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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REAR WINDOW (1954): “What do you want from me?”

REAR WINDOW (1954) – Paramount Pictures – ★★★★★

Color – 112 minutes – 1.66:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  James Stewart (L.B. Jefferies), Grace Kelly (Lisa Fremont), Thelma Ritter (Stella), Raymond Burr (Lars Thorwald), Wendell Corey (Detective Tom Doyle), Judith Evelyn (Miss Lonelyhearts), Ross Bagdasarian (songwriter), Georgine Darcy (Miss Torso).

Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, based on the story “It Had To Be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich

Cinematography by Robert Burks

Edited by George Tomasini

Music by Franz Waxman

Costumes by Edith Head

(My Rear Window analysis will be broken into three parts.  This is part one.)

Firing on all cylinders:   Alfred Hitchcock began his tenure at Paramount Pictures in 1954 flying high.  His last movie for Warner Bros., Dial M For Murder, was a box office hit.  And Paramount was granting him more freedom than he’d ever had.  He was bursting with energy and creativity.  And he chose Rear Window as his first Paramount film.

The movie stars Jimmy Stewart as L.B. Jefferies, a professional photographer who broke his leg in pursuit of a photo, and is now stuck in his apartment, in a wheelchair.  With little else to do, he begins to watch his neighbors, looking in their apartment windows from his own.  He is just passing the time, until the invalid wife of the traveling salesman across the courtyard disappears.  And the salesman (Raymond Burr) is acting strange.  Did he kill his wife?  That is the question that “Jeff” seeks to answer, with the help of a trio of people.   His girlfriend is fashion model Lisa Fremont, played by the exquisitely beautiful Grace Kelly.  The insurance company nurse that looks in on him is Stella (Thelma Ritter), who dispenses homespun wisdom along with her care.  And finally there is Detective Doyle (Wendell Corey), and old war buddy who investigates the salesman at Jeff’s request.   Jeff and Lisa spend the bulk of the movie trying to untangle a murder plot, as well as untangling their own relationship issues.

(For a detailed look at the movies themes, please see part two of this analysis.)

Hitchcock as God:  Alfred Hitchcock notoriously disliked filming on location.  Despite the fact that he did some wonderful location shooting in his career, he much preferred the confines of the studio, where he was more in control of the environment.  Rear Window was a dream come true for Hitch, because the entire movie was shot on one massive set built on Stage 18 at Paramount Studios.  The set featured the back side of four apartment buildings, facing onto an interior courtyard.   The set was so tall that the “ground floor” was actually thirty feet below the studio’s original floor.  It was one of the largest and most impressive sets ever constructed.

With the pull of a lever, Hitchcock could change the lighting from dawn, to midday, to dusk, to night.  He could even make it rain on cue.  He also controlled the individual lights and sounds emanating from every apartment, as well as controlling every action sound uttered by everyone on screen.

Here is what Hitchcock had to say about the fictional world he created:

It shows every kind of human behavior-a real index of individual behavior.  The picture would have been very dull if we hadn’t done that.  What you see across the way is a group of little stories that…mirror a small universe.

One small portion of Hitchcock’s impressive Rear Window set.

Performance:   There are only five characters that ever appear in Jeff’s apartment; every other performance is seen from a distance.  Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly are nothing short of iconic in their leading roles.  They inhabit the characters perfectly, and play off of each other equally well.   Thelma Ritter is one of the greatest character actors to ever appear on screen, and gives one of her best performances here.   (Interestingly, Ritter was nominated for Best Supporting Actress six times, never winning.  This was not one of her Oscar-nominated roles).  And Wendell Corey gives arguably the role of his all-too-short life as Detective Doyle.  Raymond Burr is the typical sympathetic villain.  The rest of the characters have to act “from a distance”, as it were.  Imagine having several moments of screen time in a movie, but only being filmed in long shots.  Every single character works perfectly as a piece of the ensemble, to create the harmonized feel of the picture as a whole.

