Archive for September 30, 2009

The Dog Who Knew Too Much

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2009 by dcairns

Thanks to Comrade K for drawing my attention to the above.

“Reading from top to bottom…”

REAR WINDOW is maybe the Hitchcock film I love most. I saw it at the cinema on its 80s rerelease when I guess I was a teenager. Reaching this point in Hitchcock Year feels like a turning point. Hitch begins his deal at Paramount, where he basically worked for the rest of his career, with side-trips to MGM and Universal and Warners. He begins working with John Michael Hayes as screenwriter, the last regular writer Hitch would have (after Elliot Stannard, Charles Bennett, Ben Hecht, and of course Alma). He resumes working with James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Robert Burks shoots, Franz Waxman scores, and George Tomasini joins the team as editor. It feels like a seminal moment.

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The story derives from Cornell Woolrich’s short story It Had to be Murder. Woolrich himself had a bad leg and maybe spent a lot of time looking out the window, like Jimmy Stewart. Three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, by various directors, derive from Woolrich stories, and Hitchcock himself directed a TV play, Four O’Clock, based on another Woolrich source. Woolrich was a lousy prose stylist, whose delirious fictions sometimes reach a kind of addled poetry where his vices become virtues and he looks like a good writer reflected in a funhouse mirror. Even when that doesn’t happen, he’s a lot of fun, and creates heaps of suspense. Like Hitchcock, he doesn’t always seem to care about logic or plausibility — Woolrich actually maybe doesn’t know what such things are — but he is attuned to nightmare. I’d love to film Rendezvous in Black, in which a girl on a street corner is randomly killed by a beer bottle slung from an aeroplane, and her traumatized boyfriend goes on a revenge spree, tracking down the men who were on that plane (rented for a drunken hunting trip) and killing the person each of them loves most… “A nutty kind of a book,” as Jean Harlow might say.

In John Michael Hayes’ hands, the story of It Had to be Murder becomes more sophisticated, with a cast of New York window inhabitants, each with their own little narratives, and the central character is more developed via his relationships with Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter and Wendell Corey. Reading from top to bottom –

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“Who are you?”

Grace Kelly gets that great, dreamlike entrance, with the Edith Head fashions and strange step-printed kiss (Hitchcock tries to explain how it’s done in the Truffaut interview, but makes no sense: “Those are little pulsations I give the camera…”) Note how the Gershwinesque city, less salubrious than in ROPE but with the same sodium-orange sunset, participates in her introduction, a little car horn parp sounding distantly after each of her names. “Lisa…” Peep! “Carol…” Toot! “Fremont.” Meep! (The last so quiet I may be imagining it.)

Lisa is a real woman who only seems like a dream, which is her big problem with James Stewart’s LB Jeffries. He can’t imagine this dream will last, he has to spoil the relationship before it evaporates on him. Screwy, but plausible. My teenaged self was fascinated by all this. I think I also grasped that all Jeff’s reasoning was specious and basically he was afraid of commitment. When you have Thelma Ritter to explain these things, all is clear.

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Ritter is of course wonderful — it was probably years before I saw her in anything else, but what a career she had. PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (“Anyway I tried,”) A LETTER TO THREE WIVES (“Soup’s on!”), even Leisen’s THE MATING SEASON (“Eventually a snapped and hit her. With a banana.” — a funny line that’s approximately 10,000 times funnier the way she says it) and all this not despite her walnut face, raspy voice, plebeian demeanor, but triumphantly because of it.

Wendell Corey would be the weak link in any film except that here we don’t really need to like him. He’s a good actor, when he doesn’t sound like a slowed-down tape of a drunk man hanging by his ankles, but he exudes a kind of anti-charisma. It’s a bit like the legendary minus factor — when an actor has this, they become much sought-after, because you can bring them into any scene that’s in danger of becoming too exciting. It’s always a shock to find Corey in a leading man role, as it would be if you turned on your TV one night and found Barbara Stanwyck co-starring with a wardrobe. I don’t mean he’s wooden. I just mean he’s square, hollow, stiff, creaky and reverberant. He works perfectly here.

“Here lie the broken bones of LB Jeffries.”

The opening sequence, displaying “Hitchcock’s dollhouse,” is a beaut, cramming in so much visual and aural exposition (location, time of year, temperature, hero’s name, profession, cause of accident…) that it becomes positively funny. As a teenaged viewer I assumed the woman on the magazine cover was Grace Kelly, but she’s not. She is wearing a black top slightly like Grace’s though, so I assume she’s a sort of surrogate. And Stewart has framed a negative image of the portrait, suggesting his negative feelings about the relationship, and maybe about this kind of fashion photography. The society lady/action photographer romance was apparently suggested by Ingrid Bergman’s fling with Robert Capa.

