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Posts Tagged ‘Rear Window’

I am, all things considered, reasonably happy with this here blog which you happen to be reading – it’s not brilliant, but it gives me an outlet and it’s not like I’m charging anyone for the privilege of reading it. One thing it does occur to me that it is short of is Hitchcock, whose name is checked far more often than his films actually appear. Luckily, a welcome revival of Rear Window at the Phoenix has given me the opportunity to start fixing that.

Rear Window was released in 1954 and was Alfred Hitchcock’s seventeenth Hollywood movie: by this point he was already famous enough to get his name above the title of his own films. This is one of his most celebrated works, and watching it again it isn’t difficult to see why.

rear window

James Stewart plays L.B. Jefferies, an ace photo-journalist coming to the end of a seven-week stretch laid up with a broken leg received in the line of duty. New York is sweltering in a heatwave and the heat and inactivity are driving him up the wall – he is also having committment issues with respect to his lovely girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly, long before she turned into Nicole Kidman). Jefferies’ only diversion from this is to look out of the titular window of his apartment and observe the minutiae of the lives of his various neighbours.

At first this seems harmless enough, but then one of them, a bedridden woman, mysteriously disappears, and her husband (Raymond Burr) begins to act a little oddly – trips out of the apartment in the dead of night with a heavy case, strange behaviour with knives and saws, and so on. A suspicion begins to grow in Jefferies’ mind, but how can he find evidence either way, confined to his apartment as he is?

I first saw Rear Window nearly thirty years ago – it must have been my first Hitchcock – and I was initially rather unenthusiastic about the prospect. I wanted to watch the other side, truth be told, and it was only my father’s insistence that we watch it just for a bit, together with the tiny size of the static caravan we were holidaying in at the time, that resulted in me giving the film any of my time.

Probably this is because, even back then, Rear Window looks and sounds extremely dated – the colour stock is unlike anything used today, it’s primarily just people talking in one room, and it’s obviously studio-bound. These days I am wise enough to understand that increasing age doesn’t necessarily equate with declining quality, and that many of the things that appear to count against Rear Window are actually at the heart of what makes it such a great movie.

To dismiss it as studio-bound is to completely overlook the merits of the vast, elaborate set on which the story takes place – it may not be completely naturalistic, but then this is a fairly tall story in the first place. And it’s the limitations of the story which make it special: for most of the film the only real speaking parts are Stewart, Kelly, Thelma Ritter as Stewart’s nurse, and Wendell Corey as his detective buddy: everyone else only appears as characters observed from a distance by Stewart.

You can see the appeal of this story for Hitchcock, even if only as a simple formal challenge – there’s the limited roll of characters, the fact it’s all grounded in a single room, and so on. But above it was surely the potential for directorial sorcery that lured him to this tale – the audience is practically compelled to identify with Jefferies, viewing his neighbours as he does, and reliant on the nuances of Stewart’s performance for clues as to how to respond to them. It is a masterclass in the principles of direction and editing and you can’t help but be drawn in. This is even with a surprisingly slow start: most of the first act is preoccupied with setting up the story and characters in an extremely leisurely way, most of the scenes concerned with Jefferies’ situation and his inability to make up his mind about Lisa.

But the tension slowly ratchets up, until the climax, when – well, look, I still clearly recall being absolutely speared into my seat, frantic with alarm, during the climax of this film, all those years ago: Jefferies is trapped in his apartment, seemingly helpless, with a killer on his way to try and silence him. It’s the biggest of several electrifying moments throughout the film, and Hitch springs them on you seemingly out of nowhere.

Rear Window works so well as a smart, witty thriller – like many Hitchcock films, it’s much funnier than you might expect – that it almost seems superfluous to try and mine it for any deeper concerns – we’re dealing with a master entertainer above all else here. However, there are perhaps the faintest glimmers of subtext about the nature of urban living. When you live on top of dozens of other people – quite literally so in some cases – your natural instinct is to mind your own business and close yourself off, overlooking what could be quite obvious signs of things going amiss. It’s only Stewart, the spy, the voyeur, who picks up on the clues, and even he seems unsure of the morality of his actions – is it justifiable to intrude on someone’s privacy, even in the name of justice? The film seems to suggest that it is, and also that people look out for one another more – but this remains a complex issue that has become perhaps even more important in the sixty years since this film was made.

It is first and foremost a supremely entertaining thriller, though, winningly played by Stewart, Kelly, and the others, and flawlessly directed. They don’t make them like this any more – but then again, you could probably argue that they only ever made one like this at all.

 

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