REAR WINDOW (1954) PART TWO: THEMES AND IDEAS

Beginnings:  Alfred Hitchcock frequently began his movies with a scene that introduces the viewer to both character and setting in an understated, economical way.   The opening scene of Rear Window is perhaps the best opening of any Hitchcock film.   After the curtains raise, Hitchcock does a slow counterclockwise pan of the courtyard.  He is not introducing us to characters yet, he is just giving us the lay of the land.

After completing a circle, the camera pulls in the window ending on Jimmy Stewart’s sweat covered brow.  Hitchcock then cuts for the first time, to a close up of a thermometer hovering in the mid 90’s.  Then the camera does another, even slower counterclockwise revolution of the courtyard.  This time, he begins to show us many of the characters we will encounter throughout the film.

Then the camera pulls into Jimmy Stewart’t window again, and continues, all in one unbroken shot, to show us a series of images:

 

 

 

 

Before we have had a word of dialogue, we know the precise layout of the courtyard and apartment.  We know our leading man’s name (it is written on the cast), we know his profession, we know he has a broken leg and we know how he got it, courtesy of the smashed camera and photo of a race car with a loose tire flying off.   All of this is done in with only two editorial cuts, and no dialogue.

Montage:  Much of what makes this movie work is Alfred Hitchcock’s use of montage.  Throughout the film we see Jimmy Stewart look at something, then we see what he is looking at, then we see Jimmy Stewart’s reaction shot.  As in the series of images below:

Here is what Alfred Hitchcock had to say on the subject in a 1973 interview in Antaeus:

There are too many films with what I call photographs of people talking…You see, most people get confused; they think that galloping horses are cinema.  They are not.  They are photographs of galloping horses.  Pure cinema is montage, the joining together of pieces of film and creating an idea.  It’s like putting words together in a sentence.  From that comes the audience’s emotion.  Rear Window, possibly one of the most cinematic pictures that anyone’s ever attempted, depended upon cutting to what a man is seeing, then cutting back to his reaction.  What you’re doing is using his face to create a thought process.

In conversation with Truffaut, Hitchcock said:

Pudovkin dealt with this, as you know.  In one of his books on the art of montage, he describes an experiment by his teacher, Kuleshov.  You see a close-up of the Russian actor Ivan Mosjoukine.  This is immediately followed by a shot of a dead baby.  Back to Mosjoukine again and you read compassion on his face.  Then you take away the dead baby and you show a plate of soup, and now, when you go back to Mosjoukine, he looks hungry.  Yet, in both cases, they used the same shot of the actor;  his face was exactly the same.  In the same way, let’s take a close-up of Stewart looking out of the window at a little dog that’s being lowered in a basket.  Back to Stewart, who has a kindly smile.  But if in place of the little dog you show a half-naked girl exercising in front of her open window, and you go back to a smiling Stewart again, this time he’s seen as a dirty old man!

Hitchcock used montage in many of his films, but never so completely as he does here.

Voyeurism:  Rear Window deals with this subject in a couple of different ways.  It is a direct commentary on people who spy on their neighbors.   As Stella tells Jeff:  “We’ve become a race of peeping Toms.  What people oughta do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.”

Jeff himself speculates:  “I wonder if it’s ethical to watch a man with binoculars and a long focus lens.”

And later, Detective Doyle will tell both Jeff and Lisa:  “That’s a secret, private world you’re looking into out there,” and later:  “People do a lot of things in private they couldn’t possibly explain in public.”

Jeff and Lisa are actually thrilled with watching the goings-on in the Thorwald apartment, and even disappointed when they believe for a moment that there is a logical explanation for all they have seen, and Thorwald is indeed innocent.    Of course, the audience is complicit in Jeff’s peeping.  Isn’t the act of movie-going very much like spying on a private world?  It is no accident that Hitchcock shot this movie in a 1.66:1 camera aspect ratio, for this mirrors almost exactly the size of the longer windows in the movie.

