Monday, March 19, 2007

 

A race of peeping toms

NOTE: Ranked No. 9 on my all-time top 100 of 2012


"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."
Stella (Thelma Ritter) in Rear Window

By Edward Copeland
Sometimes, offhand statements can hit you like a ton of bricks, as if something you've always held to be true suddenly is revealed not to be the universal fact you always believed. This happened in the past week or so as several people, whose opinions I respect, suddenly (and not all in the same place) expressed beliefs that Rear Window is one of Alfred Hitchcock's weakest efforts. I was shocked because I honestly don't ever remember anyone ever saying much against this film, which I consider a masterpiece and which has long held a spot on my all-time Top 10 list. In his great and legendary book of interviews with Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut said that Notorious and Rear Window were his two favorite Hitchcock movies. I re-watched Rear Window to see if I'd missed something and to bolster my case for this as my top Hitchcock achievement.


"I love Hitchcock. Rear Window is a film that makes me crazy, in a good way. There's such a coziness with James Stewart in one room, and it's such a cool room, and the people who come into this room — Grace Kelly, for instance, and Thelma Ritter — it's just so fantastic that they're all in on a mystery that's unfolding out their window. It's magical and everybody who sees it feels that. It's so nice to go back and visit that place."
David Lynch in Catching the Big Fish

I'm pleased to report that Rear Window riveted me as much as always and I even found new things to admire in what I still insist is Hitchcock's greatest film. Rear Window plunges you into its mood immediately with its memorable credit sequence set to Franz Waxman's jazzy score, raising the shades to allow the viewer to gaze at one of the best sets ever built for a movie. We get glimpses of most of the stories taking place across the courtyard before we even meet a sleeping L.B. Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart), making us complicit in his voyeurism and invasion of privacy before he even takes up the hobby. Of course, we also get Hitch's great wordless opening that explains Jeff's broken leg and lets us know that he makes his living as a photographer. One thing that I always forget about Rear Window until I watch it again is how the bulk of its suspense is packed into its last half-hour. This isn't to say it doesn't hold your attention until then, but it's more domestic comedy and an exploration of ethics until that point.
"She's too perfect, she's too talented, she's too beautiful, she's too sophisticated, she's too everything but what I want."
Jeff talking about Lisa (Grace Kelly)


Part of the brilliance of John Michael Hayes' screenplay is that nearly every story that Jeff spies on through his window presents some aspect of his ambivalence toward marriage and toward Lisa. Before he even suspects that Lars Thorvald (Raymond Burr) has killed his wife, Jeff is resisting constant entreaties that he should wed: From his nurse Stella, from his editor and, eventually, from his police detective friend Lt. Doyle (Wendell Corey). Even though the laid-up Jeff exists in "a swamp of boredom" thanks to his injury, he still seems to prefer it to giving up his freedom and privacy for Lisa or for anyone. In his phone conversation with his unseen editor, Jeff expresses misgivings about life after marriage that will eventually be a possible motive for Thorvald.
Editor: It's about time you got married, before you turn into a lonesome and bitter old man.
Jeff: Yeah, can't you just see me, rushing home to a hot apartment to listen to the automatic laundry and the electric dishwasher and the garbage disposal and the nagging wife...
Editor: Jeff, wives don't nag anymore. They discuss.
Jeff: Oh, is that so, is that so? Well, maybe in the high-rent district they discuss. In my neighborhood they still nag.


As Jeff's boredom turns to outright peeping, he can see part of his life in nearly every story: His inability to work is expressed by the frustrated musician, the Thorvalds squabble, two newlyweds indulge in the bliss of their new beginning and another married couple live for their baby, who happens to be a dog. He also spots Miss Torso, who parades an endless series of men through her apartment, something Jeff fears Lisa would do if they got hitched and he was constantly away on photography assignments. Last, there is Miss Lonelyhearts, who represents a sad singlehood, though Jeff doesn't seem to see himself in her, though Lisa finds more to identify there than with Miss Torso, though neither woman seems an exact match for the gorgeous and cultured Lisa. In fact, you have to ask what Lisa sees in Jeff in the first place. As pointed out in Hitchcock/Truffaut, the film sets up real symmetry between the Thorvalds and Jeff and Lisa in that Jeff is an invalid and Lisa can move about while Mrs. Thorvald is an invalid and it's her husband who has the freedom of movement.
"Intelligence. Nothing has caused the human race more trouble than intelligence."
Stella


