Look At Me Look At You: Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW (Paramount 1954)

When you go out to the neighborhood cinema, you’re indulging in a voyeuristic experience, watching the lives of people unfold before you on the screen. The theme of viewer as voyeur, peeping in on the privacy of total strangers, has never been done better than in Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW, nor more entertainingly. Like James Stewart’s protagonist L.B. Jeffries, we the audience are the voyeurs in the shadows watching from afar, stumbling onto things not meant for our eyes, and powerless to stop them without outside assistance. Hitchcock is not only the Master of Suspense, but a master of audience manipulation, and this dazzling piece of moviemaking is not only a hell of a thrill ride but a technical marvel as well.

 

The world of globetrotting photojournalist Jeffries has been boiled down to the view of the courtyard outside his apartment window, just as the audience’s world is now focused on the screen. Jeffries, confined to a wheelchair with a broken leg, spends his days watching the lives of others unfold before him. The courtyard itself is a massively constructed replica on a Paramount sound stage complete with fully furnished, functional apartments costing somewhere between $75-100,000 dollars to build (reports vary). The lighting was rigged to simulate dusk to dawn, mimicking the real world outside the studio confines. It’s incredible to me that Hitchcock would pay so much attention to detail, yet most of the action (except a few brief scenes) is shot from Stewart’s apartment! That’s what separates a true artist from the multitudes.

Across that courtyard, Jeffries (and the audience through him) observes his neighbors, each becoming their own film-within-a-film. Hitchcock had dabbled in many genres before donning his “Master of Suspense’ mantle, and we are privy to the mini-tales of a frustrated songwriter (played by real-life songwriter Ross Bagdasarian, later to achieve fame as Dave Seville, mentor to Alvin and the Chipmunks!) trying to follow his own muse (this is where Hitch’s annual cameo comes into play), the delectable Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy) fending off the wolves while waiting for her serviceman lover to return home, a put-upon married couple ( Frank Cady aka Sam Drucker of GREEN ACRES  , and Sara Berner) and their cute little dog (who will play a part in the unmasking of the crime), a newlywed couple (Rand Harper, Havis Davenport) celebrating their honeymoon (her cries of “Harrrry” are a lot different from Allison Hayes’s bellowing in ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN !), an eccentric artist (Jesslyn Fax, perhaps standing in for Hitchcock himself?) and the sad tale of Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn), an unmarried woman “of a certain age” who dines alone and cries herself to sleep.

Yet all this is superfluous to where Jeffries (and our) real focus is: the goings-on inside the apartment of salesman Lars Thorwald and his invalid wife. We watch as Thorwald draws the shades in the bedroom, then late at night takes trips to and from home, carrying his sample case, holding what we don’t know. When Thorwald is seen cleaning a butcher knife and a handsaw, and bundling a large trunk with rope, Jeffries (and us) can only come to one conclusion – murder most foul has been committed! Noir heavy Raymond Burr conveys a sense of menace as the bulky Thorwald even from afar, and the in-joke is the actor is made up to look like Hitchcock’s bete noire, producer David O. Selznick, whom Hitchcock clashed with during his time spent under contract. The penultimate scene, where Burr enters Stewart’s apartment with malice aforethought, is a masterpiece of utilizing sound and vision on film to their best advantage, and should be studied by aspiring filmmakers as much as PSYCHO’s vaunted shower scene.

There’s  another conflict going on during the film with Jeffries’ culture clash with his girlfriend, glamorous model Lisa Freemont, portrayed by Hitchcock’s ultimate “ice blonde” Grace Kelly. When Jeffries balks at the thought of marriage to her, I thought, “Are you crazy??”. Kelly (beautifully gowned by the great Edith Head) is a vision of loveliness, and the polar opposite of working class Stewart, and his character believes their different worlds will never allow them to successfully navigate the swift rapids of relationship bliss. It’s only when Lisa proves her mettle by doing some “amateur sleuthing” (a favorite Hitchcock motif), and places herself in great jeopardy that Jeffries finally realizes she’s the one for him. Stewart and Kelly engage in some titillatingly hot sexual banter, and their scenes together allow the audience to peep on the peeper, indulging Hitchcock’s (and our) voyeuristic streak and taking it to yet another level.

And what can one say about Thelma Ritter except “Bravo”! Her sarcastic role of Stella, the nurse attending to Jeffries, is a real hoot, and lets Hitchcock set his comedic side loose. Thelma gets off the best lines with her own inimitable style; my favorite is when Stewart asks what Thorwald could possibly be selling at three o’clock in the morning and she replies, “Flashlights”. It breaks the tension as Stewart’s character is becoming more and more convinced that Thorwald is up to no good. She also gets in the last word regarding the contents of a hat box found in Thorwald’s apartment, delivering it as only Thelma Ritter could. Wendell Corey, an actor I usually find too bland, does a good job as Jeffries’ police pal Tom Doyle, skeptical about the whole situation, and serving to plant the seeds of doubt in Jeffries’ (and the audience’s) mind.