Source material:  John Michael Hayes adapted his screenplay from a 40-page short story by Cornell Woolrich titled “It Had To Be Murder”.  Woolrich was a talented noir crime writer who wrote dozens of engaging novels and short stories, many with a dark, ironic twist ending.  Hitchcock enjoyed Woolrich’s writing.  Several of his short stories would later be adapted for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show, and Hitchcock himself would direct a TV adaptation of another Woolrich short story for the NBC anthology show Suspicion.

The most significant plot element in Rear Window is lifted directly from the story: a man with a cast on his leg, trapped in his apartment, begins watching his neighbors to pass the time, and suspects one of them may be guilty of murdering his wife.  Everything else in the film comes directly from the minds of John Michael Hayes and Alfred Hitchcock.  There is no love interest in the story;  no insurance nurse tending to his needs.  Instead he has a guy named Sam who looks after him.  There is no Ms. Lonelyhearts, no Miss Torso, no Composer, none of the other side stories that help to make the film so rich and complete.

The first person narrator of the story is Hal Jeffries, rather than LB, but still has the nickname Jeff.  And the oh-so perfect name Lars Thorwald comes directly from the story.  Jeff also has a detective friend in the story, named Boyne.  He is the equivalent of Doyle in the film.

The story is quite gripping.  This description of the moment when the narrator first begins to suspect his neighbor of murder is quite good, and was slightly adapted for use in the movie.  Jeff says this about Lars Thorwald:

He was leaning out, maybe an inch past the window frame, carefully scanning the back faces of all the houses abutting on the hollow square that lay before him.  You can tell, even at a distance, when a person is looking fixedly.  There’s something about the way the head is held.  And yet his scrutiny wasn’t held fixedly to any one point, it was a slow, sweeping one, moving along the houses…I wondered vaguely why he had given that peculiar, comprehensive, semicircular stare at all the rear windows around him.  There wasn’t anyone at any of them, at such an hour.  It wasn’t important, of course.  It was just a little oddity, it failed to blend in with his being worried or disturbed about his wife.  When you’re worried or disturbed, that’s an internal preoccupation, you stare vacantly at nothing at all.  When you stare around you in a great sweeping arc at windows, that betrays external preoccupation, outward interest.  One doesn’t quite jibe with the other.

Near the story’s climax, just as in the movie, Jeff calls Thorwald and says he knows about his wife.  And just as in the movie, Thorwald discovers who has contacted him, and goes to Jeff’s apartment to confront him.  In the story Thorwald is much more determined and aggressive.  Jeff takes a large ceramic bust, “of Rousseau or Montesquieu, I’d never been able to decide which”, and places it in front of him on his chair.  Thorwald shoots at the shadowed outline of the bust, and the bust stops the bullet.  Then the police arrive, chasing Thorwald, and he falls to his death.

Recurring players:  Jimmy Stewart had already appeared in Rope, and would later appear in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956 remake) and Vertigo.  Grace Kelly had just starred in Dial M For Murder, and would also star in Hitchcock’s next film To Catch A Thief.   Sara Berner (the woman with the dog) would have a small role in North by Northwest, at least her voice would (she is the telephone operator that Cary Grant speaks to at the Plaza Hotel).  Jesslyn Fax (sculptress) and Len Hendry (policeman) had small uncredited roles in North by Northwest.  Anthony Warde (detective that mentions the hatbox at the end) will have a role as another policeman in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).  Fred Graham (one of police that goes to Thorwald’s apartment) would later play the policeman that falls off the roof at the beginning of Vertigo.   Bess Flowers (songwriter’s party guest with poodle), known as the Queen of Hollywood extras, appeared as an extra in seven other Hitchcock films.  Voice talent Art Gilmore, whose voice can be heard on the radio, had performed the same service on Saboteur.  

Academy Awards:  Rear Window received four Oscar nominations:  Alfred Hitchcock for Best Direction, Robert Burks for Best Color Cinematography, John Michael Hayes for Best Adapted Screenplay, and Loren L. Ryder for Best Sound Recording.   Unfortunately, they all went home empty-handed on Oscar night.

Box office success:  Rear Window was the highest-grossing film of 1954, eventually earning $36 million at the box office, and making it Hitchcock’s highest-earning film up to that point.

Burr as Selznick?   This is what Raymond Burr looked like in 1954.

