Wednesday, June 17, 2020
What You Think It Means
Part of me dreams of traveling back even if I don’t really want to. But at least the past has movie theaters. Trapped here staring at these four walls right now you could hardly blame anyone for wanting a little comfort. The sort of film that makes us feel better, one we wish we could live in for a little while. This isn’t so much about nostalgia, which is a nice feeling but a limited one. You can’t stay where you once were, after all, you have to move on from those memories whether your joyous triumphs or bitter regrets. You have to grow. And films shouldn’t just be about their comfort level but there’s nothing wrong with sometimes attaching yourself to a feeling that reminds you of the good things. Still, there has to be more. So much in Alfred Hitchcock’s films, for example, hold onto their vibrancy which even now makes them much more than simple Hollywood classics to fall asleep to. These are films that allow us to dig as far as we want to go, to break down everything beyond the simple mechanics of Plot to help us understand why they work as well as they do. That obsession never goes away, helping us to see what the director was revealing about how he saw the world through each new shot and to really learn what films are to begin with.
And considering how much I’ve been cooped up in a modestly sized apartment lately, the most famous film involving that comes to mind. REAR WINDOW was basically the first Hitchcock I ever saw, during the theatrical re-release several of his 50s titles had in the early 80s when Universal put them back into circulation for the first time in years. And that afternoon, which looking it up would have been at some point in late November-early December ‘83, was probably a very important day for me in a Film 101 sort of way, making it a key moment at the start of my film education. To this day it’s still my favorite Hitchcock movie, the one that says the most about what his films were while also being the most entertaining. Notice I didn’t say best. For the moment, that doesn’t matter since this is all about what certain films mean to us and why. This is the one of his that means the most to me which is really the only issue.
The plot of REAR WINDOW does matter so to get it out of the way, news magazine photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) is entering the final week of being confined to his tiny New York apartment with a giant cast on his leg after breaking it while taking a photo from a precarious angle on a race track. In between physical therapy sessions with insurance company nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and dinners with visiting girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) who wants more of a commitment, Jeff is still feeling antsy after being cooped up for so long staring out of his window for hours on end at all the people who live nearby in his courtyard. The resulting curiosity leads him to believe that one of those neighbors, a certain Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) has murdered his wife who suddenly seems to have vanished. The circumstantial observations get Lisa to be curious as well although old war buddy/police detective friend Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey) doesn’t believe it. But Jeff is soon convinced and even more determined to uncover the truth before Thorwald disappears.
Moments stick out. Images stay with me. Jimmy Stewart as Jeff awakens, presumably from a dream during a late afternoon nap, to find Grace Kelly there, leaning in for the kiss. So much of what we’re living through right now feels like a dream, a reminder that the moment of her first appearance really is everything, the fantasy breaking into reality as her shadow drapes over him prefiguring all sorts of things to come and the perfect symbol for the Hitchcock world of this courtyard. This is all a reminder of how at its core REAR WINDOW is about a relationship, it’s a romantic comedy when you come right down to it, one about the fear of marriage or at the very least any kind of commitment, even if it seems crazy that anyone would hesitate to commit to Grace Kelly’s Lisa who with that slight inflection of a z in her name each time we hear Jimmy Stewart say it reminds us each time just how special she is. Because if the opposite of commitment is the freedom to go anywhere in the world, what Jeff seems to desire more than anything, who wouldn’t want to do that? He’s understandably going a little stir crazy when the film opens, itching to get back to his job and the world that he can just barely make out across the way so each of those neighbors reflects back at him with another element of that lifestyle he yearns for, that reminder of what he’s forced to put off. The tortured composer who is clearly a man about town but none of it gives him any satisfaction, the carefree sculptor without a worry in the world, the lonely soul who more than anything wants companionship, the newly married couple on their honeymoon, the popular girl who could have anyone. Jeff is trapped with just about the most beautiful girl in the world who wants nothing more than to be with him and all he can do is watch and wait and dream of doing what he really desires. But until then there’s nothing for him to do but look out the window and wait for her to show up again to continue the debate over that future, with the feeling that there’s nothing else pressing, nothing at stake.
