Tuesday, May 08, 2012

For the Love of Film III Preview: Rear Window

Ahead of our blogathon, For the Love of Film, which begins Sunday with Marilyn Ferdinand's Ferdy on Films as the home base, the Siren is re-posting a very slightly fine-tuned version of this, from 2008, about one of her top five Hitchcock movies, Rear Window. More details, including a button for the donation link to the National Film Preservation Foundation, will be here soon. Meantime, you can also hear the voice of the Siren discussing the blogathon on the podcast run by the wonderful folks at the group classic-film blog, The Cinementals. Have a listen, please.



The Siren spent a number of her early New York years in a rundown apartment on the fuzzy border between Harlem and Morningside Heights. Everything about it was ramshackle, including the wiring, and our doubts about whether the outlets could stand up to an air conditioner meant I spent several scorching summers with only a few fans. Naturally I got in the habit of sleeping naked. You would, too.

One night, having been out too late, I awoke in the wee hours and decided I wanted some milk. Since my roommates were dead to the world I got up in the altogether and went to the kitchen, which faced a narrow airshaft and a window directly into the kitchen of the apartment in the next building. I didn't turn on the light. I opened the fridge, grabbed the milk carton and with the door still open, because the air felt good, I turned to grab a glass. And what should I see across the way but a neighbor, also stark naked, standing next to his fridge and also holding a carton of milk. I let out a shriek and bolted. I think he did the same.

Say what you will about New York, that kind of thing probably doesn't happen much in Dubuque. (And right now any readers I might have in Dubuque are saying, "Thank god.")

This brings us to Rear Window. Like all great movies it offers many avenues for interpretation, but today the Siren is after the question of what it may tell us about living in New York, shot though it was at Paramount.

Did you know that sellers of telescopes and binoculars do a brisk business in New York? Just one problem--the incredible amount of light pollution in the city makes stars hard to see. People aren't buying this stuff to look at Neptune. As with this woman quoted by the New York Times, they're hoping to "see something totally unexpected." Life being life, and not the movies, they usually don't. But, like James Stewart's photographer, still they look.

People go to great lengths in this most crowded of American cities to preserve a sense of privacy. If you live here, or visit, take some time on the subway to observe the almost balletic maneuvers that New Yorkers will make to maintain their personal space as the car gets crowded. Americans in general don't like people standing too close, but an average New Yorker needs Yankee Stadium around his body to feel truly comfortable. So observe, too, the way New Yorkers react to someone who, whether deliberately or out of ignorance, doesn't get it and insists on full-frontal contact with another passenger--the dirty looks, the impatient sighs, the way the New Yorker twists away from the clueless interloper.

If an argument should start, notice how no one appears to be listening. They are, trust me. We are constantly listening and looking. But we also do a good job of not seeing things if we feel we shouldn't--the girl crying silently on the train, the neighbor whose anatomy you know better than you should.

The murder drives the plot, but it is far from the only thing that grabs you in that vast array of windows so impossibly arranged across Jeff's courtyard. You also focus on the composer, who is having a hard time with his art despite living in the most desirable apartment in the building (that's a very New York observation, sorry). There's Miss Lonelyhearts, kindhearted but hating every minute of being single. There's Miss Torso, doing her calisthenics and entertaining an all-male party (why all men?). There's the (probably) childless couple, lowering the wife's beloved dog into the garden every morning for a romp. There's the honeymoon couple...well, they're the most boring for sure.



The classic interpretation of Rear Window is as a metaphor for both moviemaking and movie-watching, Jeff (Stewart) standing in for both Alfred Hitchcock himself and those people out there in the dark. Rear Window is one of cinema's greatest uses of the subjective camera. Our point of view across the courtyard is always Jeff's, keeping our identification with him. So his dilemmas become ours, which is why the Siren thinks the Jeff-as-film-director-and-audience viewpoint is true, sure--but it isn't nearly probing enough. Where's the quandary in that? In both cases, people are just doing their jobs, the director making the movie and the audience watching it. Both acts are morally neutral. You can throw around the word "voyeur," but it's the reaction to what you see that counts. In the context of 1954, with Joe Breen and his minions still on smut patrol, it's amusing to note how Hitchcock introduces a non-stop series of sexual innuendos, from Jeff's (ahem) highly extendable telephoto lens to Lisa (Grace Kelly) holding up a filmy negligee and announcing "Preview of coming attractions." (This is the favorite part of every male the Siren has ever discussed the movie with.) Still, there's nothing particularly daring about pointing out to a movie audience that they want to be entertained, or even titillated, by other people's lives.