If you’ve ever wondered why Hitchcock dramatically altered Burr’s appearance for the role of Lars Thorwald, he had a very specific reason.  Hitchcock had Burr made up to resemble producer David O. Selznick.   Selznick of course had famously signed Hitchcock to a seven-year contract in 1940, luring Hitchcock to the United States.  While their partnership began with much promise, it ended rather poorly.  Hitchcock had certainly had his fill of Selznick’s micro-managing.  So several years later, Hitchcock decided to take a subtle jab at his former producer, by making the wife and dog killing Lars Thorwald resemble him.  Hitchcock never directly addressed this in any interview, and the average moviegoer would have been completely unaware.  But most Hollywood insiders would have been in on the joke.

Burr and Selznick.

Where’s Hitch?  This film features my personal favorite of all Hitchcock’s cameos.  At about the 26:15 mark, Hitchcock can be seen winding the clock on the mantel in the composer’s apartment.  As he is winding it, he turns and looks over his shoulder, speaking to the composer as he sits at the piano.

Hitchcock, winding a clock and speaking to Ross Bagdasarian in his “Rear Window” cameo.

What Hitch said:  Hitchcock had much to say about this film over the years.   When talking with Truffaut, Hitch said:

It was the possibility of doing a purely cinematic film.  You have an immobilized man looking out.  That’s one part of the film.  The second part shows what he sees  and the third part shows how he reacts.  This is actually the purest expression of a cinematic idea…I was feeling very creative at the time, the batteries were well charged.

In a piece written for Take One in 1968, Hitchcock had a lot of interesting comments to make, including more on the idea of montage:

It’s composed largely of Mr. Stewart as a character in one position in one room looking out onto his courtyard.  So what he sees is a mental process blown up in his mind from the purely visual.  It represents for me the purest form of cinema which is called montage;  that is, pieces of film put together to make up an idea.

Hitch also says:

Rear Window has a happy ending, but I don’t think you have to drag in a happy ending.  I think that an audience will accept any ending as long as it’s reasonable.

Definitive edition:  Universal’s 2014 blu-ray release is fantastic.  First of all, the picture quality is amazing.   Watching this blu-ray on a large hi-def TV reveals many never before noticed details.  The soundtrack is fantastic too.  Included with the movie are several extra features.   First and foremost is a wonderful commentary track by John Fawell, author of a book about Rear Window.  This is hands down one of the most informative commentary tracks I’ve ever heard, without ever becoming too dry or scholarly.  Also included is a 55-minute making of documentary, a 13-minute interview with screenwriter John Michael Hayes,  two other mini-documentaries, a half hour vintage interview with Hitchcock conducted in the early 70’s, and audio excerpts from the Truffaut interview sessions.  In addition, the blu-ray has both the original and re-release theatrical trailers.

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.

DIAL M FOR MURDER (Continued) – Deconstruction of a scene

  As promised in my previous coverage of Dial M for Murder, here is a more detailed look at one specific sequence in the film.  This is the sequence involving Tony Wendice’s conversation with Swann.  This portion of the film corresponds to Act I, Scene ii in Frederick Knott’s original play.  In Hitchcock’s movie, it is just over 22 minutes in length, comprising slightly more than 20% of the film’s total running time.  So how does Alfred Hitchcock manage to sustain interest and suspense,  for such a long period of time, with only 2 actors in one room?  There are approximately 121 editorial cuts in this 22 minute sequence, averaging one cut every 11 seconds.  This seems like a lot of editing for Alfred Hitchcock, but the specifics are much more interesting than mere mathematics.  Of course, there is more to it than just the editing.  Of equal importance in this scene is the set design.  This is one of the most perfectly designed and decorated sets in any Hitchcock film, and we will see how important that is to the scene.