Hitchcock takes the time at the start to introduce us to the courtyard in two stages, the geographical layout and then the people, both equally important in his eyes for us to pay attention to. Raymond Burr plays Lars Thorwald—has there ever been a better character name?—and the sight of him directly across the way is of course the nightmare mirror version of Jeff’s dilemma. Since he’s a jewelry salesman that even makes him sound a little like a similar sort of nomad, only without the creative angle, and one who seems to be regretting what he’s gotten himself into. Like each of the other windows facing Jeff it seems to reflect a possible future, one that he’s so fearful of diving into even if he knows deep down that it’s the right thing. Almost all of those windows, anyway; up in the corner of one of those buildings is a couple with a child but we barely see them during the film, no apparent story to reflect back as if the thought of kids with Lisa is so far off and the implicit message is that life stops once they come into the picture. There’s a little bit of a fantasy role play with Lisa as she pretends to introduce herself while they ease into their nightly patter, fitting for such a romance but we can feel Jeff starting to resist going beyond that in his realization of how that dinner she has brought over from “21” is perfect but he doesn’t know what to do with perfect. Even the simple, pragmatic reasoning offered by Thelma Ritter’s Stella during the morning rubdown she gives him does nothing to change any of this and all it does is make him try harder to convince himself of what he doesn’t really want.
A little bit of nostalgia is unavoidable in this case but to this day watching REAR WINDOW again is one of the most relaxing things I can think of, as comfortable as those neatly pressed pajamas that Jimmy Stewart spends the entire film in. With a screenplay by John Michael Hayes based on the Cornel Woolrich story “It Had to Be Murder”, the concept could have been played as noir, the story of a man whose curiosity leads him towards doom, but that doesn’t generally go with the more lighthearted Hitchcock approach, especially when he worked in color. As easygoing as that genial feeling is, the film always compels me to pay attention and watch each moment with the intensity Jeff does while it still contains that undeniable sense of upscale politeness found in Hollywood films of the 50s. When I randomly put the film on late one night recently, because time has no meaning at the moment, there was no way to simply drift off with REAR WINDOW playing since even at that hour it demanded my attention and total focus, every moment there for a reason with dialogue that sounds better each time I hear it, more laid back than the elegant quips of NORTH BY NORTHWEST in a way that goes perfectly with the Greenwich Village charm of it all. The way Jeff’s growing suspicion of Thorwald builds the exposition gets laid out beautifully, always getting us to want to hear more. But it’s also the purely visual storytelling angle of each new cut to one of the neighbors, each still so vivid from far away without any dialogue to help. All this is balanced out so well that even when the film casually stops worrying about the plot for a few minutes to let Jeff and Lisa talk a little more about their own issues it never goes afield, it always sticks close to the subject at hand and the answers they can never agree on.
All of this is on the inside but on the outside of REAR WINDOW is that sense of life going on, the life Jeff isn’t supposed to be paying attention to but it’s impossible not to keep watching and listening to it all, the soundscape of that courtyard, the parties from across the way, the jazzy Franz Waxman theme which is never treated as traditional scoring along with the simple passage of time as day turns to night as well as the romantic aspect of a couple working together which turns out to make them more in synch with each other as the man begins to see what he really loves about this woman. It brings them closer together away from that potential loneliness they might find themselves in if this doesn’t work out so if that’s not being willing to go anywhere and do anything and love it, I don’t know what is. To mangle a certain famous Godard quote, Hitchcock is basically saying all you need to make a movie is a man, a woman, a single location and a murder. As much as Jeff and Lisa question the ‘rear window ethics’ of what they’ve been doing the film takes voyeurism as a given, reflecting back to how the film affects us in the first place. Voyeurism isn’t all that different from watching a film, after all, and just as the various people across the way are still continuing with their lives at the end no one in a film ever seems to realize they’re being watched. And since no one in the film seems to have a TV, maybe it takes place in an alternate universe where the invention hasn’t yet taken hold. Which makes it more interesting for us, anyway, every frame that Jeff peers into its own film with its own genre.
