Sunday, March 22, 2015

Rear Window (1954)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock                             Writer: John Michael Hayes
Film Score: Franz Waxman                          Cinematography: Robert Burks
Starring: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey and Thelma Ritter

As much as I love North by Northwest, if pressed, I would have to say that my favorite Hitchcock film of all time is Rear Window. Peter Bogdanovich called it the finest expression of Hitchcock’s art and I would agree. It is as close to being a perfect film as there is. The voyeuristic aspect of the story complements the director’s unique vision and the actors are as good as it gets. Both Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes were nominated for Academy Awards, but with On the Waterfront and The Caine Mutiny being nominated that year, there was no way a mere suspense film could have won. Still, it was a pretty blatant snub that the film wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar for best picture, and that the Thalberg award in 1968 was the closest the master of suspense ever came to winning a statuette. The film was based on the story by Cornell Woolrich called “It Had to be Murder” which had only three real characters, Jeff, confined to a wheelchair, his detective friend, and a black manservant. Hitchcock gave the story to John Michael Hayes to adapt and added the entirety of the love interest and the nurse, as well as most of the dialogue at Hitch’s suggestion.

The story begins with photographer Jimmy Stewart laid up in a wheelchair after breaking his leg while shooting a crash at an auto race. He is visited daily by insurance nurse Thelma Ritter, and his girlfriend Grace Kelly. New York City is in the middle of a heat wave and so Stewart not only can see all of his neighbors through their open windows, but can hear much of their conversations as well. Among the cast of neighbors is a bickering couple across the way, Raymond Burr and Irene Winston. Winston is bed-ridden while Burr takes care of her. One night Stewart hears an errant scream, and the next morning Winston is gone. When Stewart sees Burr taking several trips out of the apartment on a rainy night with his sample case, he gets suspicious. Meanwhile Stewart is getting pressure from Kelly to give up his nomadic lifestyle and settle down, preferably with her. But while their arguments get them nowhere, he does manage to convince her that Burr has murdered his wife, especially after Stewart is able to enlist the help of a detective friend, Wendell Corey. Though Corey initially dismisses the idea, this only inspires the couple to ever more daring attempts to prove Burr’s guilt.

One of the most impressive features of the production is the set, which required that the floor be cut out of one of Paramount’s sound stages in order to accommodate the four-story apartment buildings that faced the interior courtyard that Stewart’s rear apartment looked out on. As with earlier films like Lifeboat and his previous production, Dial M for Murder, Hitchcock thrived on the claustrophobic set, which enabled him to control every aspect of the production from the comfort of his chair on the set. The limitations that would have frustrated other directors, Hitchcock used to perfection. The Greenwich Village apartment is the lens through which the entire story is told. Stewart alternately uses binoculars and a telephoto camera lens to get a better view of the other characters and, with very few exceptions, the audience only views them from afar, from Stewart’s point of view. But Hitchcock also provides suspense by showing details to the viewer while Stewart is asleep, as well as sprinkling the film with some great comedic dialogue. One of the other interesting aspects of the film is that the soundtrack uses exclusively diegetic music, that is, only music that is created by the characters within the film, either on the piano, from the radio, or by whistling. Nevertheless, the great Franz Waxman’s opening title music scored for a jazz combo is one of his most distinctive compositions.

Jimmy Stewart is wonderful as Hitchcock’s favorite Everyman. Like the director himself, he engineers the investigation from his chair, delighted when things work out and horrified when they don’t. Grace Kelly, coming off a strong performance in Hitchcock’s previous film, has arguably her finest role here. She plays a high-fashion New York socialite who dreams of turning Stewart into a fashion and portrait photographer, but is willing to risk her life to show that she has everything it takes to exist in his world as well. Thelma Ritter and Wendell Corey perfectly complement the principals as the wise-cracking nurse and the unimaginative police detective. Though I’ve seen the film dozens of times, I was pleased to be able to attend a theatrical screening of the film as part of Turner Classic Movies’ presentation through Fathom Events. It made me realize just how much is lost by watching the film on television. The buildings loomed up from the screen and the interiors made me feel as if I was in the room with the actors. Though it’s a cliché by now, this truly is the way films were meant to be seen. Rear Window has never lost its power to both thrill and entertain, and as such it remains a testament to Alfred Hitchcock’s genius as a filmmaker.

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