Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Skuriels Countdown: #8

Alfred Hitchcock, 1954
[13 votes]

“Voyeurism, murder, and subjective point-of-view: these are the well-trodden aspects of Rear Window that make it a superb, even classic thriller. But what defines Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece as one of my favorite films of all time is its sly and complex treatment of romance. At first, the emotional relationship between wheelchair-ridden extreme photographer L.B. Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) and his stunningly kind advertising executive girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) is defined by expectation and assumption. She wants him to settle down and he sees this compromise as a death knell. The end is near. However, during Jeffries’ meticulous attempt to piece together the mystery unfolding beyond his apartment window, his view of human nature, specifically love and compassion, deepens in unexpected ways. This transition reaches critical mass when Lisa goes from casual bystander to active participant and potential victim of the killer in a stunning sequence witnessed from Jeffries’ helpless perspective across the courtyard, where panic and terror wash over the character’s face in striking potency. When the dust settles, the rush of relief Jeffries feels when he takes Lisa in his arms again is pure bliss, one of the cinema’s great second chances.” ~ Glenn Heath Jr.

"’Jeff, you know if someone came in here, they wouldn't believe what they'd see. You and me with long faces, plunged into despair because we find out a man didn't kill his wife. We're two of the most frightening ghouls I've ever known. You'd think we could be a little bit happy the poor woman is alive and well.’

“At the moment Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) says those lines, Rear Window could quite plausibly end. And in the real world, such a situation probably would. The main narrative engine has been wrapped up. All the suspicious circumstances about the absence of Anna Thorwald from the apartment stand as explained by Detective Doyle's citation of ‘family problems,’ a euphemism for ‘divorce.’ The big trunk contained her clothes, not her body, and the Merrittsville police said she had gone to pick it up. And if you, the viewer, had paid close attention, you'd remember there was a very quick shot of a woman leaving the apartment with suspect Lars Thorwald that voyeur LB Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart) didn't see because he was asleep.

“End of story ... and end of a not-very-good movie.

Rear Window simply has to continue because we the audience want it to continue -- we're barely at feature length yet, if nothing else. It's not simply Chekhov's now-cliche about bringing a gun onstage in the first act, only applied to an apparent disappearance. It's also our specific expectations of Alfred Hitchcock, who once lamented having become ‘a typed director. If I made Cinderella, the audience would immediately be looking for a body in the coach.’ Hitchcock simply cannot make a film about a woman who doesn't get killed. And so the movie continues even after Doyle has confirmed that nothing beyond an ugly family situation is going on -- he had glanced over to Lisa's nightclothes and asked Jeff ‘do you tell your landlord everything?’ But the transition scenes around Lisa's speech I quoted at the start of this piece are telling, in terms of what Hitchcock thinks of his central characters and of us.

“First of all, after Doyle had left but before the speech, Jeff and Lisa saw an attack on Miss Lonelyhearts, one of the people Jeff had been spying on through his rear window. Instead of a hypothesized and inferred murder, treated as a thesis statement to be argued over, the two actually do see an act (attempted if not completed) of sexual violence against a typecast character in one of the several little movies Jeff has been watching -- and they're shocked into moral reflection about ‘rear window ethics.’ Secondly, Lisa quickly pulls down the shades in Jeff's apartment with the meta-cinematic line ‘show is over for tonight,’ an inversion of the gesture at the start of Rear Window -- those same shades being rolled up like the curtains at a theater over the opening credits. According to the rules of classical structure, such a reversal should end ‘the movie.’ As if to emphasize the point, Lisa flashes her overnight bag and nightie before Jeff and says ‘preview of coming attractions’ (this from an era where the trailers played after the movie).

“But lastly, the event that kicks the Thorwald investigation back to the center of the film is highly artificial and, upon reflection, unsatisfactory. At the very moment of Lisa's resplendent nightgown walk, a scream pierces through the courtyard -- another couple's dog has been killed. Such a chance coinciding is too remarkable to be a coincidence, especially for a nonrealist like Hitchcock. Jean-Luc Godard once wrote about the 1955 Man Who Knew Too Much that ‘people say that Hitchcock lets the wires show too often. But because he shows them, they are no longer wires. They are parts of a marvellous architectural design made to withstand our scrutiny.’ Here the wire of coincidence is put in full view. It also occurs just before, in the logic of the events in Jeff's apartment, the two would have gone to bed, something that (1) the film couldn't show and (2) wouldn't be very interesting to us, or at least much less to us than it would be to them. It's like a change of speaker in a Platonic dialogue … a sudden, pregnant move where part of the meaning is in what has just been left hanging. Now, they suspect Thorwald and hatch new plans, so we get to watch a crime story rather than a closed door. At the end of the film, the dog's death, the cause of the scream, winds up as little more than a tossed-off MacGuffin. There's no body parts or other evidence in the flower bed around which he had been sniffing, and when the nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) asks at the end, she gets the non-answer answer ‘it's in the apartment. You wanna look?’

