Rear Window

Rear Window - James Stewart and Grace KellyA nation of Peeping Toms.

That’s us, according to home care nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece Rear Window.  She’s complaining to photographer L. B. Jefferies (James Stewart) as he sits in his wheelchair staring out the rear window of his apartment in Greenwich Village.  His left leg is encased in a great white cast bearing the inscription, “Here lie the broken bones of L. B. Jefferies.” He’s been housebound for six weeks recovering from an accident that occurred in the middle of a raceway as he attempted to photograph a racecar breaking apart.

Not only is he broken apart, but a long, slow pan at the opening of the film shows a camera lying in pieces in front of the photograph he took. The small apartment is full of his equipment, past photos, and magazine spreads, and presents a kind of homey messiness in the middle of New York City.  His entertainment is watching his neighbors. rearwindowloop2Through the back window, he can see several little adjoining patios and up to four stories of the apartment houses that abut his. It is a little world of its own. Across the way, Miss Lonelyheart (Judith Evelyn) fantasizes about having a romance, while directly above her traveling salesman Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) argues with his invalid, bedridden wife. On the top floor, a man and his sleep outside in the sweltering summer heat.  They have a little dog that they let down into the patio in a basket on a pulley.  To the left, a young dancer, Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy) exercises and fends off a spate of young admirers, while right below a middle-aged sculptress works on her latest project. At the upper right, a songwriter struggles to find a melody, while frequently entertaining his friends in show business. And on the far left, a newlywed couple honeymoons with the shade drawn most of the time.

Rear-Window-pic-2Jefferies hates his confined existence, but he has to live with the cast for one more week. After learning his trade in the Army taking photos from an airplane with his buddy Doyle (Wendell Corey), he is accustomed to traveling the world and putting himself in danger to get his award winning photographs. It is his life and he loves it. Unfortunately, he is in a serious relationship with Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), a fashionista who works in one of the big stores downtown. Convinced that their lifestyles are too different for anything to work between them, he puts her off. She’s simply too perfect for him. Beautiful, worldly, she seems unreal, but she loves him and is willing to sacrifice her safe, cozy world to be with him.

One night, as Jefferies dozes in his chair, he hears a glass shatter and a woman scream, but is too tired even to look out his window. Later, it begins to rain and he stirs himself, noticing Thorwald leave in the middle of the night with his sample suitcase, not once but twice. In the early morning hours, as he dozes we see Thorwald and a woman leaving their apartment. The next day, he sees a change in the accustomed pattern.  The shades are drawn across the way and he can’t see Mrs. Thorwald, but later he sees the man cleaning a saw and a knife with a long, curved blade and his suspicion turns into a belief that Thorwald killed his wife. At first, no one believes him, but when Lisa sees the mattress rolled up and a trunk tied together, she also becomes convinced and finally Stella comes around. The only one who doesn’t believe that a murder has occurred is Detective Doyle.

The film contains everything Hitchcock does best and it is therefore the best example of all of his filmmaking techniques. In addition, it is a first rate suspense film with great comic relief that induces edge-of-your-seat tension. In other words, it’s a really good movie purely on its own merits.

Based on a short story, “It Had to Be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich, the story unfolds in a confined space. The script, written by John Michael Hayes in conjunction with Hitchcock, initially contained one scene outside this confined space, at the office of his editor (Gig Young), but faithful and creative Assistant Director Henry Bumstead pointed this out to Hitchcock and the scene was not used in the final cut, although Young’s voice is heard over the telephone. By restricting the scene to Jefferies’ apartment and only what he can see through his rear window, Hitchcock has confined the universe to just one small area and everything you need to see is present and accounted for.

The world is further narrowed to just two points of view. The first and most significant point of view is that of the audience. Like a voyeur, we are allowed to see into Jefferies’s private life, his affair with Lisa, the care given him by Stella, his arguments with Doyle, and his phone calls, but nothing else. We are in the position of looking through our own little window into his life. The second point of view is Jefferies’, as he peers into the courtyard and the windows of his constricted little universe. Only once in the film are we allowed to see something he doesn’t–and that is when Thorwald leaves his apartment in the early morning accompanied by a woman. Jefferies is asleep when that happens. It is a little thing, but it makes us realize that Thorwald may have actually taken his wife away, rather than killing her. It implants a little seed of doubt that Jefferies may be wrong.

Part of the point that Hitchcock makes with this restriction of point of view is that we are all constricted, each in our own way. Jefferies is literally constricted. He cannot move from his chair. Lisa is constricted in that she is tied to a man who is pushing her away and it seems like the main event of her life takes place in this little apartment. Doyle is constricted because he can’t investigate something on such restricted circumstantial evidence.

