Rear Window: Evidence or marriage offer? One shot says it all in Alfred Hitchcock’s unstoppably heart-stopping masterwork.
Hitchcock-tober returns to the Angelika Film Center this month with five of the Master’s finest.
Rear Window (1954)
The rights to Cornell Woolrich’s short story “Murder from a Fixed Viewpoint,” were purchased by Hitch and James Stewart in 1953 and transformed into Rear Window. Their wise investment yielded an entertainment bonanza, with the most compact and rewatchable picture in Hitchcock’s canon. “Confined spaces” pictures are not uncommon — Andrzej Wajda’s tension-filled Kanal and George Stevens’ The Diary of Anne Frank being two exceptional examples. (The Wajda takes place entirely in a sewer, while Stevens entombed his cast in a CinemaScope attic.) But the most impressive entry in this genre has to be Hitchcock’s one set masterwork. The entire film takes place inside Stewart’s apartment and, with the exception of a couple of shots towards the end, exclusively from Stewart’s POV. Just imagine that every window in the courtyard — Hal Pereira’s set alone demands the big screen treatment — is a movie screen, and you’ll begin to understand the voyeuristic delights contained within.
It had been years since I sat down and watched the big “V” from beginning to end. With the exception of Midge’s comic relief, it’s all so damn depressing. My last visit was when the Ken brought it back some 15 years ago, and before that in 1997, when Robert Harris and James Katz “restored” Hitchcock’s obsessive masterwork. Though the 70mm blowup effectively reinstated the film’s original VistaVision aspect ratio and removed the heinous Universal logo hot-spliced onto the last shot of the 1984 reissue, the anemic color, heightened sound effects, and computer enhanced stereo (the film was originally released in mono) proved to be little more than “pay attention to us” tinkering on the part of the self-serving preservationists.
For decades, it was impossible to see Vertigo in any format. There were meaningless memories of a Best of CBS telecast (I was six at the time) and a glaucoma-inducing VHS copy that a friend obtained, but for years, a pristine presentation evaded me. Until that morning in May 1982: I received a call from a mole who, in whispers, informed me that the School of the Art Institute was screening a private collector’s 35mm dye transfer print. I was more intent on getting a seat than a guy dressed as a cereal box standing in line for a taping of Let’s Make A Deal. Until the day some eccentric billionaire film junkie decided to single-handedly bring back VistaVision, this was as close as I would ever get to experiencing the way the film played upon its original issue. The owner’s identity remained shielded, and I was never able to shake his hand and personally thank him for his generous sharing of the print. Projected in razor sharp focus (standard operating procedure at the Art Institute), it forever spoiled all subsequent screenings of the film. Nobody, not even Jerry Lewis, used Technicolor quite like Hitchcock. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Kim Novak flare Technicolor red as she exits Ernie’s. By comparison, the Harris/Katz version looks like faded Deluxe stock.
Hitchcock punctuates numerous scenes here with expressionistic bursts of light or color. In addition to Madeleine’s sensual crimson unveiling, there is the night scene where Judy appears unannounced at John’s apartment and Hitchcock purposely delays letting the interior light hit her face until seconds after the door is open. When Judy consents to go full-Madeleine, the screen becomes bathed in a soft, green gauze that’s just slightly less vibrant than the emerald rooftops John Robe ascends in To Catch a Thief.
Light and color, used to express sexuality, duplicity, and revelatory moments, are staples of Hitchcock’s visual wit. Yet there is one scene that doesn’t compute, and I need your help. Johnny-O (Stewart) and his object of repression Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) pay a late afternoon visit to the Argosy Book Store in order to enlist Pops’ help in researching the mysterious Carlotta. The camera, placed inside the store, records a dialogue between John, Midge and Pops. Towards the end of the scene, the frame begins to darken, as though a cloud has passed across the sun. More than likely, Hitchcock was attempting to compress time and subtly (and oh-so cinematically) make the transition between day and night. (The scene immediately following takes place in the early evening.) We cut to an exterior set. John and Midge exit the store and stand off to the right, leaving Pops center frame in his darkened store. No other characters were introduced, so it’s fair to assume that Pops is alone in the shop. In an instant, the lights inside the Argosy switch on, but how? One’s first thought is that the lights were on a timer, but according to Wikipedia, “Electromechanical timers reached a high state of development in the 1950s and ‘60s because of their extensive use in aerospace and weapons systems.” Does that mean they were made affordable to the general public by 1958? It had to have been intended as an expressionistic device, but for the life of me, I can’t crack its meaning.
Seeing it again was like experiencing it for the first time. For a good third of the picture, we watch Stewart watch Novak. As with all profoundly moving works of art, Vertigo grows with you. One never stops learning from Hitchcock, and after a dozen or so viewings, it thrills me to find an unanswered question, one I’ve asked in in the past to little avail. Can any of you shed some light on this problem of expressionistic illumination?
For showtimes and more information visit the Angelika Film Center.