So much of Jeff and Lisa’s conversations-slash-flirtations seem to be about money, directly or otherwise, so it becomes a question of if he’s really that attached to that magazine job or if he’s just insecure about the possibility of being part of some other world. Based on what we hear Jeff could probably make a decent living as a photographer who never leaves the island of Manhattan, settling into a life of luxury somewhere on the Upper East Side with Lisa, even there’s only fifty cents in her purse so she’s likely living beyond her means anyway, just like most people. But in the baffling way he insists to Lisa that there’s no way this can go anywhere Jeff seems to feel like their dinner of romantic bliss is just as phony as the one Miss Lonelyhearts is pretending to have with someone across the way but the passion is what matters. Thorwald, meanwhile, insists that he doesn’t have any money and seems to have based what he’s done on various other reasons of passion which in the Hitchcock world would qualify this murder as a sort of art, just not one of the more defensible ones. The question is more or less dropped in the end in favor of that passion and the love Jeff has for Lisa so the subject of money ultimately becomes as irrelevant as the infamous $40,000 that winds up in the swamp in PSYCHO.
Even the deceptively casual sense of the film doesn’t rob it of all that intensity and the way each scene is shot whether the surprising energy of certain camera movements when it does spring into action or that crucial moment taking Jeff’s point of view from Miss Lonelyhearts to the wider shot of Lisa upstairs and the impending return of Thorwald, essentially giving us three cuts within two shots right then a perfection of the form and the pure cinema Hitchcock was talking about. This, along with certain elements peeking through the sound like the timing of the music heard nearby with Doyle’s proclamation about the suspect’s innocence, an audio beat that I can hear that in my sleep, and of course the unrelenting feel of the montage of the final confrontation which looks forward to the PSYCHO murder with an unexpected intensity in how it’s more of a clumsy struggle than a skillful fight. The view from the apartment shows off the details in that massive set that in my dreams I show up to the Paramount lot in the early 50s to take a tour of. So much of the film is about that basic concept of point of view and how we perceive other people whether from close up or far away even if Hitchcock doesn’t stay entirely in that vantage point, moving outside for a few key shots when the one neighbor cries out to everyone after discovering her dog has been killed, an oddity brought up in the famous interview book “Hitchcock/Truffaut” without the director ever getting into the specifics of why although his discussion of “dramatic purposes” in a point related to this gets at it and it makes these neighbors human, this is where they stop being an abstraction, answering the question of what is cinema in way that also involves removing the coldness from the schematics of it all.
Going to the movies is nothing more than a memory right now and thinking back on that day long ago I still remember the gasp heard as Raymond Burr glances up looking towards a certain direction, one of the great moments of audible audience response ever, implicating us for any part we've been playing in all this peeping tom action throughout the entire running time and a reminder of how seeing a film like this in a theater can force us into paying attention to what’s happening, to be that much more committed to what is seen. “What do you want?” asks the killer with desperation. What do any of us want when we see a movie? Or when we attach ourselves to another person, looking for love, for that matter? Maybe we’re looking for a way to feel alive, to do something, to make us feel whole, even with the guilt that can often be attached to it. Noticing the way Thorwald’s wife discards the flower he kindly brings her with dinner one wonders about the valiant efforts he’s made towards the woman in the past before deciding on that whole murder thing and Hitchcock’s comment to Truffaut about how Stewart’s character “deserves what’s happening to him” in the climax points to his own sympathies. He knows how guilty we all are through our own actions and, besides, the killer’s chief motivation is to somehow get out of the life he’s been trapped in so to the director this is at least doing something about such a problem. But working as a costume jewelry salesman indicates something about his own emptiness, his lack of ability to understand what’s really around him, and though even Jeff is a little puzzled by all those fashions Lisa twirls around in for his benefit but he’s patient, he wants to. The desire is there, just the fear of what may come next.
