Alfred Hitchcock Invites Us to Peer Through His “Rear Window”

22 11 2010

“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.” — Alfred Hitchcock

Mr. Hitchcock has an excellent point: “Rear Window,” released in 1954 and starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly, is a sublimely told tale that can be viewed on multiple levels. Its suspense, wit, sexuality, and mature themes make it one of Hitch’s greatest and most satisfying films.

Based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich and featuring a sparkling screenplay by John Michael Hayes, “Rear Window” is the story of L.B. Jeffries (Stewart) a photographer and man of action who’s stuck in his New York apartment during a summer heat wave, thanks to a broken leg. His entire world has been reduced to what he can see across his courtyard, a narrow view that’s like a camera’s viewfinder. Bored as he is, he’s gotten to know his neighbors in a strange way: by watching their comings and goings, he’s learned about their lives. From his wheelchair, Jeffries can see a desperately lonely woman; a energetic dancer; a struggling composer; an abstract artist; a middle-aged couple; and a traveling salesman with a nagging, sickly wife.

Jeffries is kept company by a visiting nurse, played with frank wit by Thelma Ritter, and his girfriend, Lisa Fremont (Kelly), who works at a fashion magazine. While they seem to love each other, Jeffries keeps her at arm’s length, claiming that his whirlwind lifestyle would clash too much with her world of cocktail parties and glamor. Even their accents keep them apart; he sounds down-home, while she has an educated, upper class accent.

On a sweltering night, Jeffries is awakened from a restless sleep in his wheelchair by a scream. Looking across the courtyard, he thinks he sees some activity from the salesman’s apartment. Has the salesman done something to his wife? Jeffries realizes that the wife seems to have disappeared, while the salesman himself is acting suspiciously: leaving the apartment over and over in the middle of the night, making strange phone calls, bringing in contractors to paint the apartment and more. Using binoculars and a camera with a telephoto lens, Jeffries tries to gather evidence. He talks it over with a friend from the police force, who says there isn’t enough evidence to act on.

Fremont, too, is skeptical, arguing that Jeffries is merely bored and imagining things, until, in mid-sentence, she looks out and sees the salesman tying up a huge trunk with heavy rope. Suddenly, the conversation is no longer about Jeffries; it’s about the salesman. That turn of attention, in which Grace Kelly stops acting like an annoyed girlfriend and begins acting like a witness to a crime, is one of the great moments of the movie.

Together, she and the nurse carry out Jeffries’ legwork. When a dog that had been digging in the salesman’s garden turns up strangled, the two women dig up the garden themselves. Finding nothing there, Fremont breaks into the salesman’s empty apartment; there, she finds the wife’s wedding ring, but does not manage to escape before the salesman returns. Watching the action from across the courtyard and unable to do anything, Jeffries sends the police to the apartment. They arrest Fremont, but not before she signals Jeffries. Unfortunately, the salesman sees the signal and, in a truly chilling moment, looks directly into Jeffries’ apartment.

Jeffries now feels he has enough evidence against Thorwald, so he makes a call to his police friend, but with the nurse off to bail out Fremont, Jeffries is alone in the dark when he hears the heavy footsteps of the salesman, Lars Thorwald, approaching. Thorwald breaks in, and Jeffries slows his approach by briefly blinding him with flashbulbs, but Thorwald reaches him at last. He attempts to strangle the photographer and, as the police arrive, hangs Jeffries out the window in an attempt to kill him. Jeffries falls into the courtyard – and out of the frame through which he’s watched so much – as the police grab Thorwald.

In the end, the small world of the courtyard is once again at peace; the couple with the dog have a new pet; the lonely woman has met the composer. Fremont sits near Jeffries, now nursing a second broken leg; for the first time, she’s wearing something simple, jeans and a blouse, rather than a gown. The adventure has brought them together. Jeffries has seen that she is tougher than he ever realized, and she is now convinced of his commitment to their relationship.