The real question of Rear Window isn't about the morality of looking, it's about the ethics of intervention. A little less than a decade after the movie's release, a young woman was murdered in Kew Gardens, Queens, stabbed to death within earshot of neighbors who mostly dismissed her screams. While later research led to doubts about whether the neighbors realized Kitty Genovese was fighting for her life, the story passed into legend, the ultimate indictment of people not wanting to get involved, forever to be cited as an example of the unique callousness of New Yorkers.


Rear Window is Kitty Genovese in reverse: rather than "I didn't want to get involved," it's New Yorkers getting very involved indeed. "I'm not much on rear-window ethics," says Lisa, but the movie asks us to become just that. At what point are you looking at things you shouldn't--when you witness one neighbor drunkenly trashing his work, or another's despairing loneliness? And when are you obligated to act--when you see that neighbor trying to kill herself? All right, that one's easy. But how about when you suspect a crime--any crime, let alone a murder--but haven't a thing to prove it, and can't get the police interested, either?

Only three creatures in the movie pay a real price for observing, and in all cases their undoing comes when they get involved. Jeff breaks his other leg. Thorwald (Raymond Burr), the murderer, sees Jeff across the courtyard and comes after him, only to get caught. Presumably he will pay the ultimate price off-camera. But the one creature whose curiosity ends in death during the running time is the neighbor's dog, who scratches in the flowerbeds where Thorwald has buried some part of his wife. When the dog's body is discovered, his owner flings her anger across the courtyard:


Which one of you did it? Which one of you killed my dog? You don't know the meaning of the word 'neighbor.' Neighbors like each other, speak to each other, care if anybody lives or dies. But none of you do. But I couldn't imagine any of you bein' so low that you'd kill a little helpless, friendly dog - the only thing in this whole neighborhood who liked anybody. Did ya kill him because he liked ya? Just because he liked ya?

As if to emphasize their complicity, Hitchcock gives us a shot of each neighbor. But is the dog owner's accusation fair? The Siren looks at Miss Lonelyhearts, tenderly placing the dog's body in his basket for the last time, and thinks not. The stricken faces around the courtyard don't suggest casual indifference. Maybe the characters don't trill "Good morning!" (though we do see some greeting going on) and inquire after everyone's health, but let's face it, that can be either heart-warming or annoying as hell. Many people move to big cities to get away from small-town nosiness. And we've been spending our time with Jeff and Lisa, who definitely care whether Mrs. Thorwald lived or died.


After the speech everyone moves away from the window, except Lisa and Jeff (and us, via Hitchcock's camera). But the most guilty person in the movie, the one who killed his wife, strangled a dog and doesn't go to look, is Thorwald. The shot of his apartment, dark save for the glow of his cigarette, is the Siren's favorite in Rear Window.

Could this movie have been about any city other than New York? Possibly, but it wouldn't have hit the same truths. Because New York is a city where neighbors ostentatiously stay out of each other's business when they're out on the sidewalk, then go home and do everything they can to find out what's happening across the air shaft. Sometimes, as with what the Siren's roommates later dubbed the "milkman incident," your discoveries are accidental. More frequently, you're looking on purpose. Either way, you gather information but usually don't need, or even want, to act on it. When the Siren encountered the milkman on the street a few weeks later, we did an excellent job of pretending It Never Happened.
Certainly Hitchcock is teasing the audience for its need to watch, and giving us a taste of being behind the camera, able to influence events but not dictate them entirely. The director is said to have loved storyboards, planning every shot and trying to mold every scene to the way it unspooled in his head. Like most legends that one isn't entirely true. But even if you take it for granted that Hitchcock was a control freak, what an actor does when the cameras turn is something that can never be completely controlled--for that you'd need a marionette. (Cattle, to cite Hitchcock's notorious comparison, can be even less biddable than a recalcitrant star.) Jeff's lack of power--his initial inability to catch Thorwald, his helplessness while watching Lisa in danger, his immobility when the murderer comes stomping up the stairs for him--is a highly exaggerated version of the way New Yorkers see more in a day than they can possibly react to.