The only evidence of the outside world is in one narrow view of the street and in the people who come and leave from his own apartment and those of the other characters in his rear window. Those connections are tenuous. Miss Lonelyheart is looking for romance, but the only man who responds to her wants her only for sex. Miss Torso can’t accept a steady man into her life, but we don’t discover why until the end of the movie. The songwriter is restricted by the creative process. And Thorwald is restricted by his wife and he takes violent action to escape to freedom.

The movie also says a lot about human relationships, as described above, and the relationships between men and women. Jeffries and Lisa are the prime example of two people who are miles apart in view and who find a common ground through the action of a murderer. Only when Jefferies sees that Lisa can be adventurous and take chances does he truly reveal his love for her. Even though she appears ready to embrace his adventurous lifestyle, she makes a statement for her feminity in the end.

But the best of this movie lies in the camera work and the way Hitchcock moves point of view through the lens. He uses the camera relentlessly to build suspense, moving in a steady arc that starts slow, languid almost, and accelerates into rapid montage by the end of the movie. The comic parts are organic, derived from the situation and the characters’ natural involvement with the story. When I saw this movie on its first run in theaters, I was moved by the shared tension of the audience in the theater, each person so involved in the story that we all seemed to react as one person as it raced toward its conclusion.

At the end of the film, you want to go outside and breathe fresh air, to walk around see what exists beyond your four walls.

Every element of the movie works, including the sound. Although it begins with a jazz score, denoting Greenwich Village in the 1950’s, and there are snippets of score dropped in throughout, most of the movie sound appears natural: the songwriter’s piano, the babbling of neighbors, the laughter of children and the traffic in the street. It is all slightly muted, as if we are hearing what Jefferies hears.

If I had to recommend one Hitchcock movie–and only one–for everyone to see, this would be it. It is absolutely representative and might very well be his best film.

To Kill A Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird 01This review discusses the entire film, including all of the crucial moments and the ending, so if you are waiting to see the movie, I suggest you read this analysis afterwards.  My review of the novel is located at To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.

The 50th Anniversary DVD set of this classic American movie is truly special.

Not only is the film restored to its beautifully filmed black and white texture, but the set contains two additional full-length films, Fearful Symmetry, a poetic tribute to the book and the making of the film, and A Conversation with Gregory Peck, a film made by Peck’s daughter about his final few years when he toured, sharing his stories and answering questions from fans.

To Kill a Mockingbird remains one of the greatest films ever made and the years have not diminished its greatness in any way. It is unusual to see a nearly perfect adaptation of a modern classic novel (Pulitzer Prize, 1960), but the combination of Harper Lee’s story, Horton Foote’s adaptation, Robert Mulligan’s direction, Henry Bumstead’s art direction, Russell Harlan’s cinematography, and Elmer Bernstein’s wonderful music make this film uniquely touching, a deeply penetrating portrait of small town rural life in the 1930’s, in the deep South.

The opening titles of the film immediately set it apart from everything that went before. As the camera works in extreme close-up on an old cigar box, the careless humming and babble of a little girl at play is the only sound.  Opening the cigar box, we see carved images of a boy and girl, an old pocket watch, a pipe, a pocket knife, marbles, and crayons among other little things.  She removes a crayon and begins to scrawl across a sheet of paper.  As she colors, the words “TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD” appear in white behind the crayon.  A piano plays a few simple notes, further immersing us in the feeling of childhood before the music swells.

To Kill a Mockingbird 02This opening takes us into a world of innocence, a world that a little girl would find safe and comforting. The scene is Maycomb, Alabama in 1932, where attorney Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) is raising two children, a boy of ten, Jem (Phillip Alford) and a girl of six, Scout (Mary Badham), with the help of a black housekeeper, Calpurnia (Estelle Evans). Their neighbor across the street, Maudie (Rosemary Murphy) is very kind to the children and seems to have more than a passing interest in Atticus.  Narration is provided by an adult (Kim Stanley), the voice of Scout as a woman looking back the events that shaped her life.

A country farmer, Walter Cunningham, Sr. (Crahan Denton) brings a sack of hickory nuts to the family and Scout gets Atticus to come out and accept them, which embarrasses the farmer. Atticus tells her that the man owes him for some legal work and that’s the only way he can pay and work off his entailment.

Into this peaceful summer idyll comes another boy, Charles Baker Harris (John Megna) who prefers to be called Dill. He’s from the big city (Mobile) and staying with his Aunt Stephanie (Alice Ghostley).  As they play, Jem tells Dill about the house two doors down, a rundown shack inhabited by a crabby old man, Mr. Radley (Richard Hale) and his legendary son, Arther (Robert Duvall), known locally as Boo.  No one has seen Boo for years and Jem speculates that he is kept chained to his bed, except at night when he roams the town looking in windows.  When still a boy, Boo stabbed his father in the leg with scissors and was for a time kept in the court house basement before he was taken home and secreted away.