One of the hallmarks of “Rear Window” is Hitchcock’s manipulation of sound. Snatches of conversations are heard from across the courtyard, along with pop music, parties, arguments and traffic from the street beyond. The sound contributes to the movie’s overall theme of alienation; as is typical in New York City, the apartment dwellers barely seem to know each other. The movie was shot in Hollywood on an elaborately designed set. Hitchcock loved to know the spaces he would be working in, and few of his movies have a more well thought out space than this one. The lighting of the courtyard, which is seen at all times of day and night, help to bring it to life; as in so many of Hitch’s films, the setting is a character in the story. Shot in widescreen, the apartments and buildings divide and subdivide the screen into cubicle-like spaces.

From the start, the viewer is plugged into Jeffries’ voyeuristic view of the courtyard dwellers. Although we see less of the stories that don’t involve murder, we do get caught up in the loneliness and desperation of the dancer, the spinster and the composer. Each of their mini-stories has its own neat conclusion, like the end of a Shakespearean comedy, with everyone paired off.

Aside from the stars, Stewart and Kelly, the rest of the cast is a pleasure as well. Raymond Burr glowers and storms through the set as Thorwald; Thelma Ritter blurts out the things audiences didn’t want to imagine, like where Thorwald cut up the body. The other notable name in the cast is Ross Bagdasarian, who plays the composer; he previously co-wrote the hit song “Come On-a My House,” and would go on to fame as David Seville, cartoon impresario behind The Chipmunks. In an early scene, Alfred Hitchcock can be seen visiting the composer in his apartment.

There’s a new maturity to “Rear Window” that had only been hinted at in earlier Hitchcock films. While the murder is the central issue, the subtext is marriage and relationships, from Jeffries and Fremont’s to the killer and his victim, with side trips including the lonely woman and the composer, a newlywed couple, and even the dancer, who seems to be courting as many men as she can get away with, but is in fact waiting for the return of her husband from the army at the end of the film. Credit for this emotional core to the story must go to John Michael Hayes, who gave the script great depth and believability. This was Hayes’ first movie with Hitchcock; he would write three more for the director in the next two years, during an exceptionally productive point in Hitchcock’s career.

Here’s the trailer for “Rear Window,” although it seems to be from a rerelease, as it mentions “Psycho.”

Next, Grace Kelly makes her final film for Hitchcock, teaming up with Cary Grant for the ultra-glamorous “To Catch a Thief.”


“The 39 Steps” Live in Minneapolis

17 11 2010

A look at “The 39 Steps,” currently playing at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota

By Keating DuGarm, Hitchcock and Me’s Midwest Foreign Correspondent

As frequent readers of this blog know, “The 39 Steps” has been adapted by playwright Patrick Barlow to the stage, following the storyline of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film along with elements from the novel by John Buchan. The original novel and movie helped to establish the modern-day spy story.

As most of you remember, this story involves Richard Hannay, who gets blamed for a murder he did not commit and goes on the run from London to the Scottish Highlands trying to stop spies who are trying to smuggle a vital secret out of the country in the pre-war United Kingdom. This war is World War I in the novel and World War II in the movie and play.

The Guthrie Theater’s production of this play proves to be similar in the kinetic spirit that Adam talked about the New York version having last spring during his “39 Days of the 39 Steps.” You can view this short video and compare it to the ones Adam posted:

This play features more than 150 characters which are brought to life by a cast of four actors. All four are based in the Twin Cities in Minnesota. Robert O. Berdahl plays Richard Hannay, the bored everyman who gets involved in secrets and spies. Berdahl graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. Sarah Agnew plays all three female characters who are also potential lovers for Hannay. The wig design (probably by the costume designer) for her worked most effectively.

Jim Lichtscheidl and Luverne Seifert play the clowns, which is what their characters are called in Patrick Barlow’s play. They portray the huge supporting case including incompetent detectives, slapstick vaudeville players, political speakers, odd innkeepers, women and men. This quick change process is explained by costume designer Amelia Cheever in this video:

All the actors are effective, but the switching from character to character of the clowns, sometimes within seconds using only hats, makes one appreciate the craft of these thespians.