In the penultimate scene, Thorwald confronts Jeff and asks "What do you want from me?" The question could be addressed to us as New Yorkers. What do we want? The city is beautiful, but so are many other cities. We make our lives here because our fellow New Yorkers are interesting, and because interesting things happen here. We want to observe the stories around us, but we also want to be left alone as we live out our own.

You gotta problem with that?

29 comments:

deBeauxOs said...

Sorry if this is an awkward question, but what happened to an earlier post about Maurice Sendak?

I follow Self-Styled Siren on Blogger, and though it shows up on my blogs feed, when I click on the link ... bupkes.

The Siren said...

It isn't an awkward question, my action was awkward. I posted, and then thought that perhaps I was revealing things Mr. Sendak wouldn't have wanted me too. Or maybe not, but I decided to err on the side of caution. It's amazing how many saw it in the short time (less than an hour) that it was up, though. You are not the first to ask!

Bill Coleman said...

Actually, for people who follow blogs on Google Reader, it is still up there at the moment. Not sure how that works, or how long it will stay up there. I think it was an excellent post, for what it's worth.

The Siren said...

I do not use Google Reader so I don't understand it, either. I guess it will go away after a while? I'm not ashamed of the post, at all; just decided against it.

Bill Coleman said...

Actually, it just disappeared, so I guess it was there until midnight once it was posted. I have noticed stuff like this with Google Reader before, I would see posts on the reader that were not at the blog.

gmoke said...

Double Bill: Rear Window and Peeping Tom.

StyleSpy said...

I adore Rear Window, it's one of my favorites of all time. I am still, every time, completely undone by that slightly slo-mo close-up of Grace Kelly leaning in to kiss a sleeping Jimmy Stewart. When I taught ESL in New York City, I used to show it to my students as a treat. It's an easy movie to watch & enjoy even if your English isn't very good.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Rear Window is a towering masterpiece of Hitchcock's art for reasons the Siren names. But there are others, as return visits consistently show.

The use of subjective cmaera is part of this mastery. Yey Hitchcock is startlingly adroit at keeping the film from being entirely subjective. We are "with" Jeff (Stewart) and we may well share mny of his opinions and observatiosn. But we're never him entirely. Not only because Lisa (Grace Kelly at her most devetating) and Thelman Ritter and spoilsport Wendell Corey are there but because of the key moment when we see Thorvald (Burr) leave the apartment with another woman. Neither Jeff (who is asleep) nor any of the other characters (who are not present) see this. It forces us to think on our own as to what we would do were we in Jeff's place.

As someone who grew up in New York in the 50's, I can say that Rear Window, while shot on the sound stages at Paramount in Hollywood is every inch the Greenwich Village of those days.

It's neck-and-neck with Vertigo for my all-time favorite Hitchcock.

Trish said...

A beehive of stories across the courtyard, in addition to the action at Jeff's place. I never get tired of this one.

Yojimboen said...

Meanwhile, other interesting drama was happening off-screen: Towards the wrap of Dial M For Murder, Grace Kelly was aware that AH was beginning the prep for Rear Window, but he hadn’t mentioned the possibility of her working on it. Weeks later back in New York her agent called her and said in effect, “Hitch just phoned. Where are you? You’re supposed to be out at Paramount for costume fittings for Rear Window.”
Kelly’s protestation that this was literally the first she’d heard of it was academic. She hadn’t even seen a script. Plus (a BIG plus) she was in discussions with Kazan to play Edie Doyle in Waterfront.

Long story short, Hitch rushed a script to Kelly the next day; she read it - some say she tossed a coin - and decided to head west (a decision it’s fair to say which changed the course of several lives and careers – if she had turned Hitch down, would there have been a To Catch a Thief in Monaco and the courting by and marriage to Rainier?).

Yes, X., thus our beloved Eva Marie Saint didn’t have to wait another three years for her earth-shattering debut, and a double tragedy was averted.

X. Trapnel said...

Wotta story! The Fair Miss Frigidaire as Edie Doyle!!?? On the other hand, I've often fantasized the lady Eva in Rear Window, but who would have hesitated to marry HER?

Kirk said...

My favorite Hitchcock movie.

Please excuse my nitpicking, but I've seen this film many, many times, and I'm positive it was the lady sculptor, who lived at ground level, who put the murdered canine back in the basket. Miss Lonelyhearts, meanwhile, was watching from a window.

The Siren said...

Hm, I don't have this on DVD, but that isn't my memory. Anyone able to check? Or Kirk, did you?

Kirk said...

