Anatomy of a Scene: “Rear Window” (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1954)

This week, Fathom events is showing Rear Window in theaters across the country. The first round was yesterday; the rest are Wednesday. It’s one of the greatest films of all time, so I suggest going, and in its honor I’m posting an edited version of a paper I wrote in my freshman year in college about the film’s climax. The paper was a close-viewing that was essentially a prototype for what my little-used “Anatomy of a Scene” series is, so I’m going to present it with few changes.

The Unarmed, Silent Standoff: On the Climax of “Rear Window” as a Battle of Truth against Evil

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Rear Window may be best defined by its climactic scene of confrontation between protagonist L.B. Jeffries and antagonist Lars Thorwald. While the rest of the film is more comedic and literal that this climax, no other scene in this picture is a strong metaphor for the universal theme of the battle between truth and falsehood. Its power derives largely from the low-key lighting with a few high contrast shafts of light that draw attention to details such as the doorway and Lars Thorwald’s eyes. Hitchcock skillfully cuts short, repetitious shots; hardly allows any sound to be audible; and utilizes low-key and high contrast lighting in order to manipulate the viewer into viewing this climactic scene that acts as almost the entirety of the film’s third act as something apart from the rest of the picture and also as something more meaningful than perhaps most of the film is. Continue reading

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The Greatest Horror Films

Today is the 76th anniversary of when Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater performed War of the Worlds on CBS radio, touching off some level of panic (though likely not as much as is often reported) and providing the greatest piece of radio drama in history. I listen to it every year, and even in the digital age Welles’s radio drama remains compelling.

However, to most, this date is more importantly Hallowe’en, a day celebrated with grizzly costumes and horror films. Since the current film landscape is quite barren (for those of us who cannot yet see Birdman anyway), I thought I would do something terribly trite and write a list of the greatest horror films I have ever seen. Note that, like any list that I make, it’s going to be English-language and modern-centric, because I am after all an American under 30 and so I tend to have seen more English-language and more recent films. However, I am not intentionally so limiting the films.

To be technical, the horror genre is essentially defined as a monster movie. But that is most definitely not how it is used in common vernacular. I’m trying to be closer to the common usage, basing it on the IMDb’s classifications but not following them blindly.

11. Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, USA 1968)

Zombies have become an incredibly overused monster in modern media, be it video games, films, or even novels. And part of the problem is that these newer  entries into the zombie canon never seem to realize what George Romero knew from the start: the zombies themselves are not the point. The people are the point. The zombies themselves are just a MacGuffin. Romero’s film about racial intolerance sets the stage for what zombie fiction can do when done right, which he continued to do through most of the film’s sequels. It’s just unfortunate that now the concept of zombies has overwhelmed everything he said about racism, consumerism (Dawn of the Dead), militarism (Day of the Dead), or the media (Diary of the Dead). His films stand out as a powerful outlier to a terribly disappointing genre, but his original still works far better than logic would suggest.

10. The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard, USA 2012)

I reviewed this one already (see the title link), but I still think it’s a brilliant spoof of horror films. It does everything you can want a satire to do.

9. Halloween (John Carpenter, USA 1978)

This film modernized the monster movie in a way that even Jaws had not, because this monsters was bigger, more powerful, indefatigable, and seemingly immortal. And it was a monster that wasn’t here to enforce traditional economics–it was here to enforce traditional morals. It feels trite now because of the copycatting, but there is a reason that so many films since have repeated its pattern: Carpenter’s film is nothing short of brilliant. It’s a masterclass on cinematic composition that understands how to make violence most effective: build to it.

8. Vargtimmen (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden 1968)

It doesn’t have a plot. It doesn’t have a point. But god does it have an incredible atmosphere and the absolute scariest visuals in history. If you have questioned Bergman’s status as a cinematic genius (I don’t know why anyone would, but in case), this film will show you why he has it: he did himself no favors as a writer, but this is the scariest film I’ve ever seen, because the former playwright has that great of an eye.

