HITCHCOCKED: Rear Window (1954)

16 07 2011

Now I’m getting into Hitchcock’s most revered films, and I’m getting more and more excited to watch the movies.  While I had to trudge through some of his lesser known movies to get acquainted with his style so I didn’t fly blindly into the classics, now I’m starting to see why he has become such an iconic director.  “Rear Window” is definitely one that shows his unique knack for suspense.  It’s a slow (and sometimes a little tedious) build towards a frightening conclusion, told with an Old Hollywood sensibility yet still a thrill.

“We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms,” says Thelma Ritter’s nurse, Stella, to James Stewart’s wheelchair-bound Jeff, a photojournalist whose daring in the field has left him immobile in his apartment.  Left largely to his own devices while his socialite girlfriend, appropriately played by future princess Grace Kelly, he turns to voyeurism while looking out the titular aperture.  From afar, he watches his neighbors, imagining what their actions say about their lives and making up stories based on what he sees.  Hitchcock’s clever camerawork mimics Jeff’s eyeballs, jumping from place to place based on what’s interesting.

But one day, his intuitions tell him that by connecting some mental dots, his neighbor Thorwald has committed murder.  With nothing else to do but observe, he sneakily begins building a case against him despite the insistence of his friends and caretakers.  Hitchcock keeps the suspense held back until the very end, not giving us anything but Jeff’s hunches to be suspicious of Thorwald.

Perhaps the biggest thing I took from “Rear Window,” though, was how very seldom Hollywood makes movies like Hitchcock’s anymore.  His movies were all about using the artistic capabilities of cinema to manufacture suspense, thrills, and chills; now, filmmakers just through blood and gore at the screen, play some booming tune in the background, and call it a thriller.  While I loved “Disturbia,” the self-proclaimed modern take on this Hitchcock classic, it certainly lacks Hitchcock’s artistic flair.  I’m certainly more primed to like the Shia LaBeouf vehicle over the James Stewart starrer because of generational differences, but I recognize why one is a classic and the other is just a wannabe trying to cash in on the wizardry of one of cinema’s greatest icons.

HITCHCOCKED: “Dial M For Murder” (1954)

26 06 2011

The perfect murder is always the perfect scenario for a Hitchcock movie.  “Dial M for Murder” is then by definition a quintessential Hitchcock, and watching it would give anyone a taste of the director’s style and methods.  In fact, all it’s missing is some Jimmy Stewart.

The perfect murder here is planned by former tennis player Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), who hires the perfect stranger – or old friend – to execute it for him.  Through blackmail and clever thinking, Tony coerces a Cambridge acquaintance, C.A. Swann (Anthony Dawson), to murder his cheating wife Margot (Princess Grace Kelly).  He has the perfect alibi to save him from any suspicion; while Swann commits the murder, he will be at the gentleman’s club.  Yet things go haywire thanks to a pair of scissors, and Tony has to cover his tracks to avoid being discovered.

Hitchcock makes this single-room thriller compelling and suspensful, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has seen “Rope.”  The only real complaint I could lodge against this one is that at times it feels a little too theatrical (the movie is based on a play) and less cinematic, almost as if he filmed it a live performance on a Broadway stage.  But I have no problem with live theater, nor do I have a problem with Hitchcock, and this elaborately plotted murder mystery ranks up there with the best of them.

Classics Corner: “High Noon”

7 06 2011

After the Coen Brothers made the Western cool again with their remake of “True Grit,” I decided it was about time I brushed up on some classics of the fabled American genre.  And, unsurprisingly, I was reminded of why so many of them bear the label classic – because they actually are timeless, with lessons and ideas that can apply to any generation of moviewatchers.  From what I saw, the best of the bunch has to be “High Noon,” a movie that in time could join my all-time favorites.

The premise is simple (and very unlike most movies the genre); the set-up, short and sweet.  Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is the retiring marshal of the town of Hadleyville, and at noon, three criminals will return to his town with the intent to kill him for putting them away.  The townspeople encourage him to hurry out in the hope that his departure will keep them out of harm’s way.  But Kane sees it as his problem to solve, and he stays put to face the imminent challenge.

Kane then goes through the town, looking for citizens willing to help him stop the criminals.  While everyone wants to keep their town safe and on principle want to give aid, ultimately no one will pick up their gun and defend their town.  As the high noon shadow falls over the town, it is Kane alone who must stand and fight for the lives of the people he no longer has to protect.

Just like “Modern Times,” the subject of last month’s Classics Corner column, “High Noon” is such an incredibly rewarding movie to watch because it captures a moment in time and then uses that moment to highlight some universally timeless truths about the human condition.  When analyzed against the backdrop of 1952, the year it was released, the allegory is very clear.  The people of Hadleyville are representative of another western community beginning with the letter H, Hollywood, who were afraid to stand up for themselves and their basic rights when Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee were sanctioning an era of blacklisting in the industry.

Looking back in hindsight, it’s easy to see that McCarthyism is a stain on our history and anyone in 2011 would stand up to such violations of civil rights.  But with McCarthy at the height of his power at the time of the movie’s release, it was certainly easier said than done.  Kane embodies the spirit of the times – a man who wants to protect the livelihood of his fellow townspeople but cannot get them to stop cowering in fear.  As the saying goes, freedom doesn’t come free, and Kane is the only one who seems to understand that.

But Kane is more than just the unspoken thoughts of screenwriters in 1952; however, in the moment, the heated political debates surrounding McCarthyism and blacklisting clouded people’s view of it.  Kane is not a sheriff embodying the liberal ideas of the time – and in case you are narrow-minded enough to be fooled, this was a favorite movie of Republican Presidents Eisenhower and Reagan.  He is a man driven by duty even when it isn’t necessary.  He is a protector of liberty even when he stands alone.  He puts his life on the line even when the people he protects have left him out to dry.

More than just a vision of 1952, Sheriff Will Kane is the paradigm of American citizenship and virtue, a champion of the blessings of democracy willing to make sacrifices to ensure its efficacy.  Such uprightness is what all of us should aspire to achieve, be we American or of any other nationality (the Polish democratic group Solidarity used Kane as a powerful image in the country’s first free elections).  And when the movie comes to a halt, I like to imagine that if Kane had a last line, he’d reiterate the words of the great Benjamin Franklin: “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.”