Saturday, February 13, 2016
(September 1954, U.S.)
Were the great Alfred Hitchcock alive and well today in the digital age of the 21st Century, what would he have thought of society's fascination with looking into the lives of others? In his film REAR WINDOW, Thelma Ritter says to James Stewart that, "We've all become a race of peeping Toms!", and this was the year 1954, when technology was hardly off of the ground. In the film, the hero L.B. Jefferies (Stewart), while confined to wheelchair nursing a broken leg, passes his days away by staring out his Greenwich Village apartment rear window at the neighbors, sometimes with binoculars and sometimes even with the long zoom lens of his camera. Just imagine what Hitchcock would have thought of us today, with our obsessive capabilities of looking into the lives of others through video surveillance, YouTube, video chatting, social media, etc. He would have either been absolutely fascinated or totally sickened (as I often am!)! He might have come to the psychological conclusion that the average person is either bored or unsatisfied with their own life and must try and compensate such personal issues by peeking into the lives of others, particularly if the others are unaware they're being watched. Again, Jefferies is physically confined to just one room and can't do much else with himself, so perhaps that exonerates him from his voyeuristic behavior (what's our excuse??).
And so, as we take stock of the neighbors that Jefferies watches, we have a pretty, blonde ballet dancer with a nice ass, a female sculptor, a pair of newlyweds who have the curtain drawn the entire time, a bachelor composer, an older woman longing for love and companionship (Jefferies nicknames her "Miss Lonelyhearts"), an older couple with a dog who like to sleep outdoors on their fire escape during the summer heat, and finally, Mr. Lars Thorwald (played by Raymond Burr), a traveling jewelry salesman with a nagging, bedridden wife. During Jefferies's confinement, it would seem that these people are his only solace (other than the insurance company nurse Stella), that is, until we're introduced to his socialite girlfriend Lisa (played by the absolutely beautiful Grace Kelly) who we first see in a camera shot that is done in slow motion and in an almost dreamlike state as she leans in to kiss Jefferies...
She's very real, though. She's beautiful, exotic, successful, and somewhat spoiled by her high society persona. Unlike Jefferies, whose profession of magazine photographer has sent him to some of the harshest places in the world and has also given him a rough, somewhat undignified disposition. On paper, the two of them have about as much in common as my own parents did - which is very little! When he's with her, we can tell he's enchanted by her, despite their very different worlds. Still, by the end of their first evening together, we're brought down to the reality of their relationship as it appears they'll never be able compromise their own lifestyle beliefs in order to be together. When Lisa leaves Jefferies alone for the night, the mystery of REAR WINDOW finally begins when he hears a woman scream and the sound of glass breaking. Jefferies stays awake all night and the next day watching his neighbor Thorwald through his camera and this is what he sees - repeated trips in the middle of the night in the pouring rain and thunder, knives and saws being nearly wrapped up in newspaper, a trunk tied with rope, jewelry from a handbag and the nagging, bedridden wife who's no longer there! In fact, it's during this sequence of watching that there's the first of two great visual moments in the film that I never forget. In this first one, just look closely at Jefferies' eyes while looking through his camera and then watch them slowly shift to our right...
This is the exact moment, through the movement of his eyes, that Jefferies realizes the horrific act of murder may have occurred during the night just across the courtyard, and in his own way, he's become a party to it. At this moment, simple voyeurism has become obsession because Jefferies is convinced he's right about everything he suspects, even though he can't prove a single part of it. While his nurse Stella (Ritter) appears to be on his side, Lisa and his detective friend Tom Doyle (played by Wendell Corey) think he's imagining the impossible. In fact, Lisa paints a very reasonable argument to Jefferies, stating that any sane, intelligent man who plans to murder his wife wouldn't be stupid enough to parade the crime in front of an open window for all to possibly see. Sounds reasonable, of course, but the argument is only momentary. In what I consider to be the second great visual moment of the film, stare closely at Lisa's face while she's making this argument and you'll see a sudden change in her expression...
In that single moment, even though we haven't yet seen what it is she's looking at, we know very well that something has changed about her argument and that she's about to cross over into Jefferies' world of intrigue and mystery. In this one moment, Lisa can now join Jefferies on his level, and this may be all the two of them need to make their confused relationship work. As they dive deeper into the mystery of Lars Thorwald and "did he?" or "didn't he?", we can see Jefferies' attitude toward his girlfriend change over time. Impatience and resentment are replaced with sincere love and admiration as the two of them are finally able to share an experience together on an equal level of common ground. Lisa, who started out in defiance of the entire matter, is even now more motivated to learn the truth than Jefferies (perhaps this is because she has two good legs!) as she even goes so far as to get into Thorwald's apartment when he's out to discover that his missing wife's wedding ring has been left behind, and its this ring that may be the only real evidence that will finally nail Thorwald! Of course, as is with just about any crime story, the guilty are caught and punished, and the heroes are triumphant in their deeds and get to live happily ever after (even if it means two broken legs!).
REAR WINDOW is, without a doubt, one of Hitchcock's finest films, only third to PSYCHO (1960) and THE BIRDS (1963), in my opinion. It's a simple, and yet very strange, tale of a slice of life in a small neighborhood in New York City (despite being completely shot at the Paramount Studios in Hollywood, California). Simple as it may or may not be, however, it's one of Hitchcock's most psychologically-charged films that explores the obsessive level of human nature and how people perceive the lives of others around them from the outside, looking in. As viewers ourselves, we're effortlessly drawn into the film not only as fans of Hitchcock's work, but as curious beings allowing ourselves to be trapped in a world where the act of spying into the lives of others is not only wickedly fun, but even essential to solving a murder. And despite the great dialogue and performances from all who participate in this film, REAR WINDOW is ultimately about looking...looking for ourselves and looking alongside James Stewart so we can fully understand and appreciate what's taking place before us and perhaps even share some of the guilt and terror of the consequences of seeing things that we were never meant to see.
In 1997, there was a TV remake of REAR WINDOW, which starred the late Christopher Reeve and Daryl Hannah. I watched it because I found the concept of using Reeve, who was confined to a wheelchair in real life due to his paralysis, fascinating. Somehow, using Reeve and his condition just made sense for a modern remake of such a story. Unfortunately, as with any film that attempts to remake Hitchcock, it didn't work for me. In the world of film, one should simply never try to remake the "Master of Suspense" (you listening, Gus Van Sant??)!
Now a quick personal story for you. Sometime during the very late 1990s, just before the digital technology of the world we live in now truly allowed us to look into the lives of others, I was living in a small apartment on East 86th Street in Manhattan. It was a quiet Saturday night during the winter and I was sitting at the eating table which faced the apartment building across the street. Without even giving it much thought, I found myself getting my binoculars to see what I could see. After doing some scanning, I focused on the bedroom of an apartment across the way. And while I wish I could tell you I got to watch something juicy or scandalous, all I really got to see was a married couple going to bed for the night. Still, I couldn't help but be fascinated at how I could actually watch these people and what they were doing without them being aware of it. As Stewart mentions in the film, there's an issue of ethics to such actions, but at the same time, his neighbors could also do it to him if they wanted to, as could my own. Anyway, I never did it again after that one. Truth be told, it wasn't that interesting or even that much fun.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Lisa Fremont (to Jefferies): "Tell me exactly what you saw...and what you think it means."