Alfred Hitchcock is like a cat with a catnip-stuffed toy mouse here, pawing at his audience and batting it around the courtyard with glee. REAR WINDOW is a movie about murder, but it’s also about moviemaking, about the audience as voyeur, and about manipulating our collective emotions like the Master of Suspense he truly was, drawing us in to this constructed world and making it look and seem all too real. That the reality is only an illusion on a Paramount sound stage is a testament to the genius of Alfred Hitchcock, and REAR WINDOW is essential viewing for the voyeur in all of us.

 

 

Halloween Havoc!: GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS (Toho/TransWorld 1956)

“History shows again and again, how nature points out the folly of man”-

“Godzilla” by Blue Oyster Cult

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Let’s kick off this year’s “Halloween Havoc” with the Grandaddy of kaiju eiga, GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS. The Big G first hit Japanese movie screens in 1954, and made its way to American shores two years later in a reedited version with new narrative footage. I’ve only seen the Americanized interpretation, so I can’t comment on Inoshiro Honda’s original vision, but I do enjoy this film a lot more than the endless, silly sequels that ensued. I’d go as far as saying GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS is one of the best sci-fi flicks of the 50’s, one that’s influence looms like Big G’s shadow even today.

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We start with a familiar sight: Tokyo in ruins, “a smoldering memorial to the unknown”! American reporter Steve Martin (played by Raymond Burr, not the “wild and crazy guy” comic) is trapped under debris from the chaos unleashed, and narrates the tale for us. Martin’s learned that eight ships have been destroyed recently, caused by “a blinding flash of light, the ocean burst into flame”. Represntitives of the military and science community have a conference, and Dr. Yemane leads a team to Odo Island, where the natives claim they’ve seen a monster known to them as Godzilla. The Big G makes an impressive screen debut: he’s (she’s?) 400 feet tall, a fire-breathing land/sea Jurassic hybrid bent on destruction. Nuclear testing is to blame for Godzilla’s resurrection, and depth bombs can’t stop. Soon the monster heads to the mainland for more devastation.

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Godzilla attacks as the panic-stricken populace evacuates Tokyo. The Army rigs the city’s electrical high-tension wires to stop the beast, but even 300,000 volts can’t contain Godzilla! The monster wreaks havoc, melting towers with it’s flame breath, turning “the heart of Tokyo into a sea of fire”! The carnage continues until scientist Serizawa, involved in a love triangle with Yemane’s daughter Emiko and ship captain Ogata, gives in and uses his new Oxygen Destroyer weapon to kill the beast at sea, sacrificing his life in the process so Tokyo may rise again.

Inoshira Honda’s footage looks much better than the film shot in America under Terry Morse’s direction. They give it a good try, using actors with their backs to the camera to meet with Burr, but Honda’s darker vision just doesn’t quite match the more pedestrian American scenes. Even with this quibble, the movie kept me enthralled, though I’ve just got to see the original Japanese version one of these days.

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The Big G himself (herself?) is much scarier than in the subsequent sequels. There’s no “wrestling match” style monster battles here, just good old fashioned destruction as Godzilla rampages on Tokyo. The monster isn’t overused, and the rubber suit special effects are shot to good advantage, with Masao Tamai’s black and white cinematography ideal for the movie. GODZILLA spawned a slew of imitators (THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, GORGO, REPTILICUS) , but the original Big G  is head and shoulders above the rest.

“Oh no/There goes Tokyo/Go, go Godzilla!”

“Godzilla” by Blue Oyster Cult

 

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 9: Film Noir Festival Redux

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Welcome back to the decadently dark world of film noir, where crime, corruption, lust, and murder await. Let’s step out of the light and deep into the shadows with these five fateful tales:

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PITFALL (United Artists 1948, D: Andre DeToth) Dick Powell is an insurance man who feels he’s stuck in a rut, living in safe suburbia with his wife and kid (Jane Wyatt, Jimmy Hunt). Then he meets hot model Lizabeth Scott on a case and falls into a web of lies, deceit, and ultimately murder. Raymond Burr  costars as a creepy PI who has designs on Scott himself. A good cast in a good (not great) drama with a disappointing ending. Fun Fact: The part of Scott’s embezzler boyfriend is played by one Byron Barr, who is not the Byron Barr that later changed his name to Gig Young.  