First off, Tony Wendice (played by Ray Milland) opens the door for Swan (Anthony Dawson), and they engage in introductory remarks.  Wendice pours Swan a drink.  This happens in one unbroken two-shot, lasting just under a minute.  Both actors then take a seat, facing each other.  Then Hitchcock goes into a very “standard” back and forth as Wendice and Swan converse.  The camera is on Wendice, then Swan, then back to Wendice, etc.  This back-and-forth cutting happens over 20 times in a couple of minutes.  The camera is usually trained on the actor who is speaking, but not always.  Occasionally the camera will cut to the listener, so we can read his reaction to what the other person is saying.  This is one way of breaking the monotony of the standard “two-shot conversation” sequence.   Then, just as the conversation is starting to take a turn, Hitchcock does something unique with the camera:

As Wendice joins Swan on the sofa, the camera pans left so that we are behind the sofa, and the actors, with a lamp in between the two.  The camera has moved almost 90 degrees clockwise, and rather than cut to the new set-up, we observe the camera movement.  This is slightly off-putting.  Every time the viewer might start to get complacent, Hitchcock quickly changes the setup, keeping us off guard, and hopefully ensuring that we are paying attention to the very important dialogue.  This camera angle puts the viewer in the role of a spy of sorts, peeking over the back of the sofa.   After this dramatic camera movement, the scene continues in one uninterrupted take for about a 1 minute and 45 seconds.  During this time, Tony Wendice will get up and sit down twice, all without cutting.

 

Wendice ends up where he began, opposite Swan, and after an establishing two-shot Hitchcock goes back to the standard “back-and-forth”, cutting between the two men as Wendice slowly reels in Swan.   It is worth noting the Japanese porcelain figurine behind Tony Wendice in this photo.   The figurine appears in various camera angles, and in a couple of instances appears to be staring directly at the camera, almost as if he is listening in on the conversation.   This is not a random choice, in the figurine or its position.  It is used as a framing object. (This is not the first time Hitchcock used a figurine as a participant in a scene.  In The 39 Steps there is a statue pointing towards an open window,  making the viewer aware of trouble to come.)   After almost 3 minutes of  rather standard back-and-forth cutting, Tony gets up and moves to the desk.

 

Look at him sitting on the edge of the desk, arms crossed, both confident and comfortable.  He exudes power.  By this time he knows that he has Swan, and he is charming as ever.  Now the camera has moved to the opposite side of the room, near the fireplace.  Our view has moved 180 degrees from where we were when the two men sat on the sofa together, with the lamp between them.  Now the lamp is to the left of the frame, providing counterbalance to the figure of Wendice.  Tony Wendice will move back to the other side of the room, sitting now in the deep chair to the right of the one he sat in previously.

This is an interesting camera angle;  before we were looking at eye level, more or less.  But now the camera is in a lower position, looking up at Wendice, whose body fills the frame.  His position of strength has grown.  His tennis trophies can be seen just above his head on the mantel.  Now Tony stands up, and we are presented with an entirely new camera angle:

Now we can see bookshelves behind Tony.  These shelves are opposite the door.  Once again the camera has swung around the room.  We are seeing furnishings that we haven’t seen before.   But there is our familiar anchor, that green lamp, more or less dead center in the room.  We’ve seen it center frame, left of frame, and now it is right of frame, providing balance in the scene’s composition.   Tony walks back to the desk, to get Swan’s “carrot”, his money.  As he walks, we see the only part of the living room that we have not yet seen:

 

 

There behind Tony’s head is a framed work of art, in between two bookshelves.  As he walks to the right, we see the second bookshelf, as well as some sort of china cabinet in the corner of the room.   Now we see the smaller, more ornate yellow lamp on the desk.  It enters this scene frame right.  Just as the Japanese figurine and the green lamp have been important elements of framing before, now the yellow lamp will fill the same role.  Tony tosses the money across the room to Swan.  This is as far apart physically as they will ever get in this 22 minute sequence.  There is a gulf between them, as Swan appears to hesitate.

 

We can now see another ornate piece of furniture, and another art print on the wall.   Note also the brandy bottle, perfectly centered in the frame. Alfred Hitchcock has made a complete circuit of the room, in a span of about 15 minutes, showing us every wall, every door, every unique furnishing.  Most viewers will make no notice of this, because they will be focused on the dialogue between Wendice and Swan, but it is the constantly changing camera angles, and decor, that enhance the dialogue.   One could say that the green lamp is the “fixed point” at center stage, around which the actors turn.   But it is not just the actors, but the camera as well (and therefore the viewer) that have rotated around the room.

