Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Peeping James

TCM Fathom Event recently aired the magnificent Rear Window (1954), and we were quite delighted to be able to attend.  Starring James Stewart as L. B. "Jeff" Jeffries and Grace Kelly as Lisa Carol Fremont, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and with a supporting cast to die for, this is  unarguably a Hitchcock masterpiece.  For those unfamiliar with the plot, here's a brief rundown of the premise.  Jeff Jeffries, a highly regarded international photographer has been laid up for 5 weeks in a cast up to his hip, having broken his leg trying to get a photo of a race car in action (he got the picture).  During a hot New York summer (it's the 1950s - there's no in-home air-conditioning), with one week of immobility left (stuck in a walk-up apartment he's not left since his injury), Jeff is bored, so he stares out his window, peering into the lives of his neighbors.  He's got nicknames for all of them, and he imagines their life stories from his "rear window" view.  Then, one hot night, as he dozes in his wheelchair, he thinks he sees a murder.

Some years ago, I attended a class on Hitchcock's film.  The class was taught by Donald Spoto, author of many books about Hollywood, but most especially, the author of The Art of Alfred Hitchcock. One of the points he made was that, as Jeff looks into the windows of his neighbors, what he sees are alternate versions of his own life and that of Lisa, the woman he loves (but is determined NOT to marry).  He sees a pair of newlyweds, a satisfied older couple doting on a beloved dog, a couple who bicker constantly (with Raymond Burr as the husband, Lars Thorwald), a lonely middle-aged woman (Judith Evelyn as "Miss Lonely Hearts"), a young woman surrounded by suitors, and a composer (played by Ross Bagdasarian), who can't seem to get his work noticed.  Which life will Jeff get? We'll never know (hopefully not the Raymond Burr thread!), but Lisa has own ideas, and is a pretty determined lady!
I don't think there is a movie on earth that has Thelma Ritter (Stella) in it that is bad.  Her very presence moves the film up a notch, in my humble opinion.  Ritter's part was not in the original short story by Cornell Woolrich (neither was Grace Kelly's), and according to one of the TCM articles you'll find here, Ritter's part was enlarged after the initial script was completed to provide some humor and humanity to the part of Jeff.  The film needed, according to writer John Michael Hayes, some comedy to get the audience immediately engaged with the character.  He knew that Hitchcock had cast Ritter, and there is no better mouthpiece for the human condition than the phenomenal Thelma Ritter. 

And then there is the other lady in Jeff's life, the ever-glorious Grace Kelly.  A woman of jaw-dropping beauty, Hitchcock, perhaps more than any other director, was able to make her a woman of parts - beautiful, fashionable, smart, daring, passionate.  Her Lisa is unexpected - Jeff leads us to expect she is only a fashionplate - interested in clothing and nothing else.  And while her entrance - twirling around the room in a dress that I would give my eye-teeth for - seems to support that, it isn't long before we realize that Jeff is an idiot - as Stella told him - Lisa is a jewel beyond price.
Seeing Rear Window in a theatre is a treat beyond compare.  While it is good on a television, it's even more magnificent when you can see the framing the way Hitchcock meant it to be seen. Filmed in wide-screen and Technicolor, the movie still manages to convey the claustrophobic atmosphere that has become Jeff's life, as he goes from a boundless world, to a confined, one-room apartment.  It is a film you can see again and again, and each time see something new and exciting.

Grace Kelly's marvelous wardrobe was designed by Edith Head.  Every one of her dresses is glorious, but I'm going to leave you with a clip that contains my personal favorite dress.  Meet Lisa Carole Freemont!:

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