The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 2 – Rear Window – A Classic Movie Review

Rear Window is not Hitchcock’s best film.  There are any number of things to complain about.  But it’s my favorite summer Hitchcock film.  It’s possible to actually feel the heat and humidity even if you’re watching it in New England February.  But watching it in July or August just after the sun goes down on a sweltering humid day is absolutely perfect.  The mid-century middle-class New York City apartment with all the adjoining backyards spread out in front of the panoramic rear windows of the protagonist Jimmy Stewart who sits in a wheelchair with his leg in a cast provides the correct claustrophobic and uncomfortably hot environment for an irritable murderer and the amateur sleuth stalking him.  Sweat drips off the actors and overheated residents try to beat the heat by sleeping on fire escapes or drinking cold drinks.  Even the torrential rain doesn’t “cool things off it just makes the heat wet.”

The set-up is Jimmy Stewart as L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies, a famous magazine photographer who is convalescing with a broken leg that he earned by stepping in front of a racing car crash to get a great photo.  Thelma Ritter is Stella, the nurse sent by his insurance company to watch over him.  Grace Kelly is Jeff’s upper class, Upper East Side girlfriend Lisa Fremont who wants Jeff to settle down to a sedentary existence with her.  Jeff also has an old Air Force buddy, Police Detective Lt. Thomas J. Doyle (played by Wendell Corey) who comes in really handy once murder is suspected.  And finally there is the murder suspect and neighbor across the yard, Lars Thorwald  played with a minimum of spoken lines by Raymond Burr.

The movie resembles a stage play with well-defined scenes and breaks.  Each character is added to the mix in sequence and even the various parading neighbors are introduced and given their little scenes and acknowledgements.  There’s the newlywed couple, the married couple with the little dog who sleep on the fire escape, the dancer “Miss Torso,” “Miss Lonely Hearts,” the composer, and the slightly crazy old sculptress.  We even briefly meet Mrs. Thorwald early on in the show, but that doesn’t last.  She’s the alleged victim.

The two plot elements that get twisted into a knot are Lisa attempting to solve the riddle of tying down Jeff and Jeff trying to prove that Thorwald killed his wife.  In both of these endeavors Stella acts as a helper and Doyle seems to be a hindrance.  Whenever the amateurs try to coax the real detective to bust in on Thorwald and gather up the evidence that they are sure must be “knee deep,” he reminds them of a silly house rule known as “due process” and of the New York State penal code in all eleven volumes that a judge would throw at him if he attempted to get a search warrant based on Jeff’s suspicions and Lisa’ feminine intuition.

I won’t spoil the story because it’s worth watching but I’ll just comment that the story moves along in a pleasant fantasy of mid-century New York City life filled with urban stereotypes and tropes even while the main characters perform the Hitchcock detective pantomime.  It’s a lot of fun.  And the actors are a pleasure to watch and listen to.  I always especially enjoy Thelma Ritter’s quintessential working-class New York City accent and attitude.

Now for the down side.  Biggest problem with the movie is trying to pretend that Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly are close in age.  At one point, Jimmy Stewart takes off his shirt for an alcohol rubdown from his nurse and destroys any illusion that he is a young man, whereas Grace Kelly was a remarkably beautiful twenty-five-year-old at that time.  I guess if they’d owned up to it in the story it wouldn’t be so jarring but at one point, Stella actually calls him a young man and that just explodes the suspension of disbelief for me with a snide snort.  The other story element that jars for me is the subplot with Miss Lonely Hearts.  I won’t go into the details but the whole subplot is a little too affected for my taste.  And finally, there’s a song that becomes kind of the background theme for the romance aspect of the film and is finally played over the end of the last scene.  I think it’s terrible.  It’s so saccharine sweet that it almost turns my stomach when it plays us out.  But those are the only faults.  And they don’t amount to much compared to the fun that this movie provides.

See Rear Window the first time on a hot summer night.  That should be like some kind of multi-sense version of surround sound.  Highly recommended.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 1 – A Classic Movie Review

American movies of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s have been hyped by generations of film lovers to the point where if you only go by reputation you may be deceived about the quality and entertainment value of any particular movie.  But without a doubt there are a number of deservedly admired works.  From time to time I will give my decidedly biased and idiosyncratic opinion and remarks on the movies I’ve watched and try to pass along useful information for those who haven’t seen some of these films.

Last year when I was looking at horror movies I reviewed “Psycho.”  But I am a fan of Hitchcock in general and in the summer, I always indulge in a good cross section of his best.  So, I’ll make some general remarks followed by more specific comments about the various Hitchcock films I’m familiar with.

Hitchcock had a long career as a director that stretched from the silent film era all the way to the 1970s.  He started out in England and some of his earlier, lesser known films were excellent.  But what is noticeable in these earlier British films are the more primitive special effects and other technical aspects.  What isn’t primitive is the skill with which the plot and dialog are constructed.  The three best of these earlier British films from my point of view are “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “The 39 Steps” and “The Lady Vanishes.”  All three of these are spy stories and are colored by the tense political environment in pre-World War II Europe.  The Man Who Knew Too Much was later remade by Hitchcock in Hollywood starring Jimmy Stuart and Doris Day but I much prefer the original.  In general, they involve civilians getting caught up in espionage and fighting for their lives while the world around them is completely unaware of their plight.

As the ‘30s ended Hitchcock moved to Hollywood.  His first big picture was “Rebecca” starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.  It’s sort of a mystery-suspense story with the feel of one of those Bronte sister novels.  It won the Best Picture Oscar and several others but I’ve always hated the movie.  I guess it’s a chick flick and bores me to tears.  But during the ‘40s he had a string of excellent movies.  My favorites are “Shadow of a Doubt,” “Lifeboat,” “Notorious” and “Rope.”  Now, other than Notorious, which is indeed a masterpiece, all of these other movies, especially Rope have their quirks.  Rope is a claustrophobic story adapted from a stage play that takes place completely inside a Manhattan penthouse apartment and is a sort of a fictionalized version of the Leopold and Loeb thrill killings murder story.  To say it is creepy is an understatement.  And equally claustrophobic is Lifeboat which takes place, you guessed it, completely on a ship’s lifeboat.  Hitchcock loves to put his characters together in close quarters and irritate them.  Sort of like a little boy with a bottle full of bugs.  I guess that’s his special gift.

During the ‘50s Hitchcock continued to produce critically and financially successful films.  I like “Strangers on a Train,” “Dial M for Murder,” “Rear Window” and “North by Northwest.”  Each of these is an entertaining movie but Strangers on a Train is the most original.  Hitchcock really loves strange and this one delivers that in spades.

In the ‘60s the only two Hitchcock movies I can recommend are “Psycho” and “The Birds.”  Psycho is rightly famous for launching the whole “Slasher” genre but more than that it blazed a trail for every movie that explored the psychology of murderers.  And think of how large that field is at this point.  Hannibal Lector and every other serial killer showcased in the movies, and on television are the direct descendants of Norman Bates.  The Birds is a horror story based on a sort of environmental backlash where birds turn on the human race.  It is weird and sometimes compelling but by the end of the movie I felt that Tippi Hedron’s character deserved all the grief she got just because of how annoying she was.

So that’s my Hitchcock list.  I’ll dig into the list in the follow ups and rate the movies and describe what makes them worth watching.