And Hitchcock is not done yet.

Swan moves to join Wendice at the desk, and at this point is is clear that they have reached an agreement.

 

Look at the perfect framing of this shot.  The two men are not directly facing one another, but look at each other at a slightly oblique angle.  The telephone, which is to be the instrument of murder, is dead center frame, and directly between the men.  And the “new” lamp, which appears to be of Asian design as well, is now frame left.

Alfred Hitchcock leaves his best camera work for the end of the sequence.  All of a sudden, as Wendice begins to give the specifics of the murder to Swan, the camera cuts to a high overhead angle.

 

I call this Hitchcock’s “God’s-eye view” shot.  He employed it in a majority of his films, usually only for a matter of seconds, and usually at a moment of extremely heightened tension.  (In Shadow of a Doubt, the camera pulls upward at the moment when niece Charlie discovers that her uncle’s gift of a ring came from a murdered woman.  In the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, the camera moves overhead when the McKennas are talking to their kidnapped child on the phone.)  Removing the viewer from the action in this way is startling, because unexpected.  It also makes the characters, and the viewers as well, feel more helpless.   Hitchcock uses this angle a little differently here.  We stay in this overhead shot for two-and-a-half minutes, as we observe the plotting of a murder.   So why did Hitchcock employ this high angle here?   Could it be as simple as the fact that he had already shown us the room from every other conceivable angle?  I think there is a very specific reason that Hitchcock saved this camera angle for the end.   It  serves to ensure that the viewer is aware of the layout of the room, and exactly where everything is, so that when the murder comes we know exactly what is supposed to happen.

After this the camera returns to an eye-level two shot, and finally we fade to black over 22 minutes after the sequence began.  The success of the film hangs on this sequence;  not only is Wendice hooking Swan, but Hitchcock is hooking the audience, and the innovative camera movements, combined with the exquisite set design make this sequence wonderful, and a prime example of his masterful directorial eye.

 

 

 

DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954): “That’s the trouble with these latchkeys. They’re all alike.”

DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954) – Warner Bros. – Rating:  ★★★★

Color – 105 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Ray Milland (Tony Wendice), Grace Kelly (Margot Wendice), Robert Cummings (Mark Halliday), Anthony Dawson (Lesgate/Swann), John Williams (Chief Inspector Hubbard).

Produced and Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Written by Frederick Knott, based on his play

Director of Photography:  Robert Burks

Film Editing:  Rudi Fehr

Original Score:  Dmitri Tiomkin

We open on an idyllic marriage scene, in a small but well-furnished London flat, the happy wedded couple locked in a kiss.  Cut to the same married couple, eating breakfast.  The wife is reading a small notice in the newspaper, about an American author due to arrive in England on the Queen Mary that day.  Cut to attractive man disembarking from the Queen Mary.  Cut to this attractive man, locked in a kiss with the wife, in the same London flat we just witnessed a moment ago!  Alfred Hitchcock, who got his start in silent films, and never lost his flair for visual storytelling, has given us a complete set-up to the story in two minutes, with no dialogue.

The wife, Margot Wendice, and the author, Mark Halliday, had a fling the previous year, when Mark was last in London, and Margot’s marriage was in turmoil.  Now, Margot tells Mark, her husband Tony is a changed man.  She won’t leave him, because he has become the perfect husband.  She also tells Mark that she destroyed all of the letters he wrote to her, except one, which was stolen from her purse.  After the theft she recieved two anonymous letters of blackmail, and even after she paid the requested sum she never recieved the letter back.

At this moment Margot’s husband Tony returns to the flat, and his wife introduces Mark as a friend of hers.  Tony sends the couple off for an evening on the town, saying he is too busy with work to accompany them.  He then makes a phone call summoning a man to the flat, on the pretext of buying a used car.  This man, named Swann, was an old college schoolmate of Tony’s, and Tony uses a very subtle and charming method of blackmail to convince Swann to murder his wife, for the sum of one thousand pounds.  It turns out that Tony knew about the affair all along.  He is the one who stole the letter from his wife’s handbag, and he wishes to dispense with her and inherit her considerable fortune.