Here are the curtains going up on the opening shot, just as the curtains rise at a performance.  Later on, Lisa will close the curtains, saying “show’s over.”  It is almost like intermission.   Of course, they won’t stay closed for long.  They then close again at the end, over the Paramount logo.   When Jeff is looking through all of those windows, it is like he is watching his own series of private movies.  One of the most powerful and beautiful shots in the film comes late, when Jeff and Stella are distracted by Miss Lonelyhearts in the lower window, and stop watching Lisa inside Thorwald’s apartment.  Then, suddenly, both women are drawn to the window by the composer’s music.

It’s rather like watching both films of a double feature at the same time, and not knowing which feature to focus on.  When the police come to Thorwald’s apartment, and  Thorwald sees Lisa signaling with the ring, he looks directly at the camera, and directly at us.  This is the most unsettling moment in the movie, for now the watcher has become the watched.

At the film’s climax, when Lars Thorwald enters Jeff’s apartment, and asks “What do you want from me?”  he is addressing the audience too.  And as is typical of Hitchcock, he subverts expectations here.  We actually feel a little sorry for this sad, quiet man.  And maybe even a little guilty for our spying.  Of course this doesn’t last long.  After all, a bad guy must be a bad guy in the end.

We will let Hitchcock have the final word on voyeurism:

I’ll bet you that nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undressing for bed, or even a man puttering around in his room, will stay and look; no one turns away and says, ‘It’s none of my business’.

If you want to be really mean towards the character in this film you could call him a Peeping Tom.  I don’t necessarily think it’s a statement of morality because it’s a statement of fact.  You don’t hide from it, there’s no point in my leaving it out.  When Grace Kelly says that they are a couple of fiendish ghouls because they’re disappointed that a murder hasn’t been committed she’s speaking the truth.

A man and a woman:  The real underlying theme in this movie is that of relationships between men and women, and the seemingly irreconcilable differences that separate the sexes.   It is only through compromise that relationships will work, Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes seem to be telling us.  The subject of relationships, and the dialogue to be found in such scenes, is Hayes greatest strength.  Not only is this his greatest screenplay;  it is one of the strongest screenplays to ever come out of Hollywood.

We first meet Lisa Fremont with arguably the greatest kiss ever captured on screen.  It is idealized and romanticized to the point of seeming like a fantasy, with a slowed down, close up image.  We have to ask ourselves, is this how it really happened, or how Jeff imagined it to be?

Of course, this idealized love doesn’t last long.  Very soon, they are bickering.  Lisa wants a committed relationship, but Jeff won’t agree to it.  He thinks they are from different worlds, and can’t compromise enough to make it work.  Of course this doesn’t keep him from wanting to keep things “status quo.”

As Jeff looks out in the courtyard, virtually every window tells the tale of a relationship, and will therefore remind him of his own.  First and foremost, there is Lars Thorwald and his wife.  She is supposed to be an invalid, but doesn’t look to be in very bad shape.  She is very critical of Lars Thorwald.  Jeff comments while talking to his editor on the phone about not wanting to become a husband going home to his nagging wife.  Note also, the nightgown that Mrs. Thorwald is wearing is almost exactly like the one that Lisa will wear later in the film.

There is also the newlywed couple, whose closed curtain imply the marriage is being consummated quite thoroughly.  And yet by the end, they are bickering too.  Miss Lonelyhearts is desperate for love, with a desperation that elevates to the brink of disaster.  Miss Torso is pushing men away throughout the film, “juggling wolves” as Lisa calls it.   You could say that the composer is married to his work.  Stella talks about her strong marriage, calling herself and her husband “a couple of maladjusted misfits” and saying the only way you could get her wedding ring off would be to chop off her finger.   And Detective Doyle is a family man, who is not averse to admiring Miss Torso himself.

When Lisa begins to take chances, when she leaves the note under Thorwald’s door, that is the moment that Jeff begins to really fall in love with her.  To make sure we notice this, Hitchcock gives us a close up of Stewart’s face.

When Lisa is in Thorwald’s apartment, signaling to Jeff that she has the ring, the double meaning of the image can’t be mistaken.  She is pointing repeatedly to a wedding ring on her finger.  She has found Mrs. Thorwald’s ring, but it is also symbolic of her desire to wed Jeff.

