DVD Review Of Rear Window

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/19/06


  Some films show their age, and others do not. Despite its reputation as a classic of great filmmaking, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film Rear Window, unfortunately, shows its age far too much. No, it’s certainly not a bad film, by any standard, and is a pretty good one, but it’s not one of Hitchcock’s best, much less a great film, nor deserving of any place in the Top 100 Films lists of the last few years. Technically, it deserves many plaudits, but what really fails is the screenplay, written originally by John Michael Hayes for a radio play, and adapted from a short story by Cornell Woolrich. Yes, one can suspend disbelief from night till day comes, but the whole idea that a man would murder his wife and cut up her body all in front of an open window is sheerly implausible, even back in the 1950s New York milieu the film takes place in. Even one of the film’s characters, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) comments on that fact, but it’s not with irony, which only highlights the film’s greatest failing- its implausibility.

  Now, there are genres where the suspension of disbelief is absolutely essential. For example, one of my favorite films from childhood, the original Planet Of The Apes (1968) requires a great suspension of disbelief, far more so than Rear Window does. After all, the Charlton Heston character, Colonel Taylor, a veteran trained astronaut and scientist, goes throughout the whole film not recognizing the sun and moon, the constellations, the unlikely evolutionary odds that humans and apes could evolve anywhere but Earth, and that the apes speak English, no less! It’s not until he sees the wreck of the Statue Of Liberty that he realizes he’s back on our world. I was four or five when I first saw the film, and knew it was Earth a minute or two after the astronauts arrived on the Planet Of The Apes. Perhaps too closely studying books on geology and science destroys a youthful ability to suspend disbelief, but the rest of the film was so brilliantly satirical that the implausibilities were minor solecisms. In short, there is no story unless we accept these liberties with common sense, including the fact that the astronauts could be frozen in suspended animation for two eons. It’s an all or none proposition- accept, or walk out of the theater. Genres that depend on the implausible- like sci fi and horror, demand such of their audience, and once given it’s foolish to quibble over things like time travel, faster than light speed, aliens, modern dinosaurs, ghosts, atomic age mutants, or the like.

  Not so with thrillers and more adult fare as Rear Window. Because the film is so precise and so lauded for its slow pace in showing the everyday mundanities of big city life, it requires a far closer fidelity to realism in its denouement than any film with talking apes and mute human slaves does. The hour and fifty two minute film follows a few days in the life of a famed photojournalist named L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart), who is also called Jeff. He is wheelchairbound, and his left leg is in a cast after a crazy stunt to get a photo for his magazine. He is thin yet flabby and irascible, despite having a gorgeous blond high society girlfriend, who works in the fashion industry, named Lisa Fremont. How any man could be bored with a woman who looks like Grace Kelly is the first implausibility, not to mention that he cruelly puts her down with callous remarks. The first we see of her in the film, she is bending down to kiss a sleeping Stewart in his wheelchair, and it is one of the most perfect human visages ever captured onscreen. I have never understood why Marilyn Monroe’s star has outshone Kelly’s for Kelly is far more gorgeous, and can actually act, and quite well, at that, unlike the ditzy and talentless Monroe.

  To cure his boredom and slake his thrill-seeking, as well the forced impotence his cast imposes upon him, Jeff takes to voyeuring the neighbors in his communal Greenwich Village courtyard, which was really a $100,000 set- thirty-eight feet wide, a hundred and eighty-five feet long, and forty feet high. He can see through their open windows and knows many of their life stories from just their actions. This is implausibility number two. New Yorkers, even half a century ago, are famously private and paranoid about snoopers and Peeping Toms, even if during a heat wave, and sans air conditioners, as the film depicts. The vast majority of shots in the film are either from Jeff’s point of view, or objective shots of him looking out at the audience. This is a brilliant contrivance, but it only works so far, and only as long as one is content in believing people carelessly frolic about their apartments doing all sorts of sexual and psychotic acts for the world to see. By telling story from a distance Hitchcock is engaging in a form of pure cinema, relying more on visuals than any other thing to push forth the tale, and never has the old idea that comedy is life from a distance, and tragedy is life close-up, been more convincingly portrayed on film. There is almost a comic strip quality to many of the antics that are seen framed in each apartment.

  As for the neighbors, there is Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy)- a gorgeous blond, but scantily clad, wannabe ballet dancer who has parties with wealthy men in her apartment- a no-no five decades ago. She is routinely lusted for by Jeff and other men in the apartment complexes. There’s a newlywed couple (Rand Harper and Havis Davenport) that start the film happy- with him carrying her across the threshhold, but they quickly descend into marital routine and nagging within a few days, after initially never having their blinds up, due to their sexual urges. There’s a wacky Bohemian sculptress (Jesslyn Fax) who annoys her neighbors, and a musician (Ross Bagdasarian) in an attic studio apartment. He has a piano, holds parties, and plays out tunes throughout the film- which is the only scoring in the body of the film, aside from some records and music of Dean Martin (Mona Lisa and That’s Amore) that others play. The film’s opening credits, however, are traditionally scored. There is a middle aged couple (Sara Berner and Frank Cady) who sleep on their fire escape to cool off, and they have a cute little dog they lower to the courtyard via a basket and pulley. He always digs up some of the flowers that are planted. Jeff seems to find their lifestyle dull, uneventful, and somewhat horrifying. He is clearly the sort of person with no inner life, so he must always seek adventure, even when confined to a wheelchair and apartment. Then there’s Miss Lonely Hearts (Judith Evelyn), a depressed but prim spinster, who holds pretend dates with phantoms, then picks up a young man who gropes her. She tosses him out of her apartment, and seems ready to commit suicide until she hears the musician’s music, and she is moved to keep living, and they end up together.