The murder is to take place the following evening,  when Tony and Mark will be at a stag party, and Margot will be home alone.  Tony will hide a key outside the flat so Swann can let himself in, then at an arranged time Tony will make a phone call to the flat, summoning Margot from bed to the phone, where Swann will finish her off.  There is a very suspenseful build-up to the moment of the phone call, and as it happens Margot is able to grab a pair of scissors from the desk and stab Swann in the back.  He falls to the floor, impaling himself and dying instantly.  Margot summons Tony home, who, instead of despairing at seeing his plans foiled, sends Margot to bed, then rather adroitly manipulates the scene so it will appear that Margot wilfully murdered Swann.

Now Chief Inspector Hubbard (played by the always solid character actor John Williams) arrives on the scene.  It is established rather quickly that Margot is indeed convicted of murder and sentenced to death.  It seems that Tony’s plan will succeed, but Inspector Hubbard is a very cool character, and knows more than he lets on.  The climax of the plot hinges on something as simple as a key, with Hubbard playing a hunch that turns out to be correct.

Why does this film work as well as it does?  It is 80% dialogue, 20% action.  It takes place all in one small flat.  It is considered a “minor work” of Hitchcock, and justifiably so.  And yet it is thoroughly entertaining.  For me it is Ray Milland that saves the day.  The wrong actor in the Tony Wendice role would send the film irrevocably off the rails.

Performance:  The performances are all solid, with the exception of Robert Cummings, who seems a little soft in his role as the boyfriend, and fails to generate any sympathy.  Ray Milland really carries the movie, as yet another sympathetic Hitchcock villain, charming from his first scene to his last.  John Williams is fantastic as Inspector Hubbard.  (Film lovers may recognize Williams as Audrey Hepburn’s chauffeur father in the movie Sabrina, also released in 1954.)  Both John Williams and Anthony Dawson reprised their roles from the original New York stage production of the play.  And then there’s Grace.  Has any woman ever looked as gorgeous on screen as Grace Kelly?   Although she had an other-wordly beauty, she always created characters that female moviegoers could identify with.

Hitchcock in 3D?  Yes, this film was initially released in the 3D format.  Alfred Hitchcock did not wish to use  3D in the way it was typically employed at that time, with lots of very obvious moments of long narrow objects poking and jabbing at the audience.  He only employed that twice in the film, once with scissors and once with a key.  Rather, in anticipating the way 3D is used today, he framed the scene with objects along the proscenium, like a lamp, or a bottle, that gave added depth to the scene.  The film has not been available to view theatrically in 3D since a brief  re-release in 1982, but is just as visually compelling in the 2D format.

Source material:  Frederick Knott adapted the screenplay from his own successful stage play, and changed very little.  All of the major plot elements are in place in the play, and many lines of dialogue are lifted directly from it as well.

Hitchcock moment:  The scene in which Tony Wendice outlines his plan for murder to his old schoolmate Swann would be enough to derail most movies, but here it works brilliantly.  For 22 minutes of screentime (that’s 1/5 of the entire movie!), we have two characters in one small room, talking.  The camera does move, as do the characters, and the staging and filming are perfect.  But the scene is entirely dialogue driven, and not only the dialogue but the acting could not be better.  Ray Milland does a vast majority of the talking, and he is completely charming, winning over not only Swann but the audience as well.  If Milland does not succeed in doing so, the rest of the movie does not work.  This scene alone makes the film worth watching. (I will attempt to do a deconstruction of this scene, as a separate entry, at a later time.)

Keep it closed:  In the Truffaut interviews, Hitchcock talked about directors adapting movies from stage plays, and how they would frequently “open up” the play, taking it beyond its original setting.  He felt this was a big mistake; it was the original story and setting that made the play successful, so he felt one should not mess with success, but rather keep it in its original setting.

