Thursday, July 7, 2011
Looking Closer at Rear Window
Sometimes you watch a movie you know by heart and see it as if for the first time. That’s what happened for me last weekend when I was fortunate enough to catch Rear Window on the big screen at the AFI Silver. Prior to Sunday’s show, I’d seen Rear Window, gosh, at least eight times (excluding partial viewings caught while flipping through the channels). It’s a film I know well enough that I could easily sketch L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries’ view of the courtyard or recite several lines of dialogue. But on the big screen it felt new. I could easily ramble on about the so many things I love about the film, but for now let me point out just a few – in particular things that stuck out for me from my big-screen experience.
Need I say this? Spoilers ahead!
Hitchcock’s Non-Cut Close-Ups
I’ve written before about Hitchcock’s carefully considered close-ups in Psycho, and those are on display here, too. But whereas Hitchcock mostly arrives at close-ups via straight cuts in Rear Window, there are two notable sequences in which he gets to his close-up cut-free.
The first occurs in the scene just after Lisa (the more beautiful each time Grace Kelly) has argued away the possibility that Jeff (Jimmy Stewart) has witnessed the aftermath of a murder.
She finishes her lecture ...
And as soon as she does, she spots something out the window ...
It's Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) packing a large trunk in the bedroom of his apartment, where the mattress is curiously stripped and rolled up behind him.
It takes only that visual for Lisa to believe Jeff’s murder theory, and in one lovely little zoom she gazes out the window and says: “Let’s start at the beginning again, Jeff. Tell me everything you saw, and what you think it means.”*
*Listen carefully and you'll hear the sound of the cameraman’s footsteps on the floorboards as he moves the camera closer to Kelly.
In that context, the zoom has two commingling effects: first, it symbolizes an awakening (Lisa’s realization that something sinister did happen in the apartment across the way); second, it emphasizes the drama/gravity of Lisa’s implied accusation.
That shot is a joy all by itself – one of my favorite moments in the entire picture – but what’s even better about it is that it sets up another moment later on, almost a half-hour later.
This scene involves Jeff’s detective friend Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey).
Like Lisa, Tom has demonstrated an initial reluctance to believe Jeff’s theories. After doing some off-camera investigating he’s now in Jeff’s apartment to provide, Jeff assumes, more evidence to corroborate his theory. Seemingly of the same mind now, Jeff and Lisa tell Tom that the woman witnessed leaving the apartment with Thorwald couldn’t have been Mrs. Thorwald because she left her jewelry behind; something Lisa suggests a woman going away would never do. Tom listens patiently, stirring his brandy.
“Now come on, Tom, you don’t really need any of this information, do you?” Jeff says. Tom puts down his drink: “As a matter of fact I don’t.”
Tom now walks into a close-up, creating the effect of the zoom we saw earlier.
Like Lisa earlier, Tom is staring out across the courtyard toward Thorwald’s apartment. Like Lisa, we’re certain, Tom now sees the light. And then he says, “Lars Thorwald is no more a murderer than I am.”
Of all the shocking moments in Rear Window, and there are a handful, this is the most brilliant. Tom doesn't raise his voice, and he hadn't actually said anything that would suggest he now believed Jeff. But by mirroring the effect of Lisa’s zoom, Hitchcock primes us to believe the result will be the same. And when he suggests Thorwald is innocent, it leads us to feel, well, like this … stunned.
Because this is a movie about, in one way or another, voyeurism, and because it’s Jeff who is constantly being lectured about the impropriety at best and dangerousness at worst of spying on one’s neighbors, it’s easy to forget that there’s a scene in which Jeff actually feels awkward for his spying (not that it stops him).
It’s the scene in which he watches Miss Lonelyhearts prepare a dinner for two in an apartment of one.
As Miss Lonelyhearts pantomimes the act of being on a date, Jeff watches, and at one point glances over his shoulder to see if Lisa is watching him watching.
Jeff’s relative bashfulness evokes the sadness of Miss Lonelyhearts’ fantasy. He chuckles while watching her, but he isn’t proud of it. Jeff seems to detect that he’s watching something deeply personal. He’s seeing into Miss Lonelyhearts’ lonely heart, and that makes him uncomfortable. It makes him feel for her, too.
And when Miss Lonelyhearts raises her glass in an imaginary toast, Jeff toasts back, a touching gesture that suggests Jeff is capable of seeing these people as more than action figures playing out dramas for his amusement.
Rear Window is full of ambient noise, from the piano playing of the musician to the sound of kids playing in the street across the way. But it’s no mistake that when Hitchcock gives us a scene of Thorwald fighting with his wife, their words are obscured by sirens. (I know you can't hear the sirens by looking at this picture, so use your imagination.)
Foreshadowing? You betcha.
Let's see, what else do I love about Rear Window
But you knew that. Echoing a recent observation by Craig Simpson, there are few movies deserving of the word “perfect,” but Rear Window is one of them.
As I basked in the glory of it on the big screen, I was on the lookout for something that I’d change if given the opportunity. I came up with just one minuscule thing: In the sequence that begins with the woman finding her dead dog, then lecturing her neighbors, Hitchcock closes things out with a shot of Thorwald’s apartment: dark except for the burning embers of his cigarette.
I wish Hitch had held that shot two seconds longer. That’s it. That’s my change.
I love Rear Window. More than ever.