August 14, 2011

Rear Window

I'm going to take a moment to plug the beautiful Florida Theatre, a landmark of downtown Jacksonville. Every summer they show a handful of classic movies, giving many of us a rare opportunity to see films that were decades old by the time we were born. Even if you've already seen a movie at home, nothing compares to experiencing it in a theater with an audience, especially a theater as elegant (and historical) as this one. Seeing Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train there several years ago got me fired up about about going to as many of these retrospective showings as possible, and this year I got to see my second Hitchcock film on the big screen, Rear Window, from 1954.

Rear Window has been reviewed too many times for me to go deeply into familiar territory, but I will briefly synopsize its plot and its critical reaction: it's about a photographer (James Stewart) who, when confined to a wheelchair with a broken leg, begins spying on his neighbors from his conveniently-located rear window, which overlooks a large courtyard. Soon enough he begins to suspect that one of his neighbors (Raymond Burr) has committed a murder. Stewart's chic fashionista girlfriend (Grace Kelly) and no-nonsense rehab therapist (Thelma Ritter) become his Girls Friday in an attempt to prove a murder without a body or any real physical evidence.

As you may be able to imagine, critics have long focused on how Rear Window mirrors the act of watching a movie: Jimmy Stewart uses a telescope to anonymously spy on his neighbors the way we slip into dark theaters and stare at the characters on the screen. The drama that happens between the people in the movies is typically the stuff of closed doors, but to us, the door has been opened, all unbeknownst to the characters in the movie. This is what some critics and philosophers (such as Jacques Lacan) have characterized as scopophilia, the act of looking, and deriving pleasure from it. Rear Window pokes fun at our own voyeuristic curiosity, but it also indicts us in the process.

What struck me about seeing Rear Window with an audience was how much of its wittiness still survives. The humorous aspects of the neighbors--who have very little dialogue and must restrict themselves almost to pantomiming their roles--come through gloriously, and you begin to develop odd little attachments to them. They become endearing or bothersome, the way neighbors do in real life, and Jimmy Stewart, the Everyman of the classic movie days, becomes us...and we him. Hitchcock employs the reaction shot exhaustively in this film (something happens, we see Stewart react, something happens, Stewart reacts, and so forth). That rhythm of shooting was perhaps never more apropos than in Rear Window, which is purely the cinema of reaction (often reaction based on no real knowledge, merely assumption). The visual becomes the hyper-real, rendering communication unnecessary and frankly undesirable.  

Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter deserve mention in this. Kelly of course never looked better, but she also turns in a marvelous performance. She's head-over-heels in love with Stewart. He loves her too, but he thinks their social and vocational differences are insurmountable. Yet she pursues him with reckless tenacity, and becomes a willing pawn in his sleuthing--often risking her own safety--in order to enter into his world. She's trying to prove that she's not just frivolous, that she's game, and I think her performance works because Kelly possessed both qualities: she was glamorous but also tough, and smart. Thelma Ritter is a character actress who I don't think ever got her due. She spices up just about any movie she's in with her dry wit. These three form some kind of bizarrely funny mystery-solving trio. Without them Rear Window would have been a lesser entertainment.

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