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“…rear window ethics…”

Hayes’ dialogue not only surpasses what Woolrich might have produced, but Hayes created all the supporting characters, a considerable embellishment of the original yarn. This movie is pretty much a Swiss watch, with multiple narrative uses made of Stewart’s profession, an unhurried development of the story, with convincing reversals and character development cunningly woven into the central crime plot. The biggest cheat is probably the question of how and why Lars Thorwald, our murderer next door, buried his wife’s head in the garden without being spotted.

For those who prefer VERTIGO and other more mysterious Hitchcocks, there are one or two unresolved mysteries in REAR WINDOW to test our negative capabilities. Thorwald’s mistress is a shadowy figure — to what extent is she in on the crime? What is the attraction the paunchy killer holds for her? And why did Thorwald kill his wife anyway? True, he wasn’t happy with her, and he might not have been able to divorce her, but he didn’t have to live with her, did he? Maybe he did. His little world starts to look awfully grim.

“…the hundred knives you’ve probably owned in your life…”

But I don’t find this movie, with its voyeur hero and dismembered victim, excessively morbid. On my first viewing, I remember being transported to this foreign world of 1950s New York, meeting these rather appealing people, and being blown away by the juggling of the central storyline with the subsidiary characters in all those windows. I liked how they all had their own stories.

I also struggled to see how the film consisted only of Stewart’s POV and his reactions, as several critics remarked. Although the camera stays in the apartment with Stewart until he falls out the window, apart from a couple of God’s-eye high angles when the dog is found dead, and all the shots of the courtyard seem as if they could legitimately be from Stewart’s POV, it isn’t all POV / reaction within the apartment. There’s a very nice high angle view when Stewart writes the sinister letter to Thorwald, for instance. Hitchcock restrains himself, but not THAT much.

He also moves the camera independently of Stewart’s consciousness, as at the start, when we prowl around Stewart’s room as he snoozes. This kind of overt cine-narration drops off markedly in the main body of the film, as we come closer to Stewart’s consciousness, returning at the end, when Stewart is asleep again, completing the film’s loop-like structure.

(I seem to recall that Stewart ends more films unconscious than one would expect for a leading man — he never recovers consciousness to discover his victory in MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. But now I can’t think of any other examples.)

The scene where Grace boldly investigates the killer’s apartment taught me a whole new sensation of suspense. I was emotionally quite caught up with Grace’s loveliness, so I felt protective, and also the film seems to amp up the tension by using Stewart as a mirror of the audience — the helpless viewer unable to intervene.

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A little radio play — screenwriter Hayes was from radio — as Thorwald mounts the stairs to Stewart’s apartment, and Stewart listens in the dark. Something very frightening about suddenly having this man in the same room with us, instead of separated by all that comfortable space. As one of my students remarked at a screening: “Shit!” Raymond Burr does a very good job subduing his Raymond Burrness (his principle quality as an actor).

Defenestration! Having set up the suspense idea of Stewart going out the window (the way this movie uses and re-uses all the narrative elements — flashbulbs for self-defense, window as murder weapon — is extraordinary and worthy of the imitation it’s inspired) Hitchcock isn’t expected to have it actually happen. But he does. Stewart isn’t very lucky with heights in Hitchcock’s films. The cleverness of the construction is that the thing that seems to preclude a happy ending — chucking the hero from a great height — actually inspires it, leading to the fine joke of the happy man with the two plaster casts.

The plunge itself looks to me like a nifty John P Fulton (THE INVISIBLE MAN) special effect — he did the helicopter and the flashbulb retinal afterimages — but I’ve heard accounts suggesting it’s an exponential zoom with the camera shooting straight up in the air while zooming in on Stewart. Looking at it again I’m convinced it’s a matte shot, a pretty good one that works partly because it takes us by surprise. The window ledge in the foreground, which wobbles very slightly in relation to the ground below, suggests that there’s more than one optical layer here.

“I don’t want any part of it!”

Perhaps the tightness of REAR WINDOW provoked a reaction in Hitchcock, since he began preparing his next production while still shooting this one — the location-set, apparently loose and freewheeling TO CATCH A THIEF would exercise a different set of directorial muscles than those deployed to machine-tool REAR WINDOW.

Hitchcock 14 Disc Box Set – Vertigo/ The Birds/ Rear Window/ Marnie/ Frenzy/ Topaz/ The Trouble With Harry/ Torn Curtain/ Psycho/ Family Plot/ Saboteur/ Shadow Of A Doubt/ Man Who Knew Too Much/ Rope [DVD]

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