Thursday, March 26, 2015

Review: Rear Window (1954)

Rear Window (1954)

Rated R

Rear Window isn't the first Alfred Hitchcock movie I've seen, and I wouldn't say it's his absolute best, but when you're talking about a filmmaker whose credits include Vertigo and Psycho, you've got to have made not just a masterpiece, but stone-cold perfection in order to have the absolute best. And Rear Window is still, at the end of the day, a masterpiece. What, you were expecting a surprise? Well, me too. Thanks to Fathom Events, I got to watch this movie on the big screen more than sixty years after its release, expecting a film that, by virtue of time and having been spoiled for me long ago, would be more quaint than anything. The lesson I took over the ensuing two hours is this: never underestimate the Master. Rear Window still holds up as an amazing, darkly comic thriller that takes its time, building an intriguing cast of characters on the road to an astounding, nail-biting climax.

The film takes place entirely within a single apartment complex in Manhattan, particularly inside one room. That room belongs to L. B. "Jeff" Jefferies (James Stewart), a photographer laid up in a wheelchair with a broken leg after an accident. With nothing better to do, he's spent the last several weeks watching his neighbors from across the courtyard through his rear window. One day, however, he sees one of his neighbors, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), acting suspiciously. He's constantly going in and out of his apartment with his giant suitcase in the middle of the night (even though, as a salesman, he wouldn't have any customers so late), he's spotted wrapping a butcher's knife and a hand-saw in newspaper, and most importantly, there's no sign of his wife Anna, and Jeff suspects that he had just killed her. Together with his high-society girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), his home-care nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), and the skeptical detective Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey), he hopes to crack the mystery and hopefully bring Thorwald to justice.

A key component of this film is its leering voyeurism. Jeff is a peeping Tom, a more noble example than most but one who still spends his free time spying on his neighbors bickering, undressing, and more, something that is frequently acknowledged by the characters around him. When he wants to get a closer look, he pulls out first a set of binoculars and then a camera with a ridiculously long, phallic lens. As a magazine photographer, his job description was all about doing whatever he could to get the best angle, the best shot, which one day led him to run out onto a racetrack in the middle of a crash, lucky to get away with only a broken leg. It's through him that we get not only the stories of himself, his friends, and the Thorwalds, but also those of all his neighbors -- the struggling songwriter, the couple who sleeps out on the fire escape to beat the heat inside, the spinster ("Miss Lonely-Hearts") who's perpetually unlucky in love and desperate to find the right man, the gorgeous dancer ("Miss Torso") who spends most of her time fending off suiters while her husband is off in the army, etc. As we can see but not hear what they're doing, we can only guess what's actually happening behind their closed doors, just as we can only guess what Lars Thorwald did to his wife. Hitchcock loved to challenge himself, and the challenge he gave himself here -- to make a whole movie set in the confines of a single apartment -- produced a tale where perspective is everything. We can only know what Jeff knows, and what he, and by extension the viewer, doesn't know is scarier than what he does. You really want to know just what the hell is happening in there, no matter how freaky it may be, and when the film finally plays its hand, it builds to a horrifying conclusion.

It helps that the characters learning about all these torrid details are interesting in their own right. At the center of the film, we have James Stewart and Grace Kelly as the unhappily-in-love Jeff and Lisa. Even before his accident, Jeff's job and lifestyle had been driving a wedge between the two, with Jeff acknowledging that, if Lisa were to stay with him, she'd either have to abandon her upper-class life of luxury and learn how to spend her life on the road, living out of a suitcase and traveling with Jeff on assignments, or spend weeks and months at a time without him. And after she becomes convinced that Thorwald is a killer, we see first-hand that she's more than willing to take the former route, spending the night with Jeff and indeed living out of an overnight bag while taking an active role in trying to find out more about Thorwald. Stewart and Kelly go together like PB and J, with Stewart playing a much darker character than the "Mr. All-American" he was famous for, Kelly crafting a very smart and capable heroine in Lisa, and both them selling the idea that, even with their differences, they both love each other. Thelma Ritter's turn as the nurse Stella made for hilarious comic relief, while Wendell Corey was a great foil for Jeff as Detective Doyle, the man convinced that Jeff is talking out his ass and jumping to conclusions. Finally, we get Raymond Burr, who slowly builds up Lars Thorwald as a character that, as you learn more about him, you can easily suspect as a murderer -- all with barely any dialogue outside of one scene. That takes talent.

Perhaps the thing that pushes Rear Window over the top is that, while it's small in scope and takes place on only one set, it doesn't feel small in the slightest. Jeff and Thorwald are hardly the only people in the apartment complex; nearly everybody gets a story, even if Jeff and the viewer can't hear what they're saying. Again, Hitchcock deserves huge props for being able to tell so many stories with so little, giving us only Jeff and Lisa's witty observations about what's happening around them to let us know what they're doing. As such, the place feels truly lived-in, not just a set filled with extras, but a place inhabited by real people whose lives, even though they may not be a part of the central murder mystery, are still going on around it, occasionally intersecting in interesting ways (the dog, for instance). This means that when, after a pivotal scene, one woman bemoans how nobody in the apartment complex seems to like or even care about each other, it hits harder and sticks with you, as we'd been seeing all these people going on with their little lives even as a man probably killed his wife with nobody (save for Jeff, Lisa, and Stella) the wiser. Losing our sense of community: it's something that people have been complaining and hand-wringing about for a very long time, probably since we first started to have communities in any real sense.

Score: 5 out of 5

If anybody other than Hitchcock had made this film, it would be their undisputed magnum opus. It's a must-watch for any fans of mysteries, thrillers, classic cinema, or just good movies in general.

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