7. The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1963)

The Birds is all about tension. Much like The War of the Worlds that I mentioned in the introduction, its best moments are often moments of quiet dread and terror. Where The War of the Worlds has “Is anybody out there?,” this film has that silent drive into oblivion as its defining moment as an ode to mankind’s greatest fear: being alone. Interestingly, it’s a far less formalistic, manipulative film than much of Hitchcock’s work. It lets the audience create its own terror, and it works.

6. Jaws (Steven Spielberg, USA 1975)

For some bizarre reason, when this film shows up on these lists, people try to insist it’s not a horror film. Not only is it a horror film, but Jaws is about as traditional a horror film as you can find. It gives us a monster, characters who are clear allegories for particular aspects of society (Brody is the government, Hooper is science, and Quint is the working class), and a clear (and conservative) political message. It even uses its monster in much the same way George Romero has always used his zombies: as a method to isolate the lead characters because the story is ultimately about them and not the monsters. And it does all of this very skillfully. Spielberg does very little to indulge his typical predilection for turning all of his films into allegories for divorce, and the result is a wonderful, tightly-focused film about the perceived dangers of immigration.

5. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1960)

If The Birds is about silence, Psycho is a testament to how powerful a score can be. Bernard Herrman’s incredible score has as much power and tension as just about any film, and–unpopular opinion alert–Hitchcock knows what he’s doing behind the camera. The simplicity of The Birds can be contrasted with Psycho, a film that never leaves “well enough” alone–it’s full of bizarre angles, manipulative cutting, strikingly unnatural lighting, and every other trick that could possibly be in a filmmaker’s bag. In addition, Anthony Perkins gives one of the finest performances in film history, giving a shockingly deep and sensitive portrayal of a decidedly disturbed and monstrous man. The film also stands as a monument against Robert Redford’s famous statement that the last 15 minutes are the most important of any film: the last 10-15 minutes or so really should have ended up on the cutting room floor–they’re present as a result of a pretentious writer wanting to show off his “edgy” intelligence by talking about hermaphroditism in then-current psychological language. However, the film is just so damn good before then that it just doesn’t matter.

4. Lost Highway (David Lynch, France/USA 1997)

If any film has ever been as visually terrifying as Vargtimmen, it’s Lost Highway. And Lynch actually has a story to tell. He tells it in such a bizarre, Lynchian manner that it’s difficult to tell that it is a coherent story, but Lost Highway does make sense. It’s a film essentially set entirely in the mind of an insane person as he deals with his own confusion, anger, and guilt over murdering his wife, but you could be forgiven for not being able to tell–it’s that bizarre a narrative. I have said before that the later Mulholland Dr. (France/USA 2001) was essentially “Lost Highway for dummies” and while that’s something of an exaggeration, I don’t think it’s invalid–everything that’s good about Mulholland Dr. (except for Naomi Watts, who is absolutely and utterly brilliant in the later film while no one is even good in the earlier one)—is even better in Lost Highway.

3. Barton Fink (Joel Coen/Ethan Coen, USA 1991)

Never has a descent into hell felt so . . . hellish. It’s a film that has a lot in common in Mulholland Dr., but it keeps its focus better and isn’t quite so caught up in its own narrative cleverness. The Coens at their best are special, and this is them at their best.

2. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA 1980)

Stephen King famously complained that the atheist Kubrick couldn’t make a horror film, and this one was a failure because it was made by someone who “thought too much and felt too little.” If reading The Shining hadn’t already made me think King didn’t really know anything about his own genre, that statement would have (in spite of how great his giant bug statement is). Kubrick’s film is loaded with layer upon layer of complexity, with its intricate details working together to make a film about letting go of the past. The message of the film is appropriately simple–don’t hold on to the past too much lest you be consumed by it–and Kubrick focuses all of his energy on making that point, making his film an achievement that few have matched.

1. Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, France 1955)

When Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac published their novel Celle qui n’était plus in 1952, they received interest from a certain British-American filmmaker: Alfred Hitchcock. Unfortunately for Hitchcock, Henri-Georges Clouzot, a man he would consider his greatest rival until Clouzot’s ill health forced him into only sporadic work, beat him to the punch. Supposedly, Hitchcock’s call arrived within hours of the agreement with Clouzot. Hitchcock and the authors were so enthralled with one another that they would later write D’entre les morts specially for Hitchcock, and he would use it as the basis for his film Vertigo (USA 1958).

And it’s easy to see what Hitchcock was so interested in–it’s a twisting, turning script that begins with a brooding melancholy that turns into a nightmarish tension and never lets up. That it ends with one of the great endings in the history of cinema is only a small part of the puzzle: this film is a masterpiece.

Honorable Mentions: Mulholland Dr., The Omen (Richard Donner, USA 1976), Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, Japan 1964), Ringu 2 (Hideo Nakata, Japan 1999), Diary of the Dead (George A. Romero, USA 2007), Day of the Dead (George A. Romero, USA 1985), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh, USA/Japan 1994), Låt den rätte komma in (Tomas Alfredson, Sweden 2008)

Films that would have made it but I didn’t think they were “horror” enough but they are arguable: Gaslight (George Cukor, USA 1944), All about Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, USA 1950), Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson, New Zealand/Germany 1994), Persona (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden 1966), Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, USA 2011), Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, USA 2011), El labertino del Fauno (Guillermo del Toro, Spain/Mexico/USA 2006)

Movie Review and Other Thoughts: “Vertigo” (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1958)

Sight & Sound, the world’s premier film journal, last year published the results of its once-per-decade Greatest Film of All-Time poll, which is the only such poll anyone actually cares about. While I was rather unsurprised to see it happen, the headline for most was the toppling of Citizen Kane as the top film, a position it had held since the second-ever edition of the poll in 1962 (in the first, it ranked second, behind Ladri di Biciclette  [Vittorio de Sica, Italy 1948]).

The film that finally knocked Kane off of its perch was Vertigo, one of Hitchcock’s rare commercial and critical flops, and a film with a rather remarkable history. The film was so unsuccessful on its release that Hitchcock never worked with star James Stewart, who had been in four of Hitchcock’s films in the previous decade. Hitchcock, never one to take failures well or accept blame for them, blamed the failure on Stewart “looking too old,” long proclaiming the film one of his favorites. It sank from theaters quickly and Hitchcock followed with perhaps his best-received film of his career in North by Northwest (USA 1959). In 1973, Vertigo was removed from circulation (along with a handful of other films whose rights Hitchcock owned himself). While a few critics (notably Bosley Crowther) had stuck their necks out in favor of the film, it remained one of Hitchcock’s rare blunders, as far as most were concerned. It remained out of circulation for a decade, but a funny thing happened in that time: Critical opinion turned sharply–so sharply that the same Sight & Sound poll that had not included it at all in 1962 or 1972 suddenly ranked as the seventh-greatest film of all time in 1982. The film was then re-released to theaters in 1983 and found remarkable success that has never abated. In fact, the praise of the film has been so strong in the last 30 years that there is a significant group arguing that the entire film has become overpraised.

I felt I should watch it again in light of the Sight & Sound news. To my view, it is a rather odd film in Hitchcock’s oeuvre. It at once succeeds in ways that Hitchcock rarely succeeded, fails in ways that Hitchcock rarely failed, and shows some of Hitchcock’s regular limitations.

While Hitchcock is one of the acknowledged, unquestioned masters of cinema, he rarely used color, lighting, or flashy types of special effects like animation or noticeable transitions to their greatest effects. However, perhaps the single most noteworthy thing about Vertigo is the use of color throughout, which is absolutely incredible: the changes in color and lighting to fit the mood or show time transitions are simply amazing and provide a lot of the film’s visual depth. Major effects like the “vertigo effect” and the nightmare shown through animation are also very un-Hitchcock, and add so much to the film.