The set and props get the audience involved from the get go. Sheep on wheels represent a flock of sheep, and life-size kilted cutouts operated by the actors comprise a huge Scottish political parade. Travel trunks become trains. As the characters crawl up and down on these trunks, they flap their hats and coats to indicate a strong wind. In this interview, which you can read here, set designer Richard Hoover discusses the production.

Hannay’s journey comprises a sequence of shadow puppets invented by Michael Sommers which includes references to “Psycho,” “North by Northwest,” and “Rear Window” as well as other non-Hitchcock classics like “King Kong. Naturally, this includes a cameo by Alfred Hitchcock in the form of a silhouette, a la “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.”

Much of the dialogue is used exactly from the movie. Fast changes of costume and smart theatrical tricks are utilized to show character changes. The director makes this all work nicely.

“The 39 Steps” is directed by Joel Sass who usually works at the local Jungle Theater. At the Jungle Theater, he directed the suspenseful “Hitchcock Blonde” where he displayed a true feeling for Hitchcock-type suspense. In this production, Mr. Sass seems to enjoy taking down those same conventions. Joel talks about this production here:

This play has much in common with sketch comedy like Monty Python. As in any sketch comedy show, some bits work better than others depending on one’s sense of humor. I love sketch comedy and I enjoyed much of this. The Scottish innkeeper characters and the male “clowns” dressing up and speaking as women reminded me specifically of Monty Python. In fact, Eric Idle of Monty Python stated about the New York version of this play that: “Everyone should see this. It’s brilliant!”

Here is a rather well-done guide to the play, book and movie in all its incarnations.

Also, long-time readers will remember that Adam was featured on the stage for a post-play discussion after one of the New York City performances of “The Thirty-Nine Steps.” The Guthrie theater is doing that as well following the matinee performances on Saturday, November 20, Sunday November 28 and Saturday, December 4. There, audiences will have an opportunity to enjoy a post-play discussion with actors, artists, and theater staff.

This entertaining version of the play runs through December 19, 2010 and you can get more information here. All Hitchcock fans who find themselves anywhere near the Twin Cities before December 19 are advised to go!

Thanks to my pal and fellow Hitchcock fan Mike Callies, who works at the Guthrie, for attending a production of this show with me!

Alfred Hitchcock Dials Up “Dial M for Murder”

14 11 2010

“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.” — Alfred Hitchcock

In May 1954, Warner Bros. released “Dial M for Murder,” the thirty-eighth movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Based on the successful stage play by Frederick Knott, who also wrote the screen adaptation, it is, I believe, Hitchcock’s last movie remake of a theatrical drama. (Knott wrote another well known “woman attacked in her home” drama, “Wait Until Dark.”)

“Dial M” begins when illicit lovers Margot Wendice (Grace Kelly), a married woman, and TV mystery writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings, previously seen in 1942’s “Saboteur”), are reunited in London. Although they believe their affair is still secret, Margot’s husband, former tennis player Tony (Ray Milland), is aware of it, and has been coolly plotting his revenge. Margot explains to Mark that her purse had been stolen earlier that year, with the one love letter of his that she had kept still inside. The purse was recovered eventually, but the note was gone – and now, she’s being blackmailed by Tony himself, although she does not know it.

After Tony insists on staying home while Margot and Mark go to the theater, Tony contacts C.A. Swann (Anthony Dawson) under the pretense of wanting to buy his car. Swann, a former classmate of Tony’s, has been exploiting wealthy widows and skipping out on unpaid bills across England. Tony uses this information to blackmail Swann into agreeing to murder Margot, all the while calmly wiping his fingerprints from drinking glasses, doorknobs and chairs.