The movie does have a mostly happy ending (except of course for poor Mrs. Thorwald), but there is that little twist at the end.  Miss Torso is married to a scrawny soldier who is more interested in the contents of her icebox than her bikini.  Miss Lonelyhearts and the composer are brought together by music, at least in a friendly way (One can’t really imagine them becoming a couple).  The couple with the dog have got a new puppy, the newlyweds are bickering.  And Lisa is reading a book about climbing the Himalayas, at least until she is sure Jeff is asleep.  Then she grabs her Harper’s Bizarre.  Compromise is the name of the game.

Sound and vision:  Nothing seen or heard in a Hitchcock movie is ever there by accident, and never more so than here, where Hitchcock had such close control of every aspect of production.    Hitchcock had an all-star team on this movie, and they all worked together seamlessly.  From Robert Burks cinematography, to Edith Head’s costumes, to Hal Pereira’s art direction and Franz Waxman’s music, every piece of the puzzle fit together perfectly.

The above image is a good example of all of these technical elements working together.

Hitchcock also found many interesting ways to film the characters in Stewart’s apartment, without anything ever feeling staged.

Lisa wears a pale green here, mirroring the green that Miss Lonelyhearts is wearing as she prepares to go out on the town.  Here is what Hitchcock had to say about Miss Lonelyhearts color palette:

Miss Lonelyhearts always dressed in emerald green. To make sure that that came off, there was no other green in the picture, because we had to follow her very closely when she went across the street into the cafe.  So I reserved that color for her.

There final scene with Detective Doyle, Jeff and Lisa plays out with long takes and very little cutting.  Hitchcock has the actors keep moving around, and regrouping, so the shot composition is always engaging.

One of the most overlooked aspects of this film is also one of its most brilliant, and that is the movie’s musical score.    The score exists of only existing musical elements.  It other words, all of the sounds we hear come to us from the open window of Jeff’s apartment, the songs are either on someone’s radio, or emanating from the composer’s apartment.  And the songs all perfectly suit what is taking place on the screen.  While Jeff is watching the newlyweds enter their apartment, we can hear an instrumental version of “That’s Amore”.   When Miss Lonelyhearts is having dinner with her imaginary beau, the rather cruelly ironic song playing is Bing Crosby’s “To See You Is To Love You”.   Later, when Miss Lonelyhearts crosses the street to the bar, we hear “Waiting For My True Love To Appear.”    The greatest musical element, however, is the song “Lisa”, which we actually hear being composed as the movie progresses.  In other words, the composer, in his apartment, is writing the movie’s score as we watch the movie.  When Lisa first comes in Jeff’s apartment, we hear someone practicing scales.  Obviously this is the warm up, before the real work begins.  Then, over the course of a few scenes, we see the composer developing his song, culminating in the scene where both Lisa and Miss Lonelyhearts are captivated by the song.  And finally, in the movie’s very last scene, we hear a recorded version of the song, which is named after Grace Kelly’s character.

Hitchcock thought that this idea of developing a song as the movie progressed was a failure.  I disagree.  I just think that the story is so strong, it gets lost in the background.  I would strongly encourage anyone who is a big fan of this movie to watch it again, focusing on the sound and music.  You just might be amazed.

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TO CATCH A THIEF (1955): “I bet you told her all your trees were Sequoias.”

TO CATCH A THIEF (1955) – Paramount – ★★★★

Color – 106 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Cary Grant (John Robie), Grace Kelly (Frances Stevens), Jessie Royce Landis (Jessie Stevens), John Williams (H. H. Hughson), Brigitte Auber (Danielle Foussard).

Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, from the novel by David Dodge

Cinematography by Robert Burks

Edited by George Tomasini

Music by Lyn Murray

Costumes by Edith Head

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   Alfred Hitchcock entered 1955 riding a hot streak, with the back-to-back smash hits Dial M For Murder and Rear Window, and that streak would continue with To Catch A Thief.    The movie opens with one of Hitchcock’s typical vignettes.  A black cat creeps on a rooftop.  Cut to a woman screaming; her jewels have been stolen.  Cut to the same black cat, slinking by a windowsill.  Then another woman screaming.  Finally we cut to a black cat sleeping comfortably on Cary Grant’s sofa, as he reads a newspaper article about a jewel thief named “the cat”.   A simple but effective story set up.