Atticus is friends with the local sheriff, Heck Tate (Frank Overton). Judge Taylor (Paul Fix) stops by one evening to ask Atticus if he would defend a young black man, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), who has been accused of beating and raping Mayella (Collin Wilcox) the daughter of a white trash redneck alcoholic, Robert E. Lee “Bob” Ewell (James K Anderson).  Atticus takes on the case in spite of the overwhelming odds.

Dill is facinated with the story of Boo Radley and he needles Jem into organizing a night trip into the Radley back yard. The three of them go and Jem actually goes up on the back porch and peeks in the window, but a menacing shadow scares him and the three of them run away.  Jem’s trousers get caught on the fence and he wriggles out of them and joins the others in just his underwear.  Knowing that he can’t go back inside the house without his pants, Jem goes back to get them and finds them folded on the fence.

This isn’t the only evidence of Boo, however, as Jem has been finding assorted items in a tree hollow for quite some time. He shows Scout his cigar box full of objects (the one she plays with in the opening credits).  They find the little carved images of themselves just before Mr. Radley cements over the tree hollow.

To Kill a Mockingbird 03Summer turns to fall and Dill returns home. Scout begins her first year of school by getting into a fight with Cunningham’s son.  To smooth things over, Jem invites the boy home to dinner.  During dinner, they talk about the Cunninghams having to hunt for their food.  Annoyed with Atticus’s refusal to let him have a gun, Jem brings up the subject of Atticus getting his first gun and Atticus relates the story that his father told him, that he was allowed to shoot birds, but never a mockingbird, because all they did was sing and it would be a shame to kill one.

Scout keeps getting into fights at school, mostly because the other kids accuse Atticus of being a “nigger lover.” He must sit her down and explain about racial hatred and his own duty to defend Robinson even though the whole community is against him.

One day, a mad dog appears on their street. Cal takes the children inside and calls Atticus, who arrives with Heck.  The sheriff asks Atticus to shoot the dog, but Scout protests that Atticus can’t shoot.  However, Hecks says that Atticus is the best shot in the county, so he takes the gun and kills the dog in one shot.  Jem watches with big, round eyes, astounded that their daddy can shoot so well.  It is a simple scene, but serves as a metaphor for the madness that is to follow.

Winter turns to summer again. Heck has been keeping Tom Robinson in a distant jail, but before the trial, he brings the man back to Maycomb to be held overnight.  Fearing a lynching, Atticus sits in front of the jailhouse door and waits.  The kids sneak up to see what Atticus is doing and they watch as several cars approach and men with guns get out to face the lawyer.  Scout runs to her dad and Jem and Dill follow as she pushes her way through the crowd.  Although Atticus orders them to leave, Jem stoutly refuses.  Seeing Mr. Cunningham in the crowd, Scout says hello to him and talks about how bad it is to have an entailment.  Shamed, Cunningham leaves and takes the lynch mob with him.

When the trial begins, the kids can’t into the courtoom on the main floor, reserved for whites only, so the black preacher takes them with him up to the balcony where the blacks sit and they watch the trial from there.

The case against Tom Robinson consists entirely of superficial evidence. There is Heck’s testimony of that Bob Ewell came to see him, claiming that his daughter had been beaten and raped and his description of her on the night he saw her.  In cross examination, Atticus asks why no doctors were called and there is no reasonable explanation, but he does elicit testimony that she was beaten on the right side of her face (ie. would have to have been made by a left handed person).  When Bob Ewell testifies, Atticus shows that he is left handed.  Tom doesn’t have use of his left hand, as it was injured in an accident.  Ewell testifies that he saw Tom leaving the property, but he didn’t see the beating and rape.

Finally, the victim herself, Mayella, takes the stand. Although she gets frequently confused and even contradicts herself on occasion, she dramatically declares that Tom beat and raped her.  Under cross, Atticus attempts to get her to admit that her father frequently beat her, but she does not break.  He tries to get her to describe the rape and she won’t, instead dramatically declaring that the whole bunch of “yellow cowards” would never get her to change her story, so Atticus gives up.  The prosecution rests.

The only witness for the defense is Tom Robinson himself. During his testimony, he admits that Mayella invited him onto their property more than once to do little errands for her and states that on the night in question, she invited him into her house, closed the door, and kissed him, asking that he kiss her back.  He resisted and ran from the property.  During the cross examination, the District Attorney, Mr. Gilmer (William Windom) gets Tom to admit that he felt sorry for Mayella and that seems to anchor the case against him.