The next night, Tony and Mark go out after Tony goes to great – almost unbelievable –  lengths to talk Margot into staying home. Finally, she agrees, and Tony leaves a key where Swann can find it. Swann slips into their apartment, but when the phone starts to ring, he hides behind the curtains. Margot gets out of bed to answer it, and Swann attacks her, trying to choke her with a stocking. She manages to break free, and in the struggle she finds a pair of scissors and stabs him in the back. (The editing in this sequence is like a preview of the shower scene in “Psycho.”) He falls to the floor dead, and Margot hears a voice on the phone: It’s Tony, trying to get her attention.

Tony races home, calms Margot and puts her to bed, and deals with the police, believing that he’s committed the perfect crime. He doesn’t have to deal with Swann, and while he waits for the police, he sets things up to make it look as though Margot had killed Swann in cold blood.

The next morning, Chief Inspector Hubbard comes to the apartment, asking questions that cast doubts on Margot’s story, leading to her arrest. Tony acts outraged but has actually planted doubts of his own; the night before, he told the police a version of the events that is at odds with Margot’s story. In a brief sequence that borders on surreal, Margot is seen under different color lights as she is arraigned, tried and sentenced to death, her expression subtly changing with each stage of her trial. The color shifts and her lack of dialogue make the point that Margot is in shock as her ordeal continues.

Hitchcock generally used color in a very subtle way, manipulating in over the course of his career somewhat less successfully than he did sound. Here, however, is an example of Hitch using color to great effect, in what is only his third color feature.

The day before Margot is scheduled to be hanged, Mark shows up at her apartment to beg Tony to say that it was all his doing. Mark has made up a story for him to take to the police that matches what actually happened almost perfectly, arguing that Tony could save Margot’s life, and all he would end up with would be a couple of years in prison. Tony refuses, saying the police would never believe such a wild story, but just then, Hubbard arrives at the apartment, claiming to be investigating another crime in the area.

Mark, hiding in the kitchen while Tony and Hubbard talk, hears Tony telling Hubbard about a stolen attache case, Mark sees it in the kitchen with him, and opens it to find it loaded with money. Mark calls Hubbard and Tony, saying he has the case, and that Tony has something to tell Hubbard. Tony presents Mark’s story as ridiculous, and Hubbard agrees that no one would buy it.

Hubbard leaves, but not before switching his overcoat with Tony’s. After Tony and Mark both leave, with Tony heading to the police station to claim his wife’s belongings, Hubbard slips back into the apartment, followed by Mark. Apparently Hubbard suspects that Mark’s story is close to the truth after all. The next to arrive at the apartment is Margot, escorted by the police. Hubbard tells Margot and Mark that he’s got a way to prove that Tony hired Swann and that Margot is innocent, one that involves a lot of key swapping and fast talk. Tony falls into their trap and reveals his own guilt, but takes it rather well, offering his captors a drink before they take him away.

Hitchcock may have dismissed “Dial M” for several reasons: He was asked by Warner Bros. to make the film when his own project, “The Bramble Bush,” fell through. He did not go through his standard practice of story meetings and rewrites as he was accustomed to, possibly because he was not as invested in this project as he might have been with a project of his own choosing. Also, Warner Bros. insisted that the film be made in 3-D, although by the time it was released the 1950s 3-D craze was coming to an end. Lastly, and this is a more subtle point, the wily Chief Inspector Hubbard may have rubbed Hitchcock the wrong way, as competent police officers in Hitchcock’s pictures are few and far between.

On the other hand, this is the film that first brought Hitchcock together with Grace Kelly, arguably his greatest female star. Although her performance here is very strong, she would have more assertive roles in “Rear Window” and “To Catch a Thief.” The rest of the cast is very good as well;  John Williams as the Chief Inspector has a lot of fun, showing exasperation with Mark Halliday and racing around the apartment while waiting for the arrival of Tony at the end of the picture.

Nearly the entire film is shot in the confines of that one apartment, and Hitchcock, working with cinematographer Robert Burks, looks at that apartment from every conceivable angle. Although the apartment is sunny and bright, it is transformed at night into a moody, claustrophobic place.