Stella isn't talking about WMDs or attempts to acquire uranium from Niger. She's referring to Jeff's tendency to overthink things, especially related to Lisa and marriage. Soon, his tendency to overanalyze starts the engine on the film's main thread as he suspects that Thorvald has killed Mrs. Thorvald. (He hears an unidentified scream 30 minutes in). Hitchcock actually makes his requisite cameo around the same time, appearing in the musician's apartment winding a clock, as if he's manually starting the plot. In that same opening shot where we first meet the sleeping Jeff, we see the thermometer indicating that it's an extremely hot summer day in New York, giving rise to the idea that heat could be allowing his imagination to get carried away just as 35 years later a hot summer day in Brooklyn would give rise to the tensions that propel Spike Lee's great Do the Right Thing. In fact, before Jeff convinces Lisa and Stella that Thorvald might have offed his wife, even the audience is led to think that perhaps it's all in Jeff's head. Hitchcock shows us Thorvald leaving the apartment with a woman presumed to be Mrs. Thorvald, but only the audience sees it because it happens while Jeff sleeps.
"People do a lot of things in private they couldn't possibly explain in public."
Lt. Thomas Doyle

Of course, Jeff isn't alone with his suspicions about Thorvald for long. Soon, Stella and Lisa are eager participants in his window sleuthing. He gets Doyle curious enough to do some leg work, but not enough to sell him on the idea that the sudden disappearance of the wife, the saws, the late night trips, etc. add up to proof that Lars Thorvald is a wife killer. Doyle even returns with witnesses who claim to have seen Mrs. Thorvald get on a train and a postcard from the wife telling Lars she'd arrived safely. For a moment, Jeff and Lisa think they've been wrong and are, as Lisa asks, "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." It even gives Jeff pause to question his own ethics. "I wonder if it's ethical to watch a man with binoculars and a long focus lens. Do you, do you suppose it's ethical even if you prove that he didn't commit a crime?" Jeff wonders. However, when the couple across the way finds their cute little dog strangled to death after it had been poking around Thorvald's garden, they are certain they were right before, especially as the mourning woman accuses everyone of not knowing how to be good neighbors and not caring if anyone even lives or dies, even a poor friendly pooch, and everyone comes to their windows to look except Thorvald. Jeff and Lisa decide to be more proactive. Jeff scribbles a note to Thorvald asking where his wife is and Lisa slides it under his door prompting Thorvald to give the "kind of look a man makes when he thinks someone might be watching him." Joined by Stella, the trio get more daring, deciding to trick Thorvald out of the apartment so they can see what was buried under that plant. From this point out, the movie's tension tightens like a vise as Lisa decides to go further (after Jeff makes an anonymous phone call to lure Thorvald to a hotel) and climbs into his apartment to search for clues. Stella returns to Jeff in his apartment and Lisa gets trapped as Thorvald returns as Stella gets distracted by noticing that Miss Lonelyhearts appears to be about to kill herself. Thankfully, the police arrive before Thorvald can throttle Lisa (but not before she discovers his wife's wedding ring and spots Jeff across the way). As for Miss Lonelyhearts, she hears the composer's music coming from his apartment and decides to live. Ah, the healing power of art.
"Nobody ever invented a polite word for a killin' yet."
Stella

though the peepers do end up sending a murderer to jail and escape from their own fates, they still pay a price for their privacy invasions. Jeff's encounter with Thorvald leaves him with two broken legs instead of one and it looks certain that Lisa is in his life to stay whether he wants her or not (or whether marriage is in the offing). A return glance at the thermometer shows that the temperature has cooled down and every life and apartment has changed: Painters fix up the Thorvalds' apartment for the next tenants, Miss Torso welcomes back her true love, a nebbishy-looking enlisted man, the married couple get a new pet, Miss Lonelyhearts and the musician unite, the honeymoon appears to be over for the newlyweds as the young bride begins to nag her husband (Or are they discussing?) and Lisa makes certain to pull the shades down as Jeff naps and she secretly pulls out a fashion magazine.

