Sunday, February 26, 2012

Let's Review a Movie: Rear Window (1954)

Well since I spent last month ranting about a movie that was all style and no substance, I’m going to spend this month talking about a film that is all about style and substance.

This review won’t be a scene by scene analysis as the nitpicker’s guide was, because well… this is a movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  I start doing a scene by scene deconstruction and we’re going to be here for the rest of the year so instead I’ll focus on specific aspects that I enjoy with this movie.  In this case it will be Hitchcock’s use of visual storytelling, his use of dialogue and visuals to explore themes, and how the characters develop within the theme.

What I think I love most about Alfred Hitchcock is that he was a craftsman in the art of cinema.  Nothing is wasted in a Hitchcock film, and that is certainly true of Rear Window right from the opening credits themselves.  They are being used to draw the audience in.  We have them over top of the neighbourhood that will be the setting of the story and the blinds of the window are going up, like curtains on a stage.

Hitchcock really knew how to use the advantages the storytelling avenue of cinema gives you to tell a story.  For example the opening scene alone tells us everything by the visuals.  Instead of having the radio announcer say that’s it’s going to be another recorded breaking day in a heat wave he shows the main character sweating, a thermometer, and people sleeping out on their balcony.  In the first five minutes we’ve also been told the name of the main character, his situation, his job, and his relationship status, though we don’t know it yet.  We see a framed negative image of a woman from a magazine cover, which we later learn is his girlfriend, and the image of her is creepy and off putting.  Which is a good thing to make the audience feel, because Jefferies relationship with her, and his problems with it, are going to be the emotional base on which the whole story is standing.  And all of this exposition was achieved without one word of dialogue.  It is indeed pure cinema.

Not to the say that dialogue is not important in this film, it is, because the themes of voyeurism and romance are explored with the dialogue between Jefferies and his boss, and Jefferies and his nurse Stella.

“I’m going to get married and then I’ll never be able to go anywhere.”  Jefferies says, while looking out at the couple that is having the most trouble in the neighbourhood, and will be the plot of the film.  More than that though Jefferies sees himself as being tied down by marriage, he talks about marriage as a dishwasher, a laundry machine, and a nagging wife.  He is totally unwilling to commit and takes a hard stance against moving his relationship forward with Lisa.  Lisa meanwhile is trying to show Jefferies that she wants to make this work and is willing to compromise.  She talks about him having a job here with a nice suit instead of staying on with the magazine.  But it’s not about changing Jefferies to be more like that Park Avenue set she is with at her job.  As she says her apartment resembles Ms. Torso’s who Jeffries describes as a queen bee with her pick of the drones.  Lisa sees on the other hand sees Ms. Torso as fending off wolves that she doesn’t love.  And by the end of the film we know that Lisa is right.  So, the comparison is clear Lisa could have any high society man she wants, but she doesn’t want them she wants Jefferies.  She loves him and loves him enough that she does want to try living life his way.       

Jefferies says he wants a woman who’s willing to go anywhere and do anything and love it, and it turns out Lisa does.  When she goes over to the Thorwald’s apartment to find the ring, and even before that when she goes over to put the note under his door he sees that she is the woman he has always wanted.  And what I love about this is that Lisa doesn’t change who she is for Jefferies.  She’s still interested in fashion, when she puts down the book at the end and picks up a magazine.  She also brings over a fancy nightgown in her one suitcase and goes over to Thorwald’s apartment through the window in a poofy dress!  That’s still a part of her character.  It’s just that her adventurous side has gotten a chance to come out too, and with that Jefferies can see that yes Lisa’s life is about more than fashion and high society, and they can be together.   

Relationships are explored by almost every neighbour too.  The songwriter supposedly coming off a bad relationship, the newlyweds, a couple with kids, and as I touched on before Ms. Torso having to fight off men she doesn’t want while staying faithful to Stanley.  There is also Ms. Lonelyhearts and her desire for a loving relationship, and finally the everyday couple that is sleeping on their balcony with the dog.