Hitchcock makes one of his more clever cameos in “Dial M,” appearing in a photo of Tony and Swann at a college reunion banquet. Oddly, there seemed to be a perfect moment for Hitch’s cameo that he ignored: On his night out with Mark, Tony waits at a phone booth to call home; surely the man finishing his call could have been the Hitch.

“Dial M for Murder” ends up being a very entertaining, if half-hearted, Hitchcock film. The story retains the feel of a stage play through most of the movie, especially given its cast of five characters. Also, some of the proceedings are hard to believe, such as the lengths Tony goes to so that Margot stays at home (prompting her to call him a baby) and the complicated explanation of lost keys that implicate Tony at the end. Undoubtedly Hitchcock was encouraged by how big a hit “Dial M” had been on stage; also, he probably was preoccupied with keeping that one setting, the apartment, visually interesting. On that count, he and cinematographer Burks score.

Here’s a look at the trailer for “Dial M for Murder,” which relies heavily on review quotes.

Next, Hitchcock reunites with James Stewart and Grace Kelly for one of his greatest – and sexiest – pictures, “Rear Window.”

The Golden Age of Alfred Hitchcock

10 11 2010

I’ve been working on a list of the ten best Hitchcock films to run on my Hitchblog in the future. So far, most of this work has taken place in my head; since I’m only up to “Dial M for Murder,” and I have not yet seen anything beyond “Psycho,” I don’t want to feel like I might be prejudiced against Hitch’s later films – the ones with the less than stellar reputations, like “Torn Curtain” or “Topaz.”

Still, it’s hard to imagine that any of Hitchcock’s many decades as a filmmaker could place more pictures on my list than the 1950s, which leads me to dub this era the Golden Age of Alfred Hitchcock.

I realize I’m not going very far out on a limb with this, but let’s look at it based on more than just the overall superior quality of Hitch’s 1950s film output, shall we?

In the 1950s:

  • Alfred Hitchcock made three consecutive films with Grace Kelly, arguably his greatest female star, as well as two movies with Cary Grant and three with James Stewart.

  • He made one movie each with the stars Marlene Dietrich, Montgomery Clift and Henry Fonda, as well as giving Shirley MacLaine her first role in a film.

  • The 1956 movie “The Man Who Knew Too Much” featured the debut of the hit song “Que Sera Sera,” which won an Academy Award for Best Original Song.
  • He promoted himself from his usual cameo appearances to do a serious introduction to the 1956 film “The Wrong Man.”

  • In 1955, he debuted the TV series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” which ran seven seasons and led to three seasons of “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.” He directed 16 episodes of “Presents” and one of “Hour.”
  • He filmed introductions to every episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” catapulting him from a fairly recognizable director to one of the most distinctive and captivating host personalities in the world. His drawling “Good evening,” his brilliant self-caricature and his morbid sense of humor are still recognizable today.

  • Music from the TV series was released on the popular 1958 album “Alfred Hitchcock Presents Music to Be Murdered By,” with Hitch on the cover. It’s still available on CD, along with the follow-up album, “Circus of Horrors” – and you can order it from Amazon here.

  • “Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine” launched in 1956, and is still running today, putting Hitch’s face on newsstands every month through much of its run. Although Hitchcock was not personally involved with the magazine, it featured original fiction and adaptations of TV episodes. It’s still running today, and you can subscribe to it here.

Now, as to the Silver Age…

Alfred Hitchcock Gets Religion in “I Confess”

6 11 2010

“The final result was rather heavy-handed. The whole treatment was lacking in humor and subtlety. I don’t mean the film itself should have been humorous, but my own approach should have been more ironic, as in ‘Psycho’ – a serious story told with tongue in cheek.” – Alfred Hitchcock

Released in 1953, “I Confess” was, as Alfred Hitchcock says, a film that dealt with very serious subject matter. At its core was the sanctity of the confessional, and how that sanctity could be misused.