"It was the possibility of doing a purely cinematic film. You have an immobilized man looking out. That's one part of the film. The second part shows what he sees and the third part shows how he reacts. This is actually the purest expression of a cinematic idea."
Alfred Hitchcock to Francois Truffaut

Truffaut wrote in his book The Films in My Life, "...I am convinced that this film is one of the most important of all the 17 Hitchcock made in Hollywood, one of those rare films without imperfection or weakness, which concedes nothing." I concur. For me, Rear Window nearly is perfect and revisiting it only strengthened my resolve on the matter. It is the ultimate exploration of film as voyeurism and the most triumphant example of Hitchcock's attempts to use a confined setting for a movie as he tried in Lifeboat and Rope. He truly was in control of his full faculties as a director in terms of pacing and just about everything else you can imagine. On top of that, there is always the great sequence of the kiss. I'm as puzzled now as I was when I first heard the naysayers express their lack of love for this masterpiece.




"Rear Window is a film about indiscretion, about intimacy violated and taken by surprise at its most wretched moments; a film about the impossibility of happiness, about dirty linen that gets washed in the courtyard; a film about moral solitude, an extraordinary symphony of daily life and ruined dreams."
Francois Truffaut from The Films in My Life


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Comments:
It was in first-year and then again in second-year of my course that we ended up watching Rear Window and I was up against an entire class of first-years and then second-years who found the movie bland and bizarrely overrated. So it's an increasingly common misconception that Rear Window is something less than a masterpiece.

At the time it was my favourite Hitchcock joint - Psycho has since overtaken it, though I do still adore Rear Window as much as ever. It isn't because of the meta-cinema self-reflexivity that made my lecturers cream their pants - definitely not! - it's because of Thelma Ritter, because of that lively and very believable apartment block, because of the snappy fat-free dialogue, because every time I watch it I am glued to the screen and finally, it's because every time it ends it leaves me feeling a kind of buzz that is very similar to a feeling of post-coital bliss.
 
Excellent post, Ed. I've been doing a little analysis about Rear Window myself lately because, prompted by the trailer for the virtual Rear Window "remake" Disturbia, I decided to re-visit it again for the first time in years and, like you, I was just as riveted by it as the first time I saw it when I was in Jr. High (it's actually the film that introduced me to Hitchcock) and, again like you, I cannot understand how anyone can think it's less than a masterpiece or even anything besides just a good flick, let alone a bad movie or one of Hitch's weaker efforts (I mean, have these people ever seen Topaz?). It's just incomprehensible to me.

What struck me about the film on my most recent viewing was how thoroughly laced the film is with the theme of voyeurism. In a lot of ways, I think Hitch was predicting how our culture's voyeuristic tendencies would only increase and intensify in the following years. In an age of reality television, we really have become a "race of peeping toms." In this regard, the film was rather prophetic.

In a way, the voyeurism in the film reaches critical mass" in that fantastic shot of Raymond Burr looking at the camera (I was pleased to see you feature it in your blog; I myself reference it briefly in my Billy Wilder blog wherein I discuss the phenomenon of what I call "almost breaking the fourth wall"). I remember that shot sending shivers down my spine the first time I watched the film (it still does) but now I appreciate it more now as a wonderful bit of meta-cinema, a chance for Hitchcock to comment on the voyeuristic nature of movies, because the character of Raymond Burr is not only looking at Jimmy Stewart for the first time in the film but he (and vicariously Hitchcock; no coincidence that Burr is a rather fellow like Hitch himself) is looking at us. It's almost as if Hitchcock were saying "While you're watching these people, I am watching you. How does it feel?" It is a very unsettling moment because it involves the viewer in a very real way, but it still doesn't, as I said before, break the fourth wall completely. Like the opening shot of Godard's Contempt, it acknowledges the audience but doesn't betray the conceit of the story that is being told. It doesn't violate the rules of the world that these characters inhabit. Brilliant stuff.