And when Thorwald at long last enters Jeff’s apartment it’s on a Raymond Burr close-up that makes this character who is only seen from far away for so much of the running time forever memorable. At specific moments of this film that spends so much time on relaxing distant and medium shots of the action each of the three leads receive extreme close-ups that instantly define them—Burr has it there, Grace Kelly when she first appears and Stewart when he seems to see Lisa with new eyes after she’s proven herself. Up until that moment Jeff doesn’t want to lose the life he has but once he sees her that way he has a reason to love her now and he stops trying to figure out if the woman he loves has any place in it by not really doing much of anything, hoping that they can just go on as they’ve been doing, as he puts it. For him, not doing anything is the best answer of all but eventually he realizes you have to and the very end of the film proves that life goes on no matter what, past the heat wave of Jeff’s curiosity just as the wistfulness of the song that composer spends the whole movie on then gets to play for Miss Lonelyhearts, sounds like a romance that you’ll never fully achieve, even as it brings them closer together. The shades are drawn when ‘The End’ appears onscreen but that’s outside of the body of the film and the actual final moment of Lisa picking up her issue of Harper’s Bazaar when she sees it’s safe isn’t really an ending, of course, the battle between the two has to continue. We already know that they love each other so it’s an upbeat ending but one that is under no illusions about what has to be done for the feeling to continue. What is life, after all, if it doesn’t involve that question?
We always think of them as Jimmy (not James, no matter what the credits say) Stewart and Grace Kelly, that’s just the way it is. Stewart’s voice and his growing determination combined with how much of his body language is taken away is which means that so much of it in the eyes, whether settling in for the evening with Lisa or his growing awareness of how right he really is, that natural authority we’ll believe no matter what. And though it can be tough to know what to say about Grace Kelly other than some ‘cool elegance’ statement she’s a dream girl we want to be a dream girl while still displaying her sad vulnerability. She’s life. Thelma Ritter’s unapologetically straightforward nature bounces off of them just as easily as the cool humor of Wendell Corey with how much of his exposition is given while glancing around Jeff’s apartment. And now that I’m familiar with Raymond Burr from so many noirs he made during his pre-Perry Mason years it makes the sheer nastiness he projects stand out all the more as well as how afraid he always really is. The various neighbors each make an impression but especially Judith Evelyn from THE TINGLER as Miss Lonelyhearts and Georgine Darcy as Miss Torso each so vivid and so human, letting us know what they want without much audible dialogue just their actions to show who they really are.
Having said all this, REAR WINDOW remains one of the best films ever made to watch over and over to take away something different from it each time. It doesn’t just have to be about the romance, of course, but that desire for connection is what I’m thinking about right now. Naturally, this is one of the more obvious films to think of at this point in time considering it’s a film about someone confined to a single tiny space for six weeks with nothing to do…well, we’ve long since passed that number in the real world by now. My shades are mostly kept drawn but I’m still here, watching a film about the way people live when they’re alone, even when others are close by. It’s a long way from the Fine Arts Cinema in Scarsdale, which closed way back in 2006, where I first saw this film. For the past several weeks someone across the way has been practicing the cello (Is it the cello? I’m never certain) during the day which is such a soothing sound so that’s helped and I wish I could thank this person for helping out here and there through all this. The girl across the hall from me sometimes leaves her door open. Is that a good idea right now? She’s nice and I miss talking to people like we all do, but really? It’s not an easy time to be a neighbor. So trapped here I think of the past, of all those films, of a life that led me to this temporary version of solitude. But if recent history tells us anything it’s that nostalgia needs to die, that this isn’t about enshrining certain films but keeping them alive to really understand them. Jeez, L.B. Jeffries not only had Thelma Ritter for those rubdowns, there were all those nightly visits from Grace Kelly and he still got bored. But this movie is like an old friend and these days we need friends. They remind us of how good things can be. How much better they can get. And all the things we tell ourselves to convince us those things might be able to someday happen if we're with the right people.