Rear Window

Talkie of the Week: Rear Window

USA 1954, 112 minutes, color, Paramount Pictures. Director: Alfred Hitchcock, Written by John Michael Hayes, Based on Cornell Woolrich’s short story “It Had to Be Murder”. Cast: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter, Wendell Corey and Raymond Burr.

Plot summary: Stuck in his apartment in a wheel chair, photographer L.B. Jeffries enjoys sitting by his his rear window to entertain himself with the everyday lives of his neighbors until he starts suspecting one of them of murder.

Review: New York, 1954. Photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) is trapped at home, tied to a wheel chair and deprived of his usual excitation. An independent spirit whose professional life is filled with danger and adventure, he is bored out of his wits sitting in his tiny apartment with a broken leg. Secluded from the outside world apart from his daily visitors Lisa (Grace Kelly) and nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), he has found solace in the repetitive lives of his colorful neighbors. Nicknaming them according to their behavior, Jeff comments on the patterns he has made out in five weeks of impudently observing them. Although chided by his visitors at first for peeking into the private affairs of complete strangers, his guilty pleasure soon becomes an addiction for him as much as to his acquaintances, leading to revelations about well-kept secrets and a possible murder.

Detached in the beginning and cynical, Jimmy Stewart’s performance is reliable as always, his character strangely intangible despite his rough, likable charm. By his side, Grace Kelly shines in her lovely dresses, her beauty set up to stun rather than her performance. Thelma Ritter delivers her lines with a genuine twinkle in her eye, bringing a lightness to an atmosphere of restraint and suspense while Wendell Corey adds to a feeling of increasing trepidation. Blessed with a stellar cast of supporting actors who work together like a beautiful composition of New York neighbors, it is Raymond Burr who stands out with his performance as murder suspect Lars Thorwald. From the distance, he seems unspectacular and vulnerable, a character broken by life. When we finally see his face and hear him speak, it is his voice that is the biggest surprise – for a moment, he leaves us wondering about the person behind a man we suspect of having committed a cruel crime. He sounds helpless somehow and weak, his questions coming across like a plea before his calm turns into violence and he becomes intimidating again to say the least.

Using the suspense and excitement of voyeurism, Rear Window was further refined by a memorable set and popular music, guaranteeing the film a place in the National Film Registry in 1997. Shot in color and based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich from 1942, the film is still on the must-see list of any film buff who enjoys Hollywood’s Golden Age and has the potential to make a frequent guest appearance in your home. As one of Hitchcock’s most celebrated masterpieces, Rear Window was gripping upon release and remains suspenseful today, on DVD, in reruns or on Blu-ray.

Rear Window re-release trailer

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All About Eve

Talkie of the Week: All About Eve

USA 1950, 138 minutes, black & white, 20th Century Fox, Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Based on The Wisdom of Eve by Mary Orr. Cast: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter, George Sanders, Hugh Marlowe, Gary Merrill, Gregory Ratoff, Barbara Bates, Marilyn Monroe

Plot summary: Aging Broadway star Margo Channing takes her young adoring fan Eve under her wings and ends up being ousted by the aspiring actress the not so innocent girl turns out to be.

Review: If you are into Hollywood classics, All About Eve will probably have crossed your path early on. It is one of those gems critics raved about upon release. A film that received fourteen Academy Awards nominations, including four for the star-studded female ensemble and six wins: Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actor (George Sanders), Costume Design and Sound Recording. It earned a variety of other nominations and awards, including a bow to Bette Davis’ leading performance at the Cannes Film Festival. Popular culture has frequently paid homage to All About Eve and the originally fictitious Sarah Siddons Award introduced in the movie was turned into an actual honor by theater enthusiasts in Chicago in 1952. The Sarah Siddons Society first awarded Helen Hayes for outstanding actress of the year and is still announcing their annual winners today.

With so much cultural impact on its resumé, the film is almost bound to disappoint when you first watch it. Expectations are high, and rightly so, but All About Eve was a well-written movie back in 1950 and still is today. Joseph L. Mankiewicz created a story that’s gripping and timeless even though certain dynamics have changed in the entertainment business these days. All in all however, the sensitive bond between performing artists and their adoring fans, between experienced actresses and aspiring ones, between producers, writers and their entourage, has remained the same. It is a world of its own, so foreign to outsiders and yet so familiar to anyone who’s tied up in a business that strives on competition, rejuvenation and success.

Bette Davis was a genius pick for Margo Channing although Claudette Colbert was the original inspiration for the part. With her powerhouse performance, Miss Davis did not only win over juries and critics, but also built the ground for her fellow cast members to shine on. Anne Baxter absorbed Margo Channing’s fierce energy and created an almost eerie Eve Harrington whose admiration and lies push the story forward. Celeste Holm added a note of genuine heartiness to that group of strong-willed women while Thelma Ritter brought some much needed earthiness to the quixotic world of Broadway theater. Supported by a potent group of male actors and Marilyn Monroe in one of her early roles, the richly praised cast still leaves a lasting impression on its audience today.

For me, All About Eve is a must-see movie, one of those gems that grows on you over the years, with performances and lines that hit a nerve and stay with you. It’s a film you can watch over and over again, like many of the true classics, and they will always give you something else.

Available on DVD and VHS.

Titanic

Talkie of the Week: Titanic

USA 1953, 98 minutes, black & white, 20th Century Fox Film Corporation. Director: Jean Negulesco, Screenplay by: Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch & Richard Breen. Cast: Clifton Webb, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Wagner, Audrey Dalton, Thelma Ritter, Briane Aherne, Richard Basehart

Plot summary: Julia Sturges is boarding the Titanic with her two children Norman and Annette to escape her unhappy marriage and the elitist life they have lived in Europe. Her estranged husband Richard follows her in order to reclaim custody of his children. 17-year-old Annette is eager to return to Europe with her father and Julia ultimately accepts that she is old enough to make that decision for herself. However, she insists on taking 10-year-old Norman home with her to Michigan. While Julia and Richard find their marriage in shambles, Annette is falling in love with 20-year-old Gifford Rogers, a tennis player at Purdue. A young love that is being put to test when the Titanic hits an iceberg and slowly begins to sink.

Review: When you choose to watch a film called Titanic, you pretty much know what you will get. The ship hit an iceberg and sank. 1,517 people died. Happy endings look different, which may be an explanation for this movie’s marginal box office success back in the days. It was recognized however, and received two Academy Award nominations, including a well-deserved win for Best Story and Screenplay.

The film itself is beautifully shot and well cast. Clifton Webb is brilliantly convincing as an elitist Englishman, while Barbara Stanwyck lives up to her talent and shows a wide range of emotions as runaway wife Julia Sturges. It is a pleasure to watch these two actors as sparring partners, fighting over “their” children while a 22-year-old Robert Wagner gives a lively portrayal of Purdue college boy Gifford Rogers, a wonderful contrast to Audrey Dalton’s haughty character Annette. Thelma Ritter adds to that choir of rich performances and includes a sense of humor to the otherwise tragic plot of the film.

The Titanic itself serves a subplot, a mere setting. The real drama, the tragedy is told by the characters and their backstories. The movie picks up on the people and their lives, and how the tragedy affected them. And how they do it is convincing.

Throughout film history, the fate of the Titanic has been fitted to the screen several times. The story itself never really changes, although the characters and plot may. Check out Titanic from 1997 and look at the similarities in story-telling. It’s not the same, but sometimes it’s good to see a classic being revived in a way.

Available on DVD and VHS.