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Monday, June 29, 2009

Rear Window

Arani da wrote this wonderful review of The Trouble With Harry. I thank him a lot for opening up my eyes to Hitchcock's genius. I had watched his North By Northwest about four or five months back and mumbled to myself "Now, what's really the big deal with Hitchcock, eh?". Must get back to that film one of these days; but since then I have poured over a lot of Hitch... and noticed what I would have missed had it not been for that splendid write-up.

Rear Window is remarkable, first of all, for one simple fact: it is shot exclusively from two camera perspectives; both of a backyard in just about any small-town American neighbourhood. One is the POV of our protagonist, LB Jefferies (James Stewart), the other belongs to the audience. (There is a third, but it is given a screentime of barely ten seconds at the most) Given such a small setting and narrow range of views available, it is a challenging task for the director to construct the story so as to keep the viewer enthralled. So what do we have at hand? A kaleidoscope of contrasting characters. Facing Jeff's rear window, ground-floor left is an old spinster who likes sculpting and giving free advice to others; on the apartment over hers stays "Miss Torso", the ballerina. This pretty young thing is always twiddling around doing her chores, or entertaining affluent gentlemen. As a direct contrast to this, there's "Miss Lonelyhearts" on the righthand ground-floor apartment. She has, from the look of it, just stepped into middle age and every other night after meticulously dressing herself she lays out the best China and pours out the best wine. Then opening the door, she welcomes an unseen lover, invites him into the dining area, coyly accepts a warm kiss before breaking down into sobs. Her unhappy solitude is in direct contrast to Miss Torso's bustling room. Over Miss Lonelyhearts stays the quarrelsome couple - the husband a salesman, the wife a bickering invalid. Just the apartment overhead stays the peaceful man and wife. They possibly have no children and always sleep out in the balcony except when it's raining. In a studio apartment to Jeff's right, the musician practises all day long, his landlady the only encouragement. To Jeff's left, a newlywed couple have moved in. This canvas of different and complementing colours establish the perfect long shot. The need of the close-up is also established when the camera zooms in to any one of these several windows: a minute detail crucial to understanding the concerned person(s) replaces the bewildering melange in the long shot.

Jeff is a cameraman who has a broken leg cocooned in a cast due to a nasty accident on a motor-race track. Since he has little to do other than be cooped up in a wheelchair, he stares out of his window. His casual and nonchalant interest in the proceedings of these various characters parallels the narrow concern of the artist for his model. A painter sketching the imposing facade of some monument may not be quite interested in its history. Yet as he scans the salesman's or Miss Lonelyheart's apartment through his long-focus camera, his interest deepens. Quite imperceptibly, he starts getting involved. He is no more noticing just how they act, also why. The camera is Jeff's conduit to the privacy of his subjects much as it is to Jeff and his rear-window world for the audience. The audience's growing involvement is also mirrored in him. The broken leg does not allow him to get directly entangled even when he wants to, so he has to take the aid of his girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), pal Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey) and nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter). This is when he has to overcome the artistic limitations of being neutral witness to events. Ironically, the broken leg is why he gets interested in his neighbours in the first place! Had he been fit to move around freely, he'd already be on assignment in Kashmir!

Hitchcock of course asks the mandatory questions he is wont to. The ethics of voyeurism are challenged: after all, had Jeff not snooped in, would not the salesman walk away with a clean sheet? Something traditionally regarded as unethical - voyeurism - ironically delivers justice to a murder victim! Doyle initially dismisses Jeff's inference about the murder as backward (at the moment, we all agree that his verdict is in the right place given the lack of legal evidence) and lightly ridicules Lisa's feminine intuition, though both the points are ultimately proved correct. His argument is the banality of Jeff's observations and the slim probability of his conclusion being true. The director, through his film, reminds us that slim probabilities can click even in our lives; that things we imagine as commonplace can conceal what exceeds our perception of the normal. Hasn't everyone reassured himself at some point that death and disaster can strike all but him? Something so apparently commonplace as marital friction leads to murder in a neighbourhood that could easily be ours - so really how normal is normal? Intuition, a much misjudged instinct, is also dealt with - Stella's knack of predicting with astonishing precision is verified even in the murder case. Her predictions are derived from what one calls common-sense, which in turn is intuitive in nature. And yet, how many times have we rejected an intuitive thought in favour of "better judgement"?

The reclusive couple who sleep in their balcony own a pup. When it dies mysteriously, the enraged woman laments the lack of any warmth and compassion in her neighbourhood. It's a small town where one would expect old-world wisdom like "love thy neighbour" to be the byword. Ironically the place reeks of the very lack of it. Piqued by the woman's furore, the neighbours peek out of their windows, yet very few are really troubled by the dog's death. It's a dog who's died after all, not a man! Jeff and Lisa are among the very few who are really bothered, and they are voyeurs! Rear window ethics are questioned again.

When Doyle's investigation reveals facts that apparently indicate Mr. Thorwald's (the salesman) innocence, Jeff and Lisa are visibly disappointed. Lisa suddenly notes the irony in their behaviour - after all, that Mrs. Thorwald, the supposed murder victim, is alive should make one happy (again, what really is being normal?). Hitchcock hints how man is instinctively interested in mystery and morbidity (as if the lack of it somehow takes away some colour from life) even though he may seem and proclaim otherwise. Isn't that why thrillers - including the ones Hitchcock made - sell so well? Isn't that why people pay to visit horror-houses? Isn't that also why Jeff gets interested in the oddities at Thorwald's place?

The only other person who appears as a notable counterpoint (working as something more than an element of contrast) to the three main characters - Jeff, Lisa, Stella - is the pianist. The three see and act, he weaves their experience in music. He practises diligently from the start, working his notes well till his magnificent compostion has been polished to perfection. When he is still having trouble with the keys, Jeff and Lisa's relationship is seemingly in rough waters: they are on good talking terms but a little cold. Jeff is apprehensive if she can fit in with his adventurous lifestyle. His worries are taken care of when she daringly sneaks into the Thorwald house without prior warning. The tension regarding her safety does wonders for their bond: gone is the barrier that separated the two. The pianist meanwhile learns to master his songs, and works it out with a full ensemble. The musician represents the film-maker. The director has to create his own vision of a masterpiece all by himself, work little details slowly, smoothe out hurdles and then execute it with his crew. It is with his film's flow that the complications in the protagonist's lives are sorted out. At the end of the movie, the pianist reveals to his landlady - a constant source of enthusiasm - that his album is out after all the effort. As his completed record plays out in the background, we see that Jeff and Lisa are reconciled and living together. The album parallels the completion of the director's movie. Both the artists await the response to their art. (A little snippet that supports this inference: Hitchcock's cameo has him standing by the fireplace in the musician's studio apartment.)

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