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THE BRIBE (MGM 1949, D:Robert Z. Leonard) Despite an A-list cast, this tale of a G-man (boring Robert Taylor ) assigned to break up a war surplus smuggling racket is as tedious as Taylor’s monotone voice overs. Agent Rigby is sent to the island town of Carlotta, off the coast of Central America, to crack the ring responsible for illegally selling airplane engines. He falls in love with married nightclub singer Ava Gardner (who can blame him?), whose booze soaked hubby (John Hodiak) is a major suspect. The oppressive heat in Carlotta seems to make the film’s players sluggish, like the movie itself. Obvious bad guys Charles Laughton and Vincent Price engage in a ham-slicing contest, with a slight edge going to Laughton here. Fun Fact: I couldn’t watch this without being reminded of the superb noir send-up DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, which borrows some of this movie’s names (Rigby, Carlotta) and many of it’s scenes. Watch that instead of  THE BRIBE, it’s a lot more fun!

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THE WINDOW (RKO 1949, D: Ted Tetzlaff) This taut little thriller became a major hit for RKO, and child star Bobby Driscoll won a special Oscar for his performance as a 9 year old who likes to tell tall tales witnessing a murder. No one believes him, not his parents (Arthur Kennedy , Barbara Hale) or the cops, and he’s punished by Mom and Dad. Dad works nights and Mom’s called away to visit her sick sister, so little Tommy gets locked in his room overnight, and the killers who live upstairs (Paul Stewart, Ruth Roman) come to get him. The chase through an abandoned building is gripping, and former DP Tetzlaff (MY MAN GODFREY, NOTORIOUS) ratchets up the suspense. Filmed on location in NYC (a novelty in those days) and based on a Cornell Woolrich short story, THE WINDOW is unique, entertaining, and well worth watching. NOT SO FUN FACT: Disney star Bobby Driscoll (SONG OF THE SOUTH, TREASURE ISLAND, voice of PETER PAN), unable to shake the child star label, became a hopeless drug addict, drifting through a life of arrests and addiction. In the mid-60’s, he was briefly associated with Andy Warhol’s Factory group of underground filmmakers. Sometime early in 1968, he died alone in an abandoned New York tenement house. The body wasn’t identified, and Driscoll was buried in a pauper’s grave. His mother, seeking Bobby in 1969, asked the police for help, and through fingerprints he was finally ID’d. Bobby Driscoll was 31 years old.

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THE HITCH-HIKER (RK0 1953, D: Ida Lupino) Fear is the theme of this dark, disturbing psychological tale based on the true story of serial killer Billy Cook. Director Lupino cowrote the script with producer hubby Collier Young, about two pals on a fishing trip (Frank Lovejoy, Edmond O’Brien) who pick up a hitchhiking killer (William Tallman), and are taken hostage and forced to do his bidding. Extremely tense drama enhanced by Nicholas Musuraca’s camerawork, and a chilling performance from Tallman as Emmett Myers, as cold-blooded a killer as there is in noir. His deformed, unblinking dead eye will give you nightmares! O’Brien is also outstanding here, as usual. Fun Fact: Tallman is of course best known to audiences as perennially losing DA Hamilton Burger on TV’s long-running PERRY MASON, where he was outwitted every week by noir icon Raymond Burr.

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THE PHENIX CITY STORY (Allied Artists 1955, D: Phil Karlson) Another true story, this one of corruption in a small Alabama town ruled by gambling, prostitution, dope peddling, and murder. The unique prologue features real-life newsman Clete Roberts interviewing some of the locals, including the widow of slain Attorney General candidate Albert Patterson. Then the story unfolds, as Patterson (John McIntyre) refuses to get involved in the efforts to clean up the town. When son John (Richard Kiley) returns home, he does, and finally the older man relents, after the violence escalates to include the murder of a child, and a family friend. That violence is shockingly brutal for the era, and realistically handled onscreen by director Phil Karlson, who’d later helm another Southern crime tale, WALKING TALL. Screenwriters Crane Wilbur (HOUSE OF WAX) and Daniel Mainwaring (OUT OF THE PAST, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) pull no punches, and supporting actors Edward Andrews, Kathryn Grant (the future Mrs. Bing Crosby), James Edwards , Jean Carson (one of the “Fun Girls” from THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) and John Larch are all top-notch. Don’t miss this one! Fun Fact: This is one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite movies, and there are plenty of examples of it’s influence on his films to keep an eye out for here!