Relationships aren’t the only thing going on here though as the rest of the dialogue in Stella’s first scene explained: “We’ve become a race of peeping toms.”  That is the dialogue that sets up the other theme in this film: voyeurism.  Both for Jefferies and for the audience, as Jefferies sitting in his wheelchair watching his neighbours is doing what an audience goes to a theatre to do, watch someone else act out their life.  This theme is truly explored visually though as Hitchcock draws the audience in with the use of point of view camera moves.  We start out as outsiders, viewing the world fully while Jefferies sleeps in the opening scene, but coming into his point of view quickly as when he looks and sees his neighbours we see it too.  We never move outside his view again, except when he falls asleep watching Thorwald on the night he killed his wife.  With such use of the camera Hitchcock is essentially having us be Jefferies, especially once he brings out the binoculars and his ‘eyes’ become our eyes fully.  The edges of the shot black out as it would if we were looking at things through the lens too.  This becomes so integrated over the course of the film that when Thorwald turns his gaze to the camera after Lisa is arrested, both Jefferies’ and the actually film camera, the reaction isn’t ‘oh no he’s been caught’ it’s ‘oh no we’ve been caught.’

There is critic of the idea of voyeurism too as Stella talks about the penalty for being a peeping tom and sharply calls Jefferies a window shopper when his looking at the newly-wed couple.  There’s the scene where Jefferies looks out with binoculars and after a moment puts them down.  I initially thought he was thinking what I’m I doing this isn’t right, and then goes to get the telephoto lens.  There is talk of it again after Doyle appears to have explained all the evidence and Lisa and Jefferies are in the apartment wondering if they were wrong about all their actions, before seeing the body of the dog.

Besides camera work and focused dialogue Hitchcock also makes excellent use of the secondary areas of cinema, for example the use and lack of use of music.  Psycho is famous for its soundtrack and The Birds is well known for not having a soundtrack at all.  This film is no exception to the rule, instead of having a score through-out the film the music comes from the song writer in the studio or the radio and that’s it and that helps guide the audience through the film.  When the songwriter has finally finished his song the story of the movie has finished too.  Ms. Lonelyhearts has found new meaning in her life with that music, Stanley has reutnred home to Ms. Torso.  The newly-weds have left the honeymoon phase of their marriage.  Jefferies has become comfortable with Lisa, and of course Thorwald has been arrested.

There are also some subtle nods to Hitchcock’s fear of the police as it is average man Jefferies who figures out the crime and, with Lisa’s help, gets evidence while detective Doyle nearly shows up too late to save Jefferies when he falls out the window.  Hitchcock’s well known work with silent montage is also used in the final fight too and is brillant as always.  With that final fight though comes my one and only point of criticism at this movie, and that is the speeding up of the film as the neighbours all run out as Jefferies is hanging out the window in his fight with Thorwald.  This is no doubt an issue of aging for the film.  I’m looking at this over half a century after it was made.  I’m sure back in the fifties this effect did what it supposed to do.  Give the scene a sense of fast pace and urgency as people rush out to the courtyard, and not knowing if they’ll make it in time.  Now however, the effect looks almost comical and is  frankly distracting.  But in the end that is a very minor problem it was is truly a masterfully made film. 

To wrap it all up this film is wonderfully layered.  It is built up to be about so many things, with such care and technique.  You can watch it just as a murder mystery.  You can watch it for the development of Jeffries relationship with Lisa and compare it with his neighbours, and you can watch it for the theme of voyeurism alone.  The use of point of view and music are things done almost exclusively by Hitchcock and displays the desire to do more than just make an enjoyable film.  He worked to make what he called pure cinema and Rear Window is a wonderful example of that idea.  Of that push to be more than “photographs of people talking.” To me it is a must see as one of the classics of filmmaking, and one of the masterpieces made be a truly gifted and talented artist.   

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