 To Catch A Thief is often cited as Hitchcock lite:  a good-looking movie that offers little of the subtext or dark undercurrents to be found in many of his best movies.  Actually, all of Hitchcock’s favorite themes are on display here, and while the tone is light, the movie is always entertaining, and pleasing to the palate.

First of all, we have the innocent man falsely accused, in the form of Cary Grant’s John Robie:  a man who was once a jewel thief, but who now just wishes to live quietly in his villa near the French Riviera (don’t we all?)  But now, someone has begun stealing jewels, using his methods, and the police want to arrest him.  There is a Hitchcock double chase (the innocent man chasing after the real criminal, while himself being chased by the police), but the difference between this movie and the many others with this theme (such as The 39 Steps and North by Northwest)  is that the action is more static here.  Also,  the hero is suspected of being merely a thief, not a murderer, as is usually the case.  One never truly feels like Grant is in any real danger.

Next we have the icy maiden as leading lady.  Grace Kelly’s character has a cool demeanor, but inside she is about to bubble over.   She is Frances Stevens, travelling in Europe with her rich mother, whose jewels are a target for the thief.  Observe the transformation of Kelly’s character as the movie progresses, and she becomes more overtly sexual.  Interestingly she is also turned on by the thought of Cary Grant’s character being a thief.  She wants him to be a thief; as a matter of fact, she is willing to help him steal.   This was Kelly’s third consecutive film for Hitchcock as his leading lady; she had clearly become a favorite of his, and it’s easy to see why.

And then there is the domineering mother, another recurring element in several Hitchcock films.  Grace Kelly’s mother is perfectly played by Jessie Royce Landis, who would later play Cary Grant’s mother in North by Northwest.  Her level head and straight talk make her a polar opposite of her daughter, and provide many of the best moments in the film.

And subtle (or not so subtle) sexual humor?   This film contains more double entendres than any film Hitchcock ever made.  Special acknowledgment goes to John Michael Hayes, who crafted a screenplay that is full of more quotable lines than five average movies.  His dialogue is witty, flirty, breezy, and never boring.

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And a great climax, occuring in a high place?  John Robie unmasks the real cat thief, and clears his name, on the rooftop of a French villa, which has just hosted a lavish costume party.  The entire party sequence is a lovely set piece, with gorgeous costumes designed by Edith Head (of course) who once said this was her favorite movie to work on.

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Above you can see the gorgeous set from the film’s finale,  on a sound stage at Paramount.

Some people have delved deeper into this movie, examining themes of guilt and trust, but since Hitchcock himself said the movie was not meant to be taken seriously, we will take him at his word.   But just because it is not serious does not mean it is not worth watching.  It is expertly made, gorgeously shot, well acted, with a memorable and funny screenplay.

Performances:  As is usually the case in Hitchcock movies, some of the most interesting performances are in the supporting cast.  Of course the two leads are great, as I’ve already mentioned.  But equally great is John Williams as insurance man H.H. Hughson.  And Jessie Royce Landis steals every scene she is in.   Her part is very well written, but she elevates the character beyond the written word.  And Brigitte Auber, as the second love interest for Cary Grant, is quite good as well.

Source material:  The movie is based on a novel by David Dodge.   Considering it is over 60 years old, the novel reads very well today.  It’s tone is light, and it breezes along, much like the movie.  The main plot points were all transferred from the book directly to the movie.  There are some minor changes.  In the novel, Robie actually dons a physical disguise after fleeing from the police at his villa, so they will not recognize him.  Robie also has a friend named Paul, a character that is eliminated from the movie altogether.  This friend falls in love with Danielle, the jewel thief, which complicates things at the ending.  Although screenwriter John Michael Hayes kept much of the plot, he did bring a lot of original dialogue to the movie.  Dialogue was Hayes’ specialty, and this screenplay features many gems.   As mentioned before, he packs the screenplay with double entendres;  it’s amazing that they all passed muster with the censors.

Academy awards:  Robert Burks won a much-deserved Oscar for Best Color Cinematography.  The movie was also nominated in the Best Costume and Best Color Art Direction-Set Decoration categories.