Guilty as charged:  Since the theme of guilt and innocence seems to be the most prominent throughout Hitchcock’s works, it may be worthwhile to look at how the concept applies to the characters in this film.  Tony Wendice is guilty from a criminal respect; he first plots to murder his wife, then works to have her hanged for murder.  Yet there are many moments in the film when the audience sympathizes with Tony.  Certainly Margot and Mark are guilty of infidelity, and while this is not an act deserving of murder, it certainly colors the way that viewers feel about them as characters.  Mark is never a sympathetic character.  Lesgate, or Swann, is also criminally guilty.  It would appear he has had the makings of a thief for many years, and he rather quickly agrees to commit a murder for a fairly small sum.  Many would argue he gets what he deserves.  Yet once again, Hitchcock manipulates the audience in such a way that we feel a bit sorry for Lesgate, who is really just a pawn in Tony Wendice’s grand plan.  Even Inspector Hubbard carries a guilt, for he manipulates the Wendices as well, in order to prove his theories.  So on a psychological level, there are no innocent people in this film.  And Hitchcock, primarily through the story and brilliant cutting, has the audience shifting its sympathies almost from moment to moment.

Recurring players:  Robert Cummings had earlier starred (in much more convincing fashion) in Hitchcock’s Saboteur.  John Williams had appeared in 1947’s The Paradine Case, and would later become the go-to guy for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show, appearing in numerous episodes.  Harold Miller was also an extra in Saboteur.  Sam Harris (man in phone booth) was also an extra in Foreign Correspondent, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Saboteur  and The Paradine Case.  Forbes Murray, (the judge) would later appear as an extra in Vertigo.   Grace Kelly would go on to star in the unforgettable Rear Window, and she would have the pleasure of sharing the screen again with John Williams in To Catch A Thief.   And let’s not forget Bess Flowers, “the Queen of the Hollywood extras.”  She appeared (primarily as an extra) in over 700 films, far and away the most of anyone in movie history.  In addition to being “woman departing ship” in this movie, she was also an extra in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Notorious, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo and North by Northwest.  

Legacy:  This movie would be remade twice for television, in rather forgettable versions.  It was also updated for the big screen in 1998’s A Perfect Murder, directed by Andrew Davis and starring Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Viggo Mortensen.  This version has the husband (Douglas) convincing his wife’s lover to commit the murder for him.  It does not share too much in common with the original film, and while the plot twists are somewhat clever and original, it does not have the dramatic intensity of the earlier film.

Where’s Hitch?  How would Alfred Hitchcock insert a cameo into a film which takes place almost exclusively in one room, with a very small cast? No problem!  In the school reunion photo hanging on the wall, in which we see Tony Wendice and Swann sitting side-by-side, there is a familiar face on the near side of the table, turning to look at the camera.   This very clever and effective cameo comes at about 13:11 into the film.

What Hitch said:  Alfred Hitchcock was very dismissive of this film, saying that he was just “coasting, playing it safe.”  On the surface this is understandable as there really isn’t much to this film.  And yet it works; for a dialogue-driven movie in an enclosed space,  it is completely compelling and entertaining.  All Hitchcock would ultimately say was:  “I just did my job, using cinematic means to narrate a story taken from a  stage play.  All of the action in Dial M For Murder  takes place in a living room, but that doesn’t matter.  I could just as well have shot the whole film in a telephone booth.”

Definitive edition:    Warner Brothers released a 3D blu-ray version of this movie in 2012, and it is well worth the extra expense to pick it up.  Even if you do not have a 3D TV, you can still play the movie in 2D.  The 2004 DVD version was a decent print, but it was also in standard format.  Apparently it was easier (and cheaper) to project 3D movies in the standard screen format.  I always assumed that was the aspect ration in which Hitchcock shot the film, so imagine my surprise when the blu-ray began playing and the movie was in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio!   It is like watching an entirely different movie.  The widescreen, the colors, the depth of focus are all quite good.  Many techies have complained about the quality of this transfer, but I can assure you that Dial M has never looked this good on home video.   Not even close.   Why on earth did Warner release the DVD in standard format?  At least they have corrected that mistake.  The blu-ray also includes a ho-hum 21 minute-documentary, not so much a making-of as it is contemporaries lavishing praise on the movie.  You hear from Peter Bogdanovich, M. Night Shyamalan and others.  Also included is the theatrical trailer (also in widescreen.)