OK, I just checked, you're right.

I may have watched it many, many times, but I apparently haven't watched it enough. Sorry.

Kirk said...

This isn't much of an excuse, but I've always found that scene a little disturbing. Animals (unlike humans) dying in movies always makes me a bit queasy, and I tend to turn away whenever that scene plays. Knowing that, I shouldn't have been so cocksure about it.

The Siren said...

Kirk, no worries, I was totally ready to change it if you were right! My memory is only semi-reliable, which is why I often re-watch before posting even something on a film I know well. But I've seen Rear Window so many times I didn't, so I am glad we cleared it up.

Kirk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark T Lancaster said...

Siren, If we go to that link before Sunday and donate, will the Blogathon still get credit for the donation? I want them to know it's the Siren who's turned me into a classic movie freak!

DavidEhrenstein said...

That's a fascianting deatil because the lady sculptor is somewhat isolated from the rest of the ther ap[artment-dwellers. That she does this with the dead dog marks her as human and sociable as anyone else.

Trish said...

Thank you, Yojimboen! I for one am thankful that Eva Marie Saint landed where she did: In one of (if not THE greatest) Hitchcock films, that is... :D

X. Trapnel said...

"Animals (unlike humans) dying in movies always makes me a bit queasy."

Ordinarily killing the dog might
serve to quash any lingering sympathy the viewer may have for Thorwald (just as the killing of Sgt. Payne chills whatever liking we had for Harry Lime), but Hitchcock saves Thorwald's moment of pathos ("What do you want from me?" for the end, having divested him of all human decency and summons us to sympathize. I think Hitchcock's going to the edge here, as elsewhere, is at the root of the critique of Hitchcock (on the part of, say, Stanley Kaufmann or Dwight Macdonald) as a cynical nihilist and whether his films have any humanist content.

The Siren said...

David E., Kirk came back and said he checked the DVD -- it was indeed Miss Lonelyhearts.

Mark, yes, it is set up for the blogathon's use already so if you donate now, awesome. There will be DVD prizes and other giveaways (which early donors will also be eligible for) so we needed the separation.

Buttermilk Sky said...

The tenants are more "neighborly" and talkative at the end, not because the Torwald affair has brought them together but because the heat has finally broken. Murder and dismemberment next door pale in comparison with not having to sleep on the fire escape. And life goes on. Having passed several purgatorial summers in a Tudor City studio, I completely understand.

Now a question: At the beginning, the music sounds like Bernstein's "Prelude, Fugue and Riffs" but there is no credit. Can anyone help?

X. Trapnel said...

The complete score, opening music included, is by Franz Waxman.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Well that STILL makes it interesting as Miss Lonelyhearts wants human contact but is terrified of it.

Roma said...

What has always struck me about Rear Window is the "sliver" motif. The sense of spatial constriction - the little alleyway between the buildings, the narrow balconies, Miss Torso stretching away but hemmed in by her furniture - and Jimmy Stewart's body, encased in the wheelchair, leg in a cast. The music seems to be the only element that escapes the general claustrophobia, weaving around and about the buildings, the characters, the sweltering heat.

Roma said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kirk said...

I probably shouldn't say anymore about Rear Window, given my screw-up earlier, but I can't help it. What, for me, makes Jimmy Stewart less than heroic (but fully human. After all, how many of us live our lives heroically? It's hard enough just keeping out of each other's hair) is not his voyerism, but that the whole thing is a game for him. He doesn't act out of moral outrage or to right injustice. No, he does it to relieve his boredom. Remember, he's disappointed when he finds out, erroneously, that Mrs. Thornwald is still alive. That he and Grace Kelly then investigate a little further and conclude she's dead after all, isn't because they thought the whole thing was kind of fishy. It so they could go back to playing detective. It's just a coincidence that Mr. Thornwald is guilty.

In spite my initial revulsion at the murder of an animal (I keep having to tell myself that it's not actually a dead dog, but a stuffed animal from the props department. At least, I HOPE it's from the props department) I agree with X. Trapnel that Thornwald comes across symathetic at the end. It's that fear in Raymond Burr's eyes that does it. He's a James Thurber character who, like Stewart, acted out his fantasy.

X. Trapnel said...

Kirk,

Your point about Jeffries is further underscored by his profession which involves physical courage and moral neutrality mainly in the cause of journalistic sensationalism, the Hemingway bit in its final decadence.