Robert Burks, cameraman:  Rather than a full scene deconstruction, we are going to take a look at one sequence in the movie, with particular attention paid to Robert Burks Oscar-winning cinematography.  Burks was the director of photography on 12 of Alfred Hitchcock’s films.  In addition to this movie, he shot Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and 8 other titles.  One could argue that he was the most important technical collaborator of Hitchcock’s career.

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This is the scene where Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly) attempts to seduce John Robie (Cary Grant).  She is attempting to lure him with both her body and the necklace she is wearing.   In the shot above, Kelly’s face is in the shadows, forcing Robie’s (and the viewer’s) attention to the objects of desire. The green light on the curtains is a great touch as well.

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The two are drawn closer together, with Grace Kelly’s character being the aggressor, while Cary Grant’s Robie is on the defensive.  Look at the above shot.  First, the two characters frame the window.   Grant stands rigid, while Grace Kelly is relaxed, seductive.  The fireworks are on display behind them.  Next observe the color composition.  Out the window is a deep blue.  The streak of green runs through the center of the frame, with the actors standing just inside it.  You can see that Grace Kelly’s hair appears green.  The light has almost a pinkish tint on the right, and there are deep shadows in the top left of frame, and bottom right.

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The characters are slowly drawn together, then they part.  Grace Kelly sits down on the couch, and now we are seeing her from Grant’s point of view; she is bathed in a brighter, natural light, finally showcasing her absolutely breathtaking face.

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Back to a two-shot as Grant joins her on the couch.  Now they are surrounded again by that ethereal green light as they draw into a kiss and recline on the sofa.tocatchathief6

Next, a cut to the fireworks out the window.  This may be the on-screen birth of the now-trite fireworks as sex metaphor.

 

Where’s Hitch?  Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appears at about the 9:38 mark of this movie.  It is one of the most self-aware cameos of his career.  Cary Grant boards a bus outside his villa, and takes a seat in the very back.  On the seat to his right sits a birdcage with some birds in it.  He then looks to his left, and the camera pans over to show Hitchcock sitting right next to him, stoically looking ahead.

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Recurring players:  Cary Grant had appeared in Suspicion and Notorious, and would later appear in North by Northwest.  Grace Kelly had earlier starred in Dial M For Murder and Rear Window.  Jessie Royce Landis would appear with Cary Grant again (as his mother!) in North by Northwest.  The inimitable John Williams had already been in The Paradine Case and Dial M For Murder.  Lewis Charles (man with milk saucer in Bertanis) would later appear in Topaz.  Steven Geray had earlier appeared in Spellbound.  Gladys Holland (woman at roulette table), Edward Manouk (kitchen helper), Louis Mercier (croupier) and Donald Lawton (police detective) would show up briefly in The Man Who Knew Too Much remake.  Barry Norton had earlier had a bit part in Strangers on a Train, and Loulette Sablon had a bit part in Foreign Correspondent.  And lets not forget Bess Flowers, the most prolific extra in Hollywood history, who was an extra in this and seven other Hitchcock movies.

Cary Grant and the stalwart John Williams
Cary Grant and the stalwart John Williams

What Hitch said:  Alfred Hitchcock had very little to say about this movie, over the years.  He did call it “a lightweight story” and say “it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously.”

 Definitive edition:  Paramount released this movie on blu ray in 2012.  This print of the movie is breathtaking.  Edith Head’s beautiful costumes, and Robert Burks’ Oscar-winning cinematography are on fine display.  The blu ray contains a dry-but-informative commentary track by Drew Casper, and numerous featurettes:  A Night With the Hitchcocks, Film Censorship in Hollywood, Writing and Casting, The Making of, Behind the Gates, Alfred Hitchcock and To Catch A Thief, Edith Head:  The Paramount years, and Interactive Travelogue.  Also included are photo galleries and the original theatrical trailer.  It’s a shame Paramount did not port over the commentary track from the earlier DVD release, featuring Peter Bogdanovich and Laurent Bouzereau.  Their lighter tone was more suited to this movie than Drew Casper’s scholarly dissertation.