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.

The Toast
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.

The Sirens
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

This Face

That Look

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.


Richard Bellamy said...

Yes, Rear Window is a wonderful experience on the big screen. I was lucky enough to see it in San Francisco when it was re-released in the early 80s after a big legal hold-up. I remember the audience gasping when Lisa wiggles her fingers behind her back to show Jeffries the ring, and Thorwald sees what's going on and looks up at Jeffries's apartment.

This is an amazing movie, and just looking at the stills you present here is a thrilling experience. I'm with you on Grace Kelly. She's #1 in my book. I love that slightly slow-mo kiss.

The Film Doctor said...

Nice analysis, Jason. I like the way Hitchcock makes every relationship in Rear Window, especially every marriage, look like different shades of dismal (even the honeymooners), with Thorwald providing the exclamation point.

Craig said...

Hope to see this in a theater someday soon. Very envious. And, yes: While "messiness" in movies is all the rage, Hitch reminds us just how perfect the joys of perfect can be.

Robby Cress said...

I had the same experience with this film. I saw it several times on television and home video, but when I had an opportunity to catch it on the big screen, it was like seeing a different movie. I felt even more like I was voyeur, like I was there with Stewart spying on the neighbor. I actually just wrote about another film with Barbara Stanwyck and George Sanders which came out the same year as Rear Window - "Witness to Murder." Witness to Murder also deals with neighbor who witnesses a murder, but Rear Window is definitely the superior film.

Joseph said...

Man, I need to buy and watch this again. Love your first example.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments, all. This is a movie that just keeps giving. It's so rewarding for the critical/thoughtful moviegoer and for the person who just wants to be entertained. Mileage varies, of course, but if someone told me they disliked Rear Window, I'd assume they didn't like movies.

Sam Juliano said...

In a poll taken at my own blogsite, WitD a few years ago, REAR WINDOW was voted the #1 film of the 1950's in a decade polling. It is almost always mentioned as one of Hitchcock's most beloved films, and it's one that holds up to repeated viewings for all sorts of reasons. I very much appreciate the intricate examination here of Hitch's non-cut close ups, which of course are a vital aspect of the film's exceeding artistry. This is one that's a favorite of film professors, and can't say I'm surprised.

Adam Zanzie said...

This is such an entertaining movie that it made me a fan of Hitch when I was only in 4th grade. I remember trying to watch Vertigo around that same age and not being able to finish it (at the time) because I was too young to understand it. While Rear Window may not be as perfect (there's that word again!) as Vertigo, it's somewhere in my top 5 of the Master's work. David Lynch says it's his favorite Hitchcock.

That moment when the dog is found dead and then we see Burr's darkened room *is* creepy. I don't even immediately remember the moment when he lights his cigarette in the dark, but just seeing his darkened room was always creepy enough for me.

It's too bad Burr later made a mockery of himself by appearing in Godzilla 1985. said...

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bobby J. said...

Excellent analysis and a very good read,

The two things that I picked out during my numerous viewings were, that Burr's character was made out to be the spitting image of David O. Selznick - his one time producer. The resemblance is uncanny.

The other thing I felt, was that the Burr character was an extension of Stewart's attitude to marriage. In the same way that Old Man Potter was the dark side of George Bailey in 'It's a Wonderful Life' had he chosen the wrong path.

Brilliant film, thank you.

Edward Copeland said...

Well done. I wish I'd had a chance to see it on the big screen. I wrote my massive Rear Window tribute a few years ago when I was shocked to find that several people whose opinions I generally respected didn't think highly of it when it's my favorite Hitchcock.

David H. Schleicher said...

How serendipitous that I came across this just as I rewatched the film today in preparation for my upcoming retrospective on films from the 1950's. The "Grace Kelly first seeing something sinister" and "the Doyle shot" really stuck out in my mind today - I love that we "saw" and appreciated the same things. I absolutely loved how Kelly stirred her brandy, too. Truly a masterpiece.

Jason Bellamy said...

Sorry for the lack of response to all these comments. As indicated by the slow posting here, I've been busy of late (including vacation, so don't feel too bad for me).

As a postscript I'll note that last weekend I saw Vertigo on the big screen. And while it was a wonderful experience, it's not a movie that fills the big screen with detail quite the way Rear Window does.