Hitchcock’s greatest strength as a director was his sense of story and narrative: his films have very carefully-crafted narratives that spin out clever, often nearly flawless stories in a carefully-constructed balance of conventionality and surprise. Vertigo, however, has a beautifully clever, complex story that is delivered overly conventionally. It’s organized as a mystery, with James Stewart discovering piece after piece of seemingly nonsensical information and then going places to listen as others unravel his explanations. Further complicating matters, the film’s seeming McGuffin is actually one of its strongest elements: the story of the traumatized cop being forced to face his own trauma even as he falls into an obsessive spiral of pain. It’s an intense emotional story, something Hitchcock would rarely try, and he does not seem sure whether he’s making a a film about that story or about the mystery.

The film also showcases some of Hitchcock’s repeated issues: his rigid devotion to a number of visual tropes like his lead female actors who all look alike, the constant suggestion that men have no interest in women if they’re unattractive, predictable comic relief, and a willingness to cast people for attractiveness rather than talent.

In a way, it’s Hitchcock making a non-Hitchcock film. The remarkably clever conceit at the heart of the film and the inherent darkness of the storyline, especially with its unresolved ending, is so powerful that it covers up the rather glaring weaknesses. The interesting part is that a film with such obvious weaknesses has become so highly thought of. I don’t think it’s wrong to put it among the greats of all time, but it seems to me that it just doesn’t quite live up to comparison to some films that don’t have any noticeable weaknesses, like Citizen Kane, Ladri di Biciclette, Chinatown (Roman Polanski, USA 1974), and Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, USA 2011).

Notes

  • The Elephant in the Room: The most obvious failure in this film is that its lead female role–an extraordinarily deep, complex role–is played by non-actor Kim Novak. Hitchcock wanted Vera Miles, a traditionally Hitchcockian beauty who would go on to show that she was at least a competent actor when Hitchcock cast her in the largest female part in Psycho (USA 1960). Just before work was to begin, Miles announced that she was pregnant. In the studio system, there was not enough time allowed to wait for an actor, particularly a woman actor, so Hitchcock had to recast the part, and turned to a young up-and-coming actress known for her model looks in Kim Novak. Novak doesn’t really fit the physical Hitchcockian ideal set by women like Joan Fontaine, Ingrid Bergman, and Grace Kelly. However, the major problem is that she cannot act at all, ruining a part that a stronger actor could have turned into something special. Hitchcock always said that he thought Novak was “miscast,” implicitly admitting to having made a mistake in her casting. Hitchcock of course made this same mistake with some regularity, as shown by his frequent casting of model-turned-“actress” Tippi Hedren in his later years.
  • Bernard Herrman was always a big part of Hitchcock’s arsenal, and he was on full display here, producing a powerful, evocative score that ranks among cinema’s finest.
  • What was Hitchcock’s obsession with creating small characters like Midge? She’s a smart, clever, well-employed, attractive, remarkably sweet woman whom Scotty ignores because Madeleine is supposedly better looking. Also, was he just convinced that glasses automatically made women unattractive?
  • How much of the film’s failure on release is really attributable to its runtime? It runs 128 minutes, which is 20-30 minutes longer than most films at the time (including Hitchcock’s). Films now creep over the 2 hour mark with regularity, but it was much more unusual in 1958. Critics charged that the film was slow and bogged down through large portions–a frankly silly charge. Were they really just bothered by length?
  • While I said that the film stands out in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, his last few films–particularly Marnie (USA 1964)–actually take the story approach of basing a mystery around a character-driven story arc further. One wonders if he would have continued with that sort of approach between Vertigo and Marnie instead of returning to more familiar territory with North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds (USA 1963) if the film had been a success.
  • Stewart’s age actually doesn’t show as much as one would think, considering that he was literally twice Kim Novak’s age.
  • I think it’s easy to miss just how deep and nuanced this film really is, as far as the story, narrative, and characters are concerned. It’s really an incredibly ambitious film in that regard, and I suspect that ambition is a big part of what critics are rewarding by ranking it so highly. It’s not a fatal problem for a film’s reach to exceed its grasp when its reach is this far, but I have a difficult time ranking such a film among the all-time greats. Indeed, when Hitchcock returned to more familiar and less ambitious territory for his next film, North by Northwest, I believe he did in fact make one of the greatest films of all time.