Starring Montgomery Clift as Father Michael Logan, Anne Baxter as Ruth Grandfort and Karl Malden as police Inspector Larue, “I Confess” is set in old Quebec City, and begins with the murder of a sleazy lawyer called Villette. The figure leaving Villette’s office appears to be a priest, but as the figure reaches a church, we learn that it is a German immigrant, Otto Kellar, who works in the rectory. Logan finds him in the sanctuary, and Kellar insists that Logan take his confession. Kellar admits that he killed Villette in the course of robbing him.

Knowing that Logan is bound to secrecy, Kellar will not turn himself in. Meanwhile, Larue questions Logan, but is stymied by Logan’s refusal to explain fully what he was doing at the time of the murder. Larue’s curiousity is further aroused by Logan’s meeting with a blond woman – Ruth Grandfort – but again, Logan won’t answer any questions.

Grandfort insists on meeting Logan on a ferry, and the police easily follow her, tying the two together. Brought in by the police, Grandfort is forced to admit that although she is married to a politician, she has loved Logan for years, since before he became a priest. After serving in the army, Logan reunited with Grandfort, and while she did not tell him she had married in his absence, they spent an innocent night together in the countryside, stranded by a storm. The next morning, they discovered that they had taken shelter on the property of Mssr. Villette, who promptly starts to blackmail Grandfort as Logan enters the priesthood.

Ruth’s attempt to clear Logan’s name backfires, as her story ends half an hour before Villette’s death – and gives the police a reason that Logan would have wanted Villette dead. Meanwhile, Kellar has been pressuring Logan to keep their secret – not that Logan had shown any signs of revealing it. While the police arrest Logan, Kellar arms himself with a pistol.

Logan is put on trial and exonerated, due to lack of hard evidence, but his reputation is ruined. While a mob jeers him outside the courthouse, Kellar and his wife watch. Kellar’s wife catches up with Logan and tries to tell the police what really happened, but Kellar shoots her, then takes refuge in the Chateau Frontenac. Logan and the police catch up with Kellar, who calls Logan a coward, as he assumes that Logan told the police who actually killed Villette. While Logan tries to reason with Kellar, he opens fire and is gunned down by the police. As he breathes his last, he begs Logan to give him his last rites – which Logan does, painful though it may be.

However heavy handed it may be, “I Confess” is a fascinating film. The setting is captured beautifully by cinematographer Robert Burks, who brings Vieux Quebec to life, from its cobblestone streets to its many churches to Chateau Frontenac. Hitch’s own Catholic upbringing gives the film tremendous depth as Father Logan becomes a martyr to his own dedication. (Hitch appears at the very start of the film, walking across a causeway.) There are more than a few symbolic shots of Clift’s face, beautifully lit and positioned at the center of perspective like a Renaissance painting. He continually turns the other cheek as he is accused by the police, threatened by Kellar and damaged by the well-intentioned Grandford.

Kellar, played by O.E. Hasse, is a strange villain. He claims to have killed Villette in the heat of the moment, but his cunning suggests otherwise: He stole a cassock to commit the crime in, trapped Logan and tries to frame him during the trial, shoots his own wife rather than risk going to trial himself, then begs for absolution when he is dying.

This may have been Hitchcock’s first work with a Method actor, and he did not particularly like it. Unlike his earlier stars like Cary Grant or Joseph Cotten, Clift was trained to channel his own personal history and feelings to create his role. Motivation was central to the Method actors, and it was something Hitchcock did not care to delve into – famous, he said that an actor’s motivation was his paycheck. Hitchcock expected his script and camerawork to provide all the insight the audience would need, and even went so far as to override an actor’s instincts to move in a certain way so as to preserve the composition he was trying to create. Hitchcock did not work again with any of the stars of “I Confess,” although he entered the Method school again when he worked with Paul Newman in “Torn Curtain,” thirteen years later.

“I Confess” was toned down considerably in development; originally the affair between Logan and Grandfort was supposed to have been current, not just from the days before he joined the priesthood, and the couple was supposed to have had an illegitimate child as well.

Here’s the rather histrionic trailer for “I Confess.”

Next, Hitchcock works with Grace Kelly for the first time in “Dial M for Murder.”

%d bloggers like this: