Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Movies I Like: Rear Window

Why I haven’t written about Rear Window before is beyond my comprehension. Really.

This is one of the best films that master-of-suspense Alfred Hitchcock ever made in his 50-year career as a filmmaker.

When I was a teenager, working for my mentor Bruce Walters, he would tell me stories about the film Rear Window and how effective it was. I had read about it in film books and heard stories, but the film had been, along with others of Hitchcock’s classic films, unavailable for 20 years or so because of legal reasons. But in the early '80s there was a release of Rear Window, the 1956 remake of his own film The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rope, The Trouble with Harry, and the amazing Vertigo.

They had been away for so long it was as if they were new releases. They were incredible to see on the big screen. These old films made millions at the box-office, and were hits once again.

But Rear Window was something special—I have never before or since seen an audience so involved in a film. We were all on the edges of our seats. The audience acted as a single organism—holding its breath, screaming, laughing, and biting its lips all in perfect unison. All of us feeling the same thing together. It was magical.

Even now, when I show scenes from the film in classes, people get caught up in the film and want to see more.

Rear Window, first released in 1954, was adapted from a Cornell Woolrich story by screenwriter John Michael Hayes. The film stars Jimmy Stewart as an adventurous magazine photographer who is trapped in his apartment because of a broken leg. He has little to do but to look voyeuristically out his window at the neighboring apartments. In the apartment directly across from him, he believes he sees a murder and the fun begins.

You may know the story because it was the basis for a more recent film called Disturbia. Others have borrowed from the premise as well.

But one of the things that makes Rear Window such a great film is not only Hitchcock’s flawless direction and visual storytelling to create tension and suspense, but the brilliant screenplay. The story beneath the external thriller is a love story. In fact, I would argue that the love story is the real story being told.

The film has Swiss-watch precision construction. The first act tells us that Stewart’s character does not want to get married. In the first dialogue in the piece Stewart is on the phone and we hear just what he thinks about marriage. And to underscore his point while he talks on the phone, he is watching a neighbor couple across the way in their apartment as they argue.

Soon after Stewart’s nurse comes in and they have a conversation about Stewart’s voyeurism and well as his reluctance to get married. 

Also in Act One, we meet Stewart’s girlfriend, a fashion model played by Grace Kelly. She is perfect and this is why Jimmy Stewart doesn’t want to marry her. She does want to marry Stewart, but he thinks his rough life as a photographer traveling to far-off lands and living in harsh conditions would be too much for her. After all, she is a woman who likes the finer things in life and is always dressed in the latest fashions.

 During the course of the story, Grace Kelly shows that she has a taste for danger. She even sneaks into the suspected murder’s apartment to collect evidence of the crime. Stewart becomes more attracted to her as he sees that she is more than a delicate fashion plate.

Here’s the thing that blows me away as good, old-fashioned, delicate and precise storytelling.

Not only are the arguing couple Stewart sees across the way an image of marriage and relationships, so is every other neighbor that Stewart watches. There is a middle-aged couple who have a dog as a surrogate child, but appear to be happy. There is a newlywed couple whose blinds are shut most of the time. There is an older woman, probably a widow, who sculpts a decidedly phallic piece of art. There is a lonely woman nicknamed “Miss Lonely Hearts” hopelessly looking for love. There is a sexy neighbor nicknamed “Miss Torso” who always has men swarming around her. Grace Kelly notes that the woman doesn’t love any of these men. She knows because it resembles her apartment, she says. There is also an unmarried songwriter across the way who does find love in the end.

Even the man suspected of murder is suspected to have killed his wife.

Each of these neighbors has a story reason to populate the story. When I say that they seldom make good films anymore, this is what I mean: Things now are often random. But in well-crafted pieces, things appear random and are anything but. Everything matters.

In films now they may have a murder story and they may have a romance, but those things would in no way be tied together. This is why things feel tacked on often—story elements are not integrated. Random characters and events strung together do not a story make.

Rear Window is the story of a man who learns that the woman he thought was so delicate has another side. Like him, she has a taste for adventure, but also likes her world of fine food and fashion. She is a complete human being with many sides.

If you want to see a genuine masterpiece – number 43 on AFI’s top 100 movies of all time—then see Rear Window. If you want to learn from master storytellers how to make your own stories better, then this a film you must see and study.

And see Rear Window on the biggest screen you can, because that’s how it should be seen.