  One of the other people that Jeff, Lisa, and his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), come to gawk at is a salesman named Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr, with white hair), whose nagging, invalid wife suddenly disappears. Jeff and the ladies conclude he’s killed her, when they see him wrapping up knifes and saws, as well as packing away things of his and hers, even though no violence is ever seen onscreen. Jeff sees him leave his apartment early in the morning three times, and gets a cop friend of his involved, named Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey)- an old war buddy. But, it seems that Anna Thorwald (Irene Winston), the wife, has gone out of town, and Doyle grows skeptical of Jeff’s obsessions. That he does not warn his pal it’s against the law to invade others’ privacy is another suspension of disbelief the film relies on. There are dozens of such minor moments, but the biggest ones are what kybosh the film.

  As the film goes on, Jeff has Lisa slip a letter under his door, then makes a call to Thorwald’s apartment, to get him believing someone is on to his adulterous and murderous ways, and pretends to blackmail him, asking to meet him at the Albert Hotel, a Greenwich Village landmark, so Lisa and Stella can dig up some flowers that seem amiss, which have Jeff believing the reason the middle aged couple’s dog was killed by Thorwald was because it was digging where Anna Thorwald was buried. This heady conclusion is come to by Jeff because Thorwald was the only neighbor not to respond to the dead dog’s female owner’s screams when it’s found dead. This sort of preternatural ability to piece things together is a sort of corollary to the ‘dumbest possible action ‘ tropes that propel melodramas- such as when a serial killer is loose and a sexy, scantily clad girl goes down a dark corridor alone. This inverse, where only the hero can put together disparate and unrelated pieces of evidence that logically have no real connection, is a more human manifestation of a near-deus ex machina, which means the plot has no realistic way to end, so must rely on gimmickry.

  While digging, with no one watching, it seems, Stella finds no body. Then Lisa climbs up into Thorwald’s apartment- in high heels no less!, as Stella and Jeff watch in horror as Thorwald returns. But, Jeff’s called the police, who save Lisa, and arrest her for breaking and entering. Here is another implausibility. The cops arrive just two or three minutes after Jeff calls them. No way, not in New York nor any other big city of the last hundred years. Lisa flashes to Jeff that she’s recovered Anna’s wedding ring, and Lars sees that she’s motioning over to Jeff’s apartment, before he can turn out his lights. Stella, who’s returned to Jeff’s, goes to bail Lisa out, he calls Doyle again, and then Thorwald comes over to kill Jeff. But, more implausibilities abound. With Lisa arrested, all Thorwald had to do was claim that the ring was his wife’s and Lisa stole it, and he could have easily retrieved it, for we know Doyle and the cops don’t believe a word Jeff’s saying abut the murder, for Thorwald has a perfect alibi. He would be far more believable than she would be to them, but then there could be no final confrontation scene, which is also implausible. First, why would Jeff’s apartment door be unlocked? Not in New York City in the last hundred years, yet through the whole film Doyle, Stella, and Lisa pop in and out without a key nor a word from Jeff. And Jeff’s attempt to stop the murderous Thorwald with camera flashes, and not tossing things at him while blinded, is plain silly, although the flashes are a brilliant visual representation of Jeff’s impotence. Implausible as it all is, Hitchcock does add some ethics and depth to the moment for, just as Thorwald discovers Lisa, a floor below, Miss Lonely Hearts is also attempting her suicide, and Jeff must choose which woman’s life to save. Fortunately, the musician’s music entices Miss Lonely Hearts to soldier on, and Lisa is eventually saved, as well.

  The DVD of Rear Window is part of The Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection, but lacks an audio commentary. It does have a 55 minute documentary on the film and its restoration, called Rear Window Ethics: Remembering and Restoring a Hitchcock Classic, in which Pat Hitchcock, Peter ‘The Gossip’ Bogdanovich, and others reminisce on the film; a conversation with screenwriter John Michael Hayes; and the original and re-release trailers. For those who obsess over Hitchcock’s cameo, it occurs about a half hour into the film, as Hitchcock is winding the clock in the musician’s apartment.

  While not a great film overall, Rear Window is a technically great film. The camera work by cinematographer Robert Burks is first rate, and the film goes over many standard Hitchcock themes such as voyeurism- especially apt in this cyberworld of 24/7 voyeurism, marriage as a horror, and challenging technical restrictions, as in Lifeboat and Rope. There are many small moments in the film that work for effect- such as pure mise-en-scene shots of Jeff or the neighbors doing minor things unrelated to the main tale. And, there is some comedy, such as after Jeff is tossed out the window, and Thorwald is arrested, Stella comments to the cops, ‘I don’t want any part of it’, when asked about assisting in the search for Anna Thorwald’s body. Still, none of the many pluses of the film are enough to lift the film up from a good, solid period piece, for Rear Window’s reputation is based largely upon its claim to being a slice of ‘realism’. It’s not. It’s far closer to melodrama with its reliance on coincidences and implausibilities- not to mention the very sexism of the premise that a woman is so predictable that even her murder can be deduced by small deviances from that predictability, to propel the main action along. And melodrama, while it can often be great fun, is almost never great art. Rear Window is vastly overrated, and no exception that proves the rule. It is the rule, and that’s a fact no amount of suspended disbelief can alter.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Unlikely 2.0 website.]

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