Monday, December 5, 2011
Reeling Backward: "Rear Window" (1954)
Somebody once asked me how I choose the movies to write about in the "Reeling Backward" column. More specifically, they asked why I seemed to choose mostly obscure films most people have never heard of -- like "Panic in Year Zero" or "Yellow Sky."
"If you're going to write about a Humphrey Bogart movie, why not pick 'Casablanca' instead of 'Across the Pacific'?" went the line of questioning, or something like it.
There are essentially two reasons. One is that I started this feature largely as a way to expand my own film education. Even for a hardcore movie buff, it astonishes me how many classic films (and modern pictures) I've never seen. Seeing as one tends to see the most famous stuff first, I make it a point to reach out for movies I've never encountered. By necessity, that means casting my net farther.
But another reason is that I try to be interesting and write about my insights into a movie, hopefully with some originality and touch of wit. I see these less as reviews of old movies as essays, or even my personal movie diary.
Frankly, so many people have written volumes of prose about "Casablanca" and "Citizen Kane" and other greats, I feel adding my voice to the din serves little purpose. I doubt many people would read it, and I'm modest enough about abilities to recognize that it's unlikely I could say anything really new.
But occasionally I pick a high-profile subject I'm already very familiar with just because, dang it, I really like the movie and want to spend some time re-watching and thinking about it.
I got a copy of the remastered "Rear Window" well more than a year ago, but hadn't gotten around to watching it for a variety of reasons. (Mostly, a little blond boy who came into my life.) I think I know why. As a suspense film, "Rear Window" derives most of its satisfaction from the revelations of the plot. Watching it again and again fails to capture the thrill of seeing it unfold for the first time.
Especially, that fantastic moment when Raymond Burr, playing the killer, looks up into the camera (which has been acting as Jimmy Stewart's gaze) and realizes that the entirety of his nefarious activity has been closely observed. That's a once-in-a-cinematic-lifetime moment.
Even great thrillers, like "Silence of the Lambs," lose some of their appeal after their mysteries have been revealed.
"Rear Window" obtains more of its freshness than, say, "Psycho" because the plot works backwards. The identity of the killer is made known early on, and the entire story is about L.B. "Jeff" Jeffries, a photographer laid up with a badly broken leg, trying to prove that a murder has even taken place. He sits at his window in his Greenwich Village apartment, staring and spying on his neighbors in the little courtyard of buildings.
I won't talk too much about the voyeurism that is a central motif in Alfred Hitchcock's movies, and is brought to the fore here. It was one of the New Wave guys, film critics who became filmmakers, who pointed out that the view of the neighbors is like a movie screen, and Jeff takes the place of the audience, playing peeping tom so we won't feel bad about doing so.
I will say that the studio set built for this picture is simply a marvel, a canvas of windows and the human carnival partially glimpsed through them. Only a sliver of the city street is visible through an alley, making the courtyard seem like a quiet oasis removed from the bustle and danger of New York City.
Except, of course, there's plenty of foul play going on here. Lars Thorwald (Burr), a costume jewelry salesman, offs his invalid wife and -- Jeff later determines -- cuts her up into pieces and carries them out of the apartment in his sample case.
Jeff spends most of the movies trying to make the case to his detective friend Doyle (Wendell Corey). He quickly makes converts of his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly). They soon become his conscripts, hunting down evidence and even -- in perhaps the film's most memorable sequence -- Lisa sneaking into Thorwald's apartment while he's away.
Little comment is made upon the movie's title (which did not come from the short story upon which John Michael Hayes based the screenplay, "It Had to Be Murder" by Cornell Woolrich). Jeff, in a heated argument with Stella about the propriety of using binoculars and a telephoto lens to spy on his neighbors, says "I'm not much on rear-window ethics."
This could have two meanings. The most common understanding is that it's not right to watch people unobserved, since people behave differently when they're interacting with society and quite another when they're in private. How many of us would like to have our intimate daily doings, even the most innocent ones, broadcast for others' eyes?
But another meaning is that things seen through the rear window of a car are by definition things that are behind us, and therefore in our past. My take on Jeff's dialogue is that he's in the midst of doing what he must, and he will consider the morality of it later on. He's also talking about his lifestyle, which is a freewheeling cycle of exotic assignments and dangerous thrills, and that he prefers to live in the moment. He'll worry about today, tomorrow.
This is in contrast to the carefully-ordered life of Lisa, and the source of the tension in their relationship.
Either way, "Rear Window" has remained an enduring classic because it's not just a clever potboiler, but a nagging and probing film that raises uncomfortable truths about how people behave toward one another ... especially when we think no one's looking.
3.5 stars out of four