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Pounded to Death by Gorillas: HIS KIND OF WOMAN (RKO 1951)

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People don’t go to the movies to see how miserable the world is; they go there to eat popcorn, be happy“- Wynton (Jim Backus) in HIS KIND OF WOMAN

Right you are, Mr. Howell, err Backus. There’s an abundance of fun to be had in HIS KIND OF WOMAN, the quintessential RKO/Robert Mitchum movie. Big Bob costars with sexy Jane Russell in a convoluted tale that’s part film noir, part Monty Python, with an outstanding all-star cast led by Vincent Price serving up big slices of ham as a self-obsessed movie star. And the backstory behind HIS KIND OF WOMAN is as entertaining as the picture itself!

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But we’ll go behind the scenes later. First, let’s look at the movie’s plot. We meet down on his luck gambler Dan Milner (Mitchum) in a bar…. drinking milk! Dan just got done doing a 30 day stretch in a Palm Springs jail “for nothin'” (an in-joke reference to Mitchum’s 1948 pot bust ). He returns to his apartment only to be greeted by three goons, who promptly beat the crap out of him. He’s made an offer he can’t refuse to clear his debt: accept $50,000 and move to Mexico for a year, no questions asked. Dan’s no dummy; he takes the offer.

What he doesn’t know is that deported vice lord and “upper crust crumb” Nick Ferraro (bulky Raymond Burr) plans to hijack Dan’s identity and return to the states. While Dan waits for his plane at a crummy cantina, he meets songbird Leonore Brent (Russell):

The heat is on between Dan and Leonore, and their sexually charged banter crackles throughout the film. Leonore is heading to the same place as Dan: Morro’s Lodge, a swanky hotspot for the idle rich. It’s here we meet our cast of characters, none of whom are what they seem. There’s Morro (Phillip Van Zandt), who’s comfortable on both sides of the fence,  Krafft (John Mylong) a chess playing writer with a past, Wynton (Backus) a cheery sort who likes to play cards and hustle young women, and Thompson (Charles McGraw ), who’s mixed up in Dan’s deal.

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Then there’s Hollywood actor Mark Cardigan, played by the one and only Vincent Price, and he’s a hoot. Price has a field day as the vain blowhard in the Errol Flynn mold (when his latest swashbuckler is screened, a wag says, “It has a message no pigeon would carry”). His Cardigan has a thing going on with Leonore, that is until his wife (Marjorie Reynolds) shows up to put a halt to it. Whether spouting Shakespeare or rousing up a rescue party, Price shamelessly steals every scene he’s in. It’s probably his best non-horror role, and he plays it up for all he’s worth.

Back to the story: Dan’s biding his time, waiting to get paid off, while Krafft and Thompson are always lurking in the background. A hurricane is brewing, and a drunken pilot (Tim Holt) barrels through it. But he’s not really a lush, he’s Federal agent Lusk, and he spills the beans to Dan about Ferraro’s scheme to make a patsy out of Dan. Lusk is killed by Thompson, Dan’s kidnapped by Ferraro’s goons, and taken to the gangster’s yacht to await certain doom.  Macho man Cardigan leads the Mexican police on a raid, and a battle ensues. Dan finally breaks free in time to save Cardigan from Ferraro, and the good guys are victorious! Dan and Leonore get together at last and have the final say in a memorably STEAMY ending!

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That ending wasn’t the one concocted by credited writers Frank Fenton and Jack Leonard and director John Farrow. They weren’t even involved in it. RKO studio boss Howard Hughes wasn’t satisfied with the conclusion, feeling it wasn’t exciting enough. Hughes hired director Richard Fleischer and writer Earl Fenton, who’d just wrapped up filming on another RKO noir, THE NARROW MARGIN. The three brainstormed a new ending, building a replica of Ferraro’s yacht inside the studio’s water tank for the added action. This put the film way behind schedule, but there was more to come. When Hughes viewed the footage, he decided the actor playing Ferraro (Robert J. Wilke, later Captain Nemo’s first mate in Fleischer’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA ) wasn’t appropriately menacing enough. Recalling seeing Raymond Burr in another film, Hughes recast the role, and Fleischer had to reshoot all the scenes featuring Ferraro!

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Hopelessly over budget due to Hughes’ tinkering, HIS KIND OF WOMAN lost money at the box office. Today aficionados see it as a camp classic, a romp through film noir territory unlike any other of its day. Mitchum and Russell make an attractive screen team, Price is a riot, and the rest of the cast is more than up to par. Familiar Face spotters will want to keep their eyes peeled for Tol Avery, Danny Borzage, Anthony Caruso, Robert Cornthwaite, King Donovan, Paul Frees, and Carlton Young, not to mention a very young Mamie Van Doren. There’s no other film in the noir canon quite like HIS KIND OF WOMAN, so put it on your must-watch list today.