Although Psycho is probably my favorite Hitchcock movie (and one could make the argument that it's his best), I have no problem admitting that Rear Window is certainly one of Hitch's best efforts.
 
When the academic evaluation of a movie is more interesting than the movie, it means the movie is lousy. I think I hate Rear Window more than necessary precisely because it sends people into fits of overanalysis. The moviegoer as voyeur blah blah blah. Um, what else are we supposed to do with a movie besides watch it?

Plus, Rear Window is boring. Yes. BORING. Jimmy Stewart's character is creepy as hell. That is where the premise breaks down for me. NOBODY except Brian DePalma in his ripoff Body Double notes that watching people is smarmy and creepy. None of you mention that Stewart's a nosy fucker who should be turning those binoculars into his own apartment (Thelma Ritter says it though). I mean, Grace Kelly is in there, and all he can do is stare out the window with binoculars at a bunch of sad sack people of little interest and Perry Mason?

I admit that I love every scene Thelma Ritter is in, as well as the scene where Ironside looks back at Jimmy Stewart, even though there's no payoff. It's a nice jump moment. It's too bad he didn't have a bazooka pointing at Mr. Smith. "Take this you nosy bastard! BLAM!"

"You know what happens to nosy people, kitty cat?"

I can blame my complete disinterest in people-watching for my dislike of this film, but I still think it's vastly overrated. Hitch is my second favorite director, but this is my least favorite movie of his.

And yes, I did see Topaz. It's lousy too.
 
As I said, rewatching it last week I was as riveted as ever, even knowing full well what would happen. Also, I do think that the film addresses that Jeff's hobby is creepy, despite catching a murderer as a result. When Burr confronts him and asks what he wants, that's why he can't answer. He doesn't know what he wants and he also knows that he shouldn't have been meddling in the first place. I agree, you'd think he'd rather be looking at Grace Kelly, but he's such a commitmentphobe, that's precisely why he chooses to look elsewhere. Plus, since we know he got injured because he was pursuing a "great shot" as a photographer, he is prone to danger and adventure so that's why he starts to imagine what's going on over there, even though it turns out to be true. I also loved the movie from the first time I saw it, long before I read or analyzed any deeper meanings within it. It's still a great entertainment on its own.
 
I was one of those people who thought the praise heaped upon Rear Window was kind of ridiculous. In fact, a friend and I both had this overwhelming sense of relief when we confessed to being kind of bored by it. It was almost like we thought we had to whisper these seemingly blasphemous thoughts.

I've watched it more than any other movie over the past few years though, and I've come to at the very least appreciate it, if not love it, if in a greatly reduced capacity than you all do, obviously.

It's been said that audiences jumped in fear when Thorvill looks at the camera. But I think that kind of reaction is gone now, collectively. While a current audience isn't going to laugh at it as they did the rerelease of The Exorcist, they aren't going to jump in their seats because someone looks at the camera. We see that all the time and rarely in a context other than comedy.

It will always serve as a perfect subject for the study of cinema because it was itself made as a study of the cinematic impulse, but that doesn't help the regular person who have come in expecting a "thriller" or something similar.
 
I, too, find "Rear Window" hostility surprising. I always assumed it was by far the most accessible of the top tier Hitch movies -- certainly more so than the slow and self-consciously arty "Vertigo," the emotionally thorny "Notorious", and not as well known as the wonderful "Shadow of a Doubt". It is not only my favorite Hitchcock, but I think one of best movies ever made, period. (I have, however, heard the digs at Jimmy Stewart's character before...it is hard to imagine any man so resistant to Grace Kelly.)

Nevertheless, I can tell you first hand that when it was finally re-released after a long absence in the 1980s, the first time I was able to see it after almost an entire lifetime of anticipation, audiences were still jumping at Raymond Burr's look. And this was well into an era when everyone assumed audiences were already about as jaded as possible.

