Cool Things: Rear Window

Let me just say that I have a soft spot for Alfred Hitchcock. Not the crazy horror movies like Psycho or The Birds, but the masterful suspense films like To Catch a Thief, North by Northwest or The Man Who Knew Too Much. In fact, I seriously considered making this month “Alfred Hitchcock Movie Month” but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. So to round out Classic Color Movie Month, here’s Rear Window.

Rear Window is part of the National Film Registry, a perennial favorite of the American Film Institute and well liked on sites like Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic. What more can one man possibly add to the discussion?

Well, probably not a whole lot. Other than telling you that you really, really need to see this movie if you haven’t. But we’re going to try anyways.

At the center of Rear Window is photographer L.B. Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart). He’s recently broken his leg and spends his time in his cramped apartment confined to a wheelchair, watching the goings on in the courtyard outside his window and the buildings across the way. Equipped with a telephoto lens and a large supply of time on his hands, Jefferies alternates between contemplating the world below and trying to hold off the advances of his high society girlfriend, Lisa Freemont (Grace Kelly). A nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter), provided by his insurance company also visits from time to time.

Things really go wild when one night, during a downpour, Jefferies hears a woman crying help. Among his neighbors there is a travelling salesman named Thorwald (Raymond Burr) who’s wife is a bedridden nag and who, after that one stormy night, Jeffries never sees again.

Jeffries soon begins to suspect that she’s been murdered. But if a man won’t stop at murdering his wife and cutting up the body to hide it, is there really any reason to think he’ll stop at anything else to get away with it?

It’s no surprise that Rear Window is considered one of Hitchcock’s greatest films. While the typical thriller starts at a breakneck pace and doesn’t let us off until it’s all said and done, Rear Window takes a very, very different approach. Things start mellow and almost relaxing and we get to know Jefferies and his friends. We’re most of the way through the first act before Mrs. Thorwald disappears. Even then, no one’s really sure what happened. And it’s not like someone would commit murder right there, in an apartment facing a courtyard where everyone has been sleeping with their windows open in an attempt to beat the heat.

Would they?

Perhaps the most brilliant part of the story is the fact that Jefferies is confined to his apartment. He really can’t leave to investigate, can’t talk to people other than those who come to his apartment to visit, can’t do much of anything that we, the viewers, can except talk to his friends and ask them for favors.  This creates a kind of empathy between audience and character, we’re alike in our powerlessness. We can only observe and hope things work out for the best. At the end, when Jefferies faces his reckoning, we almost feel like we should be there helping, because we feel we’ve been just as meddlesome as he has even though we ourselves have done nothing.

There’s more to Rear Window, of course. All the best stories are wheels within enigmas within mysteries of storytelling. Stewart is a brilliant actor and his costars match him in every respect. The cinematography is brilliant and the music is a nice touch. But, above everything else, the pacing of Rear Window, it’s incredibly slow but inexorable buildup to the climax, the way it feels at once relentless and light, inevitable yet somehow a little fun, is a lesson in pacing many modern film makers could draw on. A lot.

This is really a classic, not just for reasons of nostalgia but for it’s incredible construction and pacing. If you’ve never seen Rear Window, I think it’s time you went out and remedied that. Right now.

Cool Things: The Philadelphia Story

I mentioned a while ago that I do love me some black and white movies. I’ve mentioned Casablanca before, and I figured that I might as well take advantage of this spot to mention a few others that you may not have heard of.

The Philadelphia Story stars Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart, names you’ve hopefully heard of (and if you haven’t, this ain’t a half bad film to watch as a beginner’s primer to their work.) In modern times this movie would probably be considered a romantic comedy, but it has very little in common with the films put under that heading today. A brief synopsis of the story runs something like this:

C.K. Dexter Haven (Grant) and Tracy Samantha Lord (Hepburn), decidedly upper crust Americans with significant privacy issues, get married (not shown) and quickly get divorced again. Fast forward a bit.

Tracy is planning on getting married again, this time to George Kittredge (John Howard). The editor of a major tabloidesque magazine dispatches a reporter, Macaulay “Mike” Conner (Stewart), and photographer, Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey), to cover the wedding, armed with some juicy blackmail to get the family to play along. Dexter goes along, officially to provide an introduction to the family but unofficially with the hope of winning his ex-wife back. What results is a train wreck of conflicting objectives and personalities.

The Philadelphia Story is great for a plethora of reasons. It’s funny. Really funny, the kind of funny that is timeless in the way it relies on strong, believable and openly conflicting personalities. All of the stars, and the supporting cast, nail their parts, giving performances of a quality that many modern day stars seem to only manage once every four or five movies. But most importantly, the story manages to tackle issues without being in your face about it and without sacrificing the story.

Mike is a solid, proud working man. But at his heart he’s an artist. While he spends most of his time pounding out meaningless social drivel for a second rate gossip rag he once wrote a series of short stories that he published – and sold abysmally. (My sympathies, Mike.) Even so, he views himself as a member of the proletariat, solidly against the bourgeois in all forms. Problems arise when he finds himself attracted to Tracy Lord, very much not a member of the proletariat.

Tracy is a strong, confident woman with little patience for people who can’t match her own level of foresight and character – or so she seems to tell herself. In truth, she’s stand-offish and harsh. She has tossed Dexter for his drinking habit, which disgusted her, and she finds Mike’s insight and sharp wit a match for her own standards.

Dexter stands in the middle of the whirlwind. He still loves Tracy, despite her shrewish behavior towards him, and he hopes that some day she will learn that with high standards must come mercy, or she will wind up cutting herself off from humanity and end very, very alone. He never makes excuses for his bad behavior, but he’s dried out since his drinking days and can’t quite understand why he is still being punished for them. So, with grace and humor he has to gently rebuke Tracy’s excessive zeal, finagle some way to get the Lords out from under the blackmail threats with Mike’s help and hopefully walk away with the girl and a few new friends in the end.

The Philadelphia Story is a great story, well told, but more than anything it’s great for the way it shows the ways in which romance continues after a visit to the wedding alter. Thankfully not all relationships are as rocky as Dexter and Tracy’s. But, with this story in mind, it’s a little easier to believe that, with a little grace and a lot of dedication, even the rockiest can turn out fine in the end.