“Hitchcock is in every way underlining and thus undermining the genre and auteurist requirement that the film continue, by pointing out that it is only for own benefit. Jefferies' ‘film’ is over, but our movie has to continue. Hitchcock criticism has long focused on the theme of ‘transference of guilt,’ but usually from one character to another -- Uncle Charlie to Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt or George Kaplan to Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest. Here in Rear Window, we get the ultimate expression of that theme -- from all the characters onscreen to the audience. At the most obvious level, the first observation made of Rear Window in any classroom setting is that Jeff is a voyeur who, like a movie audience, watches widescreen-shaped apartments, the events in which he pieces together into stories -- Stewart : the events of the yard :: Rear Window's audience : Rear Window.

“But this transference analogy applies to more than the formal structure of the event, Hitchcock has linked the audience to LB Jefferies in a couple of significant content-related ways -- his obliviousness to what is in front of him and its application to his own life. Again, it's been a critical commonplace to notice that all the major dramas play out possible futures for Jeff and Lisa. Regardless, all these romantic stories share something even more fundamental than similarities to an unseen future and that is their bald subject matter: they all deal with love and sex. How does Jefferies getting obsessed with this murder story affect him in that department? There is a lengthy scene of Jeff and Lisa embracing each other and kissing. While their lips are apart, Jeff can only talk about his suspicions about what he's seen the previous night, Lisa's response to which is to try to refocus his attention on herself. It also comes up late in the exchange that Jeff had been watching out the window during the make-out session and noticed something else suspicious and he concludes ‘there's something terribly wrong here.’ To which a defeated Lisa muses ‘obviously, it's with me.’ Every male viewer under the age of 90 is looking at Stewart and thinking ‘Jeezus bud, you're necking with Grace Kelly and you're thinking about and trying talk about knives and saws.’ But that viewer does so himself while watching Rear Window. (Or writing about it.) The only time you really see Jeff look admiringly at Lisa is when she comes back, breathless, from slipping a note under Thorwald's door and she asks him how well she did. It's only when she gets involved in his fantasy, as an explicitly name-checked Girl Friday, that he can see her as anything other than an unattainable embodiment of ‘perfect’ (that word definitely not used approvingly). Still, if you brush up on your detective literature, you know that while it's always the Girl Friday who bails out the hero, funnily enough, he never winds up with her in the end. The coda could not make it more explicit -- even Girl Friday entering Jeff's within-the-movie fantasy will not work out in within-the-movie real life. Several of the ‘stories’ in the other apartments have advanced somehow -- Miss Torso has her beau back from the Army, Miss Lonelyhearts and the songwriter have hit it up, even the old married couple has a new dog, and (in the one ‘bad’ development) the honeymoon ends for the honeymooning couple. But Jeff and Lisa are pretty much exactly where they started -- Jeff asleep with two newly broken legs while Lisa feigns interest in his ‘adventure’ life but returns to her Harper's Bazaar. Only the smile on Grace Kelly's face (and Grace Kelly's face) sweetens the ‘voyeur audience has learned nothing from his viewing’ moral.

“Even beyond this ‘never learn’ maxim, Hitchcock attacks his audience through the character of Stella, the movie's wisest character in many ways, and through her corruption by this story. While she isn't the formal dramatic identification figure (that's Jeff) or its fantasy identification (that's Lisa), she is the most recognizably real person (think maybe Midge in Vertigo). Partly because of Ritter's persona and her down-to-earth playing versus the impossible glamour of Stewart and Kelly, but also because it is she who right away smells trouble in this apartment. Significantly, this scent is one that Jefferies, like many a naive Hitchcock hero (think again of Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt), says he would welcome. Stella also puts forth very early what a ‘positive’ view of the meta-cinema analogy would approximately be: ‘We've become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.’ While this gets instantly poo-poohed by Stewart as coming from the hick backwaters of Reader's Digest, citing such a popular source still identifies her as the closest thing to an everyman in the film. She also recites a few lines caustically critical of psychology/analysis, expressing both the regnant popular skepticism and a prime Hitchcock hallmark of this period. But in the course of the film, Stella not only participates in Jeff's quest but asks all kinds of ‘logical’ questions a certain sort of movie viewer asks, ones that are, in this context, macabre – ‘I wonder where he cut her up? The bathroom of course. Gotta wash up the blood.’ She even gets inadvertently coldblooded about chopping off her own finger. Stella's final question is one question Hitchcock hated to be asked -- the status of the MacGuffin. But when she's offered a chance to see what was in the flower bed, she does two things. She says all moralistically ‘oh, no thanks -- I don't want any of part of it,’ but she follows this with a shocked look at what a transparent lie she has told and how her asking the question indicated she had changed over the last several days. She is the closest thing to ‘a viewer of Rear Window’ as exists in Rear Window -- a woman with expectations of danger who gets absorbed in the story, becomes a macabre ghoul in the process, and then gets shocked at seeing herself that way.

“Indeed, that is why Rear Window is not only the prototypical Hitchcock film, but one that breaks new ground that wouldn't be plowed again for decades. His greatest gift was to package moral and sexual depravity as crackling good, fit-for-the-whole-family entertainment. And, pardon the anachronism, Rear Window is Hitchcock's Funny Games, a director's scalding indictment of his own audience as a bunch of ghouls. Only repackaged as crackling good, fit-for-the-whole-family entertainment.” ~ Victor Morton

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