Were we wrong?
 
Geez, Odie! This picture really got under your skin, didn't it? And lashing out at Topaz like that...for shame.

This was a good post, Ed. A great movie doesn't rely on analysis to make it important, but it does help to explain why it's so great. And your appreciation of the film is nicely expressed. I couldn't think of a single bad thing to say about this movie, except that I've never had a chance to see it on the big screen. The set is definitely one of the most memorable ones.
 
I tried posting a comment on here a few hours ago, Edward, but for some reason it wouldn't let me. Now, of course, it does. Weird.

In the end, I guess it's just as well since my earlier reaction was a rather emotional one. I said some things I'm not exactly proud of and now that I've "cooled down," it's probably better that I leave them unsaid. I think the support shown for the film by you, Bob and Jeffrey make it easier for me to not feel the need to respond to Odienator's criticisms.
 
Though I understand Odienator's hostility for Rear Window (I had a similar response upon my first viewing), I've come to love the film, except for the climax. The scene with Lisa in Thorwald's apartment was riveting, and I still get chills from Thorwald looking at the camera. Nevertheless, I found the confrontation between Jeffries and Thorwald lacked the payoff that was built up so well earlier.

As for where this ranks in my own Hitch list, I can think of at least 5 off the top of my head that I prefer to Rear Window, but that also includes Psycho, Vertigo, The 39 Steps, Strangers on a Train, and Notorious, in no particular order. Certainly this speaks more to Hitch's greatness than my feelings on Rear Window.

Of Hitch's top tier movies, I would think North By Northwest is his most accessible. It was the first time I saw the greatness in Hitchcock, and it led me to give Rear Window another chance. Well, that and Psycho and Vertigo and Notorious and . . .
 
Plus, Rear Window is boring. Yes. BORING.

As the otherwise loathsome Meg Ryan says in Joe Versus the Volcano: "I have no response to that."

Boring how? As in, "There weren't enough car crashes or explosions"? 'Cause frankly, Odie old sock--I don't see it.
 
Wow. Heated.

"Francois Truffaut said that Notorious and Rear Window were his two favorite Hitchcock movies." - Interesting because I did not like Notorious one bit, however I loved Rear Window to no end.

"the bulk of its suspense is packed into its last half-hour." - I actually found the end the weakest part of this extremely strong film... most probably because when Burr shows up, I sadly realized the film was ending... You also mentioned Rope and Lifeboat, two other top Hitchcock favorites. I recently watched every film Hitchcock directed and Rear Window was solidly number 1 on top. I guess having a background in photography with 'candid people' being my favorite subject, I've got a touch of the voyeur myself, cause Jimmy is NOT creepy, I connect with him on that level of 'get the shot when they aren't watching or they'll act different'. If there's one thing wrong with Rear Window, it's that the lenses he uses don't correspond with the what we see... I guess that makes me the creepy one to notice he's not using the right lens to stalk properly...

I digress. The more a piece (be it film, painting or interpretive dance) approaches masterpiece-hood, the more the opinion of the spectator will diverge. The fact that some despise this is only natural, and proves ever-more the value of this film, which, by the way does not need discussion. It's fantastic even when no one talks about why it's fantastic. Either way, I know I'm in the minority for disliking Notorious, just as all you nay-sayers know you're in the minority for hating this amazing piece of Film history.
 
I do have to diverge with you on Notorious, which is probably my second favorite of his early black-and-white films. (I'd put Shadow of a Doubt as my favorite). Though I forgot to mention it before, I think we can all find common ground in saying that Topaz sucks.
 
First of all, it's nice to know that Raymond Burr's glance can still pack the punch that it did in its day. I was pleasantly surprised to discover a similar phenomenon when I showed Psycho to a group of high school students who had never seen it. Not only did they jump at the various shock moments but, believe it or not, none of them figured out the surprise twist! I was flabbergasted! They were completely taken in. Hitchcock was such a master manipulator that over forty years later, the illusion still works.

