’s original story without diluting the stylistic tones of Woolrich’s work.

Almost every shot of the film originates in Jeff’s apartment, and a major portion of the film is devoted to the audience watching Jimmy Stewart watching his neighbors, but as Alfred Hitchcock pointed out that is only one part of the film. “The second part shows what he sees and the third part is how he reacts. This is actually the purest expression of a cinematic idea.” Jimmy Stewart shined in all the parts his role demanded, delivering another in a line of career highlight roles. I always like it when Stewart played the abrasive jerk over the more earnest roles, and Jeff is definitely not an all around likeable character.

Most of that can be accounted for because of his behavior toward his girlfriend Lisa played by Grace Kelly. She looks breathtaking in this film, and so when Jeff spurns her affections it makes you just want to smack him upside his head. Part of that can be credited to the incredible costuming by Edith Head, but the idea for each piece came directly from Hitchcock. Edith Head recalled, “There was a reason for every color Grace wore, every style, and he was absolutely certain about everything…. He was really putting a dream together in the studio. Hitch wanted her to appear like a piece of Dresden china, something slightly untouchable.” Lisa does appear untouchable, and a radiant light that comes in to Jeff’s dark life.

Apart from Stewart, the most important piece of the film are the people who inhabit the apartments right outside his window. There are dozens and dozens of theories about what these people represent. Some day they are reflections of Jeff and Grace’s relationship, and yet another place said they represent characters in a film, and Jeff the director in his chair. Whatever you want to take away from these characters, it is fascinating to see how Hitchcock used his roots in silent film to aid these scenes. Each of the characters are given distinct personalities, and just like Jeff, the audience joins in on being a voyeur into their lives. The camera is kept at midrange, and this distance gives their lives an impersonal air. These are people who exist just out of the range of detail.

This is how we are introduced to Thorwald, the traveling salesman, played by Raymond Burr. All you can really tell about him is that he looks imposing and mean. By the time Jeff gets a good look at him, it’s not a look he would want to get. The last supporting role that I must mention is Thelma Ritter. I praised with her role in Pickup on South Street, and once again she turns in a supporting role that enhances the hell out of the film.

The one thing that usually stands out in a Hitchcock film is the music, but the create more of an open air feeling to the courtyard, Hitchcock used pop and classical pieces to give it a more organic feel. The opening and closing theme, as well as song one of Jeff’s neighbors writes during the film, were provided by Franz Waxman. However, the musical touches Waxman gave the film don’t compare to how songs such as Nat King Cole’s Mona Lisa and Dean Martin’s Amore will recall scenes from the film. In his second film with Hitchcock, old time favorite Robert Burks returns to cinematography duties, and as impressive as his work is, I have to give it up for the folks who built that courtyard on a soundstage. It gave the setting a vibrant, living feeling that never felt like a soundstage.

Rear Window still works today because we don’t even have to leave the house to see our neighbors now. We can look through the TV and drink in our share of voyeurism through the magic of reality programming. Although in the end, Jeff’s endless peeping leads to the unraveling of a mystery, I think a good lesson can still be taken from him. Sometimes it’s better to pay more attention to those around you than staring out your window all day.

Bugg Rating

7 comments:

  1. Yes! Excellent review for my favorite Hitchcock flick. It never gets old.

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  2. Nope, this film never does get old.

    I think it is my favorite Hitchcock flick, too. Psycho is awesome, but this movie is pure magic. LOVE IT.

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  3. One of my favorite Hitchcock films--but then it is based on a Woolrich story. (It annoys me in the DVD documentary that Patricia Hithcock claims that Woolrich's real name was "William Irish," and the researchers didn't correct her and have her re-do the take. "William Irish" was the pseudonym, Cornell Woolrich the real name.)

    Regarding Woolrich not getting invited to premiere: It's a good idea never take anything Woolrich said about himself at face value. His biographer Francis M. Nevis has pointed out that nearly 50% of what Woolrich said about himself turned out to be invented. He also loved self-pity, and by the 1950s was hardly writing or even leaving his Manhattan hotel room at all. Even if invited to the premiere, he wouldn't have gone. Nevins: "Since Woolrich is unlikely to have paid his own money to see what Hitchcock had wrought, it's quite possible that he never saw the movie at all."

    Ironically, Woolrich spent the few years of his life stuck in a wheelchair himself, about as lonely as a human being can get. His vision of Jeffries is a man alone (there's no girlfriend in the short story), living vicariously through people with real lives... a perfect Woolrich protagonist.

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  4. Ryan - Wow! Thanks for that info! I had no clue. Very cool.

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  5. I thoroughly enjoyed this one, it is amazing to this day how Hitchcock was able to make a single, stagnant set engaging, expansive, and full of life. Another great review LB!

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  6. Rear Window is my favorite Hitchcock film of all time. I can't get enough of it. Hitchcock's attention to detail is astounding in this film. It is like watching several movies within a movie, with each window being a frame. No matter how many times I see this one, I always notice different tiny details.

    I love your Hitch reviews. I came across a massive Hitchcock compact dvd set with all of his movies on it a while back. It was a bargain deal, so I wasn't sure of the quality so I passed it up, plus I was strapped for cash at the time. Now it is nowhere to be found, so I'm kicking myself.

    Excellent review.

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  7. Thanks so much for all the great comments. It's good to know that folks like this one just as much as I do. A big shout out has to go to Ryan for his fantastic trivia about Cornell Woolrich. That's some great stuff and I can't thank you enough for sharing it!

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