During his closing statement, Atticus hammers home that there is no evidence against Tom and asks the jury not to hold it against him that “a black man felt sorry for a white woman.”

The trial scene presents the only serious weaknesses in the movie. While it is not hard to believe that a rural south town would rush the trial through in one day back in the 1930’s, it is not believable that Atticus, with a year to prepare, would miss such obvious advantages.  Heck testifies that Mayella had bruise marks all around her neck, as if someone had held her by the throat.  Since Tom cannot use his left hand, he could have only held her with his right.  Atticus should have pointed this out over and over and used it in his cross examination of Mayella.  He should have hammered the point over and over that Tom could not have left the black eye and bruises on the right side of her face since he couldn’t use his left hand.  You would think that he would have canvassed neighbors or townspeople to see if there was ever any evidence that Mayella had beaten by her father before or seen if the town doctor had ever treated her for it.  He certainly could have brought forward testimony that Ewell was drunk most of the time.  It seems like Atticus just didn’t prepare much of a defense.  Then, in his closing argument, he missed one opportunity after another to hammer home that Tom could not–physcially–have committed the rape.  It seemed over-simplified to me.

The second problem in the trial scene is that the director allowed–and probably encouraged–a certain amount of over-acting. It can be seen most dramatically in the testimony of Bob and Mayella Ewell, which almost made me laugh.  That should have been controlled.

Of course, the all male white jury finds Tom Robinson guilty. While in transit to a different jail, Tom attempts to run and is shot.  This hits Jem very hard.  It seems that there is no real justice in the world and it deeply bothers him.  Summer turns to fall again and Scout has to dress up in a ham outfit for a school play.  Afterwards, her dress is missing, so she has to walk home wearing her ham costume, escorted by Jem.  They are attacked in the woods by Bob Ewell, who breaks Jem’s arm and throws him down, knocking him out.  As he goes to attack Scout, Boo Radley steps in and, during the scuffle, sticks a knife into Ewell’s ribs, killing him.  He picks up Jem and carries him home, with Scout, now free of her costume, following along behind.

To bring justice full circle, Heck suggests that they say that Ewell fell on his own knife. Atticus at first seems more intent on placing the action in Jem’s hands, so that he could claim self-defense, but the sheriff reminds him that bringing Boo out into the limelight would be awful for him and that justice would be served by simply saying that Ewell fell on his knife.  Scout tells Atticus that bringing boo into the limelight would be like killing a mockingbird.

The film ends with little Scout walking Boo home, then snuggling into Atticus’s arms as he watches over Jem in bed.

To Kill a Mockingbird 04Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus is easily the best of his career and it earned him the Academy Award for Best Actor. It is understated and is mostly free of the theatrics that marked many of Peck’s performances during his career.  He creates for us a thoughtful, intelligent father, who does his duty not only his children and the town, but to justice itself.  The children are good, especially for kids with no acting experience.  Phillip Alford as Jem is the better of the two.  His performance is believable throughout the movie and can stand with Peck’s.  Mary Badham, as Scout, has a few moments when she seems to be acting, rather than living her part, but when she is good, which is most of the time, she is very good indeed.  The scene where Atticus puts her to bed and she asks about his pocket watch is as good as it gets.  She is so natural as a curious and lovable little girl that it really touches your heart.

All of the supporting actors are terrific, down to the smallest role, and it makes Maycomb seem to live as a real Alabama town in 1932. Brock Peters went on to have a great career as an actor and both Alice Ghostley and Robert Duvall, who made their acting debuts in this movie, went on to have stellar careers.  Duvall is now considered one of the best actors of the 20th century.

I am glad the film was shot in black and white because it seems just so appropriate for a time when our country seemed to be black and white. The cinematography by Russell Harlan takes advantage of the medium and seems to make the shades of black and whtie sing, creating a metaphor for the story itself.  Elmer Bernstein’s score is truly inspired, especially the little piano compositions that emphasize the innocence of childhood.

This is a film that everybody should see. In preparing for this review, I watched the film twice and got even more out of it the second time around.  Released in 1962, it was a socially concious film that brought racial justice into the public’s eyes at time of great social change.  Atticus himself seems to take on the soul of the liberal white world, making the point that it was time to stand up and see that racial equality was a significant issue in this country and that our country could not be whole again until the issue was settled.

But where the film is most successful is in showing the end of innocence. For the children, it is coming to understand a complicated and hateful world that needs changing, of growing up into people who do not fight, but who oppose injustice, even against seemingly insurmountable odds.

It is a shame to kill a mockingbird.