I think Dan's list of 5 movies "better than" Rear Window is an appropriate one. I have no problem saying that all of the films he listed are true greats. The only one that I tend to find is just a little bit overrated is North By Northwest. It's certainly not a bad movie. In fact, I think it's quite a good movie and I think Dan is right in that it's probably Hitch's most accessible film, but oustide of its worth as a real "roller-coaster ride," I find it lacks the depth of films like Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window, Notorious, Strangers on a Train and Shadow of a Doubt.

Ivan raises a good point that one can't really address the criticism of something being "boring." It's like someone calling you "ugly." How do you respond to that? ("No, I'm not.")? Descriptors like these are so subjective (not to mention emotive) in nature that they have hardly any objective value at all. This is why, personally speaking, I have never liked the term "boring" and try never to use it in either my writing or my speaking. I find that adjectives like "slow-moving" or "leisurely-paced" (or perhaps even, in extreme cases, "dull") better capture what I am trying to communicate and can actually provide a foundation with which other people can dialogue. "Boring," on the other hand, tends to say more about the attention span of the person using it than it does about whatever is ostensibly being described. Just because I was bored doesn't mean that the movie was boring.

Oh, and I think Ed is right in that it seems we can all agree Topaz sucks.
 
Someone -- I can't remember who -- said that the problem with Rear Window is that Jimmy Stewart is right about everything. Everything he says has happened, has happened; and everything he predicts will happen, does happen.

I think that's the problem a lot of people have with it, that there's never really any doubt that Stewart is right about Raymond Burr, so it's just two hours of waiting for him to be proven right. I have to admit I have that problem with the film.

On the other hand, Hitchcock was never really about surprise plot twists anyway (except maybe in Psycho), so you can argue that it increases the suspense that we know Stewart's right and are waiting to see how he'll prove it.
 
Rear Window lends itself to academic theorizing only because of its thematic unity and completeness, but I never found it to be boring. This is one of the greatest films ever made in my opinion. For those who profess to be Thelma Ritter fans, what other highlights are there besides Pickup on South Street and All About Eve?
 
For those who profess to be Thelma Ritter fans, what other highlights are there besides Pickup on South Street and All About Eve?

One of the oft-missed Ritter performances is in a wonderful comedy called The Mating Season (1951)--and the reason why it's not viewed too often is because to my knowledge, it's never been made available on VHS or DVD. Ritter plays mom to John Lund (this role is his Blind Squirrel moment), an ambitious, upwardly-mobile type who's married to Gene Tierney. Tierney mistakes her mother-in-law as the maid she's hired for a party hubby's throwing to impress his boss (Larry Keating, who's terrific) and Ritter, not wanting to embarrass her daughter-in-law, goes along with the charade--causing the eventual friction with Tierney's mom, snooty Miriam Hopkins.

I don't know why Season hasn't made the VHS-DVD cut, since it's a charming showcase for Thelma. According to the IMDb, it was shown yesterday on TCM so you might want to keep an eye out for it in case they rerun it. Other great Ritter turns include her memorably brief appearance in Miracle on 34th Street, The Model and the Marriage Broker, Pillow Talk and The Misfits.
 
Here's another Rear Window fan
 
I just saw this movie in an old art deco theater with 3,000 people last night. Seeing it with a big crowd is a great experience (aside from the tall fathead sitting in front of me who kept blocking part of the screen with his massive head and didn't slouch down).

I can attest that people still react strongly to the movie based on the crowd which was also very mixed in age.

I remember seeing the movie first sometime in the 80s, probably on video tape and didn't have a very strong positive or negative reaction. It was just a movie that didn't do much for me either way.

I think two factors made all the difference to me: 1) I was more mature the second time and more interested in the complexities of relationships and the different worlds people inhabit. 2) Seeing it on a big screen makes all the difference since there are only limited close ups of the action outside the apartment. On a low resolution device (even DVD) you miss the experience of seeing those so clearly (even at a large size) and are not as drawn in to feel like a participant in the same way.
 
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