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 7: Film Noir Festival

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I first got my DVR service from DirecTV just in time for last year’s TCM Summer of Darkness series, and there’s still a ton of films I haven’t gotten around to viewing… until now! So without further ado, let’s dive right into the fog-shrouded world of film noir:

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RAW DEAL (Eagle-Lion 1948, D: Anthony Mann)

This tough-talking film seems to cram every film noir trope in the book into its 79 minutes. Gangster Dennis O’Keefe busts out of prison with the help of his moll ( Claire Trevor ), kidnaps social worker Marsha Hunt, and goes after the sadistic crime boss (Raymond Burr) who owes him fifty grand. Director Mann and DP John Alton make this flawed but effective ultra-low budget film work, with help from a great cast. Burr’s nasty, fire-obsessed kingpin is scary, and John Ireland as his torpedo has a great fight scene with O’Keefe. The flaming finale is well staged, but I could do without Trevor’s sporadic narration. Fun Fact: Whit Bissell (BRUTE FORCE ) has a brief role as a killer on the run.

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THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (RKO 1947, D: Nicholas Ray)

Nicholas Ray’s first film tells the tale of two young lovers (Farley Granger, Cathy O’Donnell) on the run who try to but can’t escape his life of crime. Ray’s directorial flourishes aid tremendously in making this a good, but not quite great, movie. It bogs down about halfway through, and probably could’ve used some editing, but producer John Houseman gave Ray free rein to create his feature debut. Ray would go on to direct some great films (IN A LONELY PLACE, JOHNNY GUITAR, and of course REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE) and influence a generation of filmmakers. Character actors Howard DaSilva, Jay C. Flippen, Byron Foulger, Ian Wolfe, and Will Wright offer fine contributions, and lead actress O’Donnell gives an outstanding, subdued performance as Keechie. Fun Fact: Remade in 1974 by Robert Altman as THEIVES LIKE US, with Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall as the young lovers.

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BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND DAWN (Columbia 1950, D: Gordon Douglas)

Programmer following two squad car cops (Edmond O’Brien, Mark Stevens) out to get the goods on gangster Garris (Donald Buka). The cops are also rivals for Gale Storm’s affections, and who can blame them…. I’ve had a crush on the sweet Miss Storm since adolescence! Not really a noir though it usually gets lumped with to the genre. A good cast can’t quite over come the hokey, clichéd script. Fun Fact: Be on the lookout for Madge Blake (BATMAN’s Aunt Harriet), Roland Winters (the last Monogram Charlie Chan), and Phillip Van Zandt (nemesis in countless Three Stooges shorts).   

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THE STRIP (MGM 1951, D: Laszlo Kardos)

You’d think a film noir with a jazz club setting would be perfect, and you’d be right… but this isn’t it (it’s 1941’s BLUES IN THE NIGHT, which I’ll be reviewing at a later date!). Mickey Rooney stars here as a jazz drummer fresh from the Korean War who gets involved with an aspiring actress ( Sally Forrest) and a gangster (Clark Gable wanna-be James Craig). The movie’s saving graces are it’s location scenes inside L.A nightclubs of the era, and some jazz numbers from legends Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Vic Damone, and Monica Lewis (the “Chiquita Banana” girl). Otherwise, pretty disappointing. Fun Fact: THE STRIP was nominated for (but didn’t win) an Oscar for the song “A Kiss to Build a Dream On”.

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INFERNO (20th Century Fox 1953, D: Roy Ward Baker)

Red haired sexpot Rhonda Fleming and lover William Lundigan leave her husband Robert Ryan to die out in the desert with a broken leg. They think they’ve committed “the perfect murder”, but didn’t count on Ryan’s sheer willpower and McGyver-like ingenuity. INFERNO was 20th Century Fox’s first 3-D movie (in Technicolor), and DP Lucien Ballard’s location shots in the Mojave Desert lend it a rugged feel (I would love to see this one on the big screen as intended). Director Baker also made the Marilyn Monroe noir DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK , and went on to direct some chilling Hammer films later in his career. Henry Hull (WEREWOLF OF LONDON) appears as an old desert rat, and the climactic fight between Ryan and Lundigan in a burning cabin will definitely hold your interest, as indeed will the whole movie. A neat film about survival and revenge, well worth watching! Fun Fact: Remade twenty years later as the TV Movie ORDEAL with Arthur Hill, Diana Muldaur, and James Stacy in the Ryan/Fleming/Lundigan roles.

I’ll leave you with wonderful Louis Armstrong and his all-star band swingin’ the tune “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abendigo” from THE STRIP: