Monthly Archives: July 2013

O Youth and Beauty! — ‘A Place in the Sun’

Italian poster. I like it better than the American version.

Italian poster. I like it better than the American version.

I first saw George Stevens’ “A Place in the Sun” (Paramount, 1951) when I was a teenager and fell crazy in love with the picture and almost everything about it. Except for Sophia Loren, I’d never seen a woman so extraordinarily beautiful as Elizabeth Taylor. I fell in love with her house up on Loon Lake, the Vickers and the Eastman mansions in town, the cocktail dances, the clothes, the big convertibles. But most of all, I fell hard for Montgomery Clift — it was a mad boyhood crush like I never felt before or since. I was completely besotted with him: I loved his gorgeous face, his haircut, his fantastic glen plaid jacket, his smile, his sadness — I loved everything about him except that strangely ugly voice. But much as I loved Monty and Elizabeth and “A Place in the Sun,” it was years — decades, in fact — before I was willing to put myself through it again. It was too damned devastating.

Montgomery Clift: Hello, Gorgeous . . .

Montgomery Clift: Hello, Gorgeous . . .

The picture, as you probably know, is based on “An American Tragedy,” but I’m not sure “A Place in the Sun” can properly be considered a tragedy. But since it’s supposed to be a tragedy, I’m assuming that, whether or not you’ve seen it, you know how it ends, and that’s how I’m going to approach the subject. But if you haven’t seen it, and you don’t want to know in advance how it turns out, please don’t read the rest of this until after you’ve seen the picture.

As for its being a tragedy — well, possibly it is, but I rather think it fails to qualify on one major and several minor counts. (I will pass over the latter.) To be sure, the Fates are lined up against the protagonist/hero George Eastman (Montgomery Clift), which is an essential feature of tragedy, and his downfall comes in consequence of a distinctly tragic form of error, known as hamartia (Greek:  ἁμαρτία). Over the past several centuries, the meaning of hamartia has been twisted into what many of us learnt in public school to call a “tragic flaw.” (Interestingly, in the King James version of the New Testament, ἁμαρτία is translated, with a fair degree of inaccuracy, as “sin.”) The original meaning of hamartia is neither “tragic flaw” nor “sin,” but simply “missing the target” or “wide of the mark.” It is something that’s neither bad nor wrong, per se, but can, under specific circumstances, lead to disastrous consequences — say, for example, you’re told to take a left turn where a right one is what’s wanted, and this error leads you directly and irrevocably over the edge of a cliff.  In this case, no tragic flaw or sin is indicated, but only a misdirection that sends you to your doom.

Monty and Elizabeth: When they were seen together at the studio, their incredible beauty often provoked laughter.

Monty and Elizabeth Taylor: When they were seen together at the studio, their incredible beauty often provoked laughter.

In the movie version of Dreiser’s novel, what sends the boy to his doom is his failure to swim in the right direction quickly enough to prevent an unfortunate girl (who capsized his boat) from drowning. He didn’t drown her, but he must pay for it. (God knows what Stevens would have done with the Hero of Chappaquiddick.) The predicament has the tragic essence, but its resolution fails to fulfill tragedy’s fundamental obligation to its shaken audience: catharsis. In “A Place in the Sun” there is no catharsis (κάθαρσις, in Greek), only a miscarriage of justice, the ruin of several lives and two young people dead: one by water, the other by fire, at the State’s decree and with a dominie mumbling prayers over him. Somebody owes me my goddamned κάθαρσις. . . ! Taken as a whole, “A Place in the Sun” is a ravishing, romantic, glamorous bummer.

Taylor was never called ‘Liz’ by her friends: she was ‘Elizabeth.’ She called him ‘Monty’; he called her ‘Bessie Mae.’ She loved the name.

Pauline Kael put it this way:

The conclusion of the film in which the hero (and presumably the audience) is supposed to be convinced that a man should pay with his life for a murder he didn’t commit — but wanted to commit — is bizarre. “Who doesn’t desire his father’s death?” asked Ivan Karamazov. Stevens and company would send us all up for it.

As usual, Kael sums it up brilliantly.

The last shot is of beautiful Monty Clift, with his gorgeous hair cut en brosse, on his way to the chamber where Old Sparky soon will burn his blood to ash and all his dreams to powder. And superimposed over this is the image of him in happier times with Elizabeth Taylor; they are kissing passionately, dreamily . . . What did Stevens have in mind? The crossing of the macabre with the semi-erotic strikes me as having distinctly necrophiliac overtones. At any rate, we can tell that George Eastman will fry with a boner.

Monty and Elizabeth: Love and death.

Clift wanted Betsy Blair in the Shelley Winters part. He was probably right. Winters had to fight to get the part (take a look at her interview below), but I think she fell into the same sort of trap Mary Tyler Moore, who was known for playing comic characters, fell into when she landed her first “serious” role in “Ordinary People.” Moore played the woman as a near-monster without the faintest tinge of humor — the actress’ anxiety about not being taken seriously led her to give a performance that’s so humorless it can’t be taken seriously. Winters was still a bombshell/sex symbol when she played poor, doomed Alice Tripp, and she saw the role as an opportunity to prove that she was A Serious Actress — not just a B-picture sex kitten. After this picture, she certainly became a heavyweight.

It’s a charming story, but it goes to the heart of what’s wrong with her in the role: she too earnestly seeks to be unattractive. Unprepossessing people don’t have to work at being unattractive — if they’re ambitious enough to want to love and be loved, they have to work to make themselves as desirable as possible. But Winters, wanting to get away from cheesecake, made sure the world knew she meant business: she played Alice Tripp as the Eternal Frump. Clift complained to a friend, “She played her tragedy from the minute you see her on screen. She is downbeat, blubbery, irritating.” Unfortunately, in Hollywood, this is exactly the sort of thing that’s called “brave” instead of what it is: a lousy, career-advancing, dumb-ass acting choice. It’s all about livening-up a stagnating career, not about giving a performance that best serves the story. And indeed, Winters was nominated for an Oscar for her “brave” performance, after which she was offered a much wider range of roles than the sultry glamour girls she’d previously been typecast as: now she played a wide variety of harpies, turbulent drunks, castrating Jewish mothers, brawling slatterns, bellicose barflies, matrons, termagants and tarts who couldn’t keep their stockings up, their skirts down or their wigs on straight.  But no more glamour girls. Excelsior!

Clift remonstrated with Stevens about Winters’ performance, but was overruled. Stevens told Clift he was “too sentimental.” Sentimental? What’s sentimental about wanting Alice Tripp to have a few qualities that George Eastman could possibly find attractive? As it is, he must choose between Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), a wealthy, sexy, glamorous, charming, educated, beautiful debutante and a snivelling, querulous, self-pitying factory girl with no education, conversation or interests other than her own miseries. Decisions, decisions . . . ! I imagine Betsy Blair in the part — sweet and homely, doing her best to be pleasant, pretty and interesting . . . and failing. That’s not sentimentality: it’s heartbreaking — and it adds complexity, ambiguity and drama to the story. One should feel as sorry for the girl as for the boy who got her in trouble. As it is, Shelley Winters (with George Stevens’ careful guidance) plays the first part of many in which audiences wait for her to get what’s coming to her.

Shelley Winters: 'Or maybe ya wish I was dead, is that it?' -- You got that right, sister.

Shelley Winters: ‘Or maybe ya wish I was dead, is that it?’ — You got that right, sister.

After I’d seen the picture a few more times, I became aware that it wasn’t George Eastman’s sad fate that I found so punishing — the horror of his predicament is not cathartic, but I find its remorselessness invigorating (like Hurstwood’s in “Sister Carrie”) — no, it’s the juxtaposition of the most glamorous love scenes ever put on film and the carping, sniffling dreariness of Shelley Winters: the way Stevens has conceived her character, she’s one of the Eumenides from “The Oresteia” dressed in a flea market blouse and a Republican cloth coat. Stevens described it to the American Film Institute this way:

The thing that interested me most about Place was the relationship of opposing images . . . Shelley Winters busting at the seams with sloppy melted ice cream . . . as against Elizabeth Taylor in a white gown with blue ribbons floating down from the sky . . . Automatically there’s an imbalance of images which creates drama.

Imbalance, yes; but drama? Not the way I look at it. Stevens seems to hold with Glinda the Good Witch’s observation that “Only bad witches are ugly.” It’s not enough that Alice Tripp is penniless and not as beautiful as Angela Vickers: Stevens makes her repulsive — a prim, soul-destroying scold. Yet when she dies, he wants us to blame gorgeous, ambitious George Eastman for having desired someone less excruciating and maddening . . . No, I don’t think it works as drama or as a fable with a moral. The picture isn’t critical of class and wealth in America (as I believe the novel is — though it’s been a long time since I read it), but rather a stern warning against the dangers of being poor and ugly (they get knocked up, make a mess of their ice cream and drown in ice cold lakes) and a grimmer warning against trying to jump across class lines (they go to the electric chair). It’s not the class system that’s at fault: it’s the lovesick fat girls and the handsome gate crashers.

Fortunately, with DVDs, it’s easy to skip all the stuff I don’t like and disapprove of and soak up all the parts that I find wonderful. It’s doubtful that anyone ever photographed the beginning of a love affair with more exquisite dreamy romanticism than George Stevens. In “A Place in the Sun,” Stevens makes the act of falling desperately in love look the way it feels. Here’s George and Angela’s first conversation. George has been invited to his rich uncle’s house for a party. Feeling awkward and out of place, he retreats to the game room to be alone. Then Angela floats in . . .

“Wow! . . . Hello . . . !” she says by way of introducing herself. They don’t meet cute: they meet stupendous. Did any love affair ever begin more promisingly? Unsurprisingly, the gown she wears in that scene caused a sensation in the 1950s; copies and patterns based on it sold for years afterwards. Edith Head won the Oscar for Best Costume Design, Black-and-White for that year.

I stopped the clip at the point where George and Angela are interrupted by George’s Uncle Charles (Herbert Heyes), who has just given George a promotion at the factory. Uncle Charles tells George to call his mother (i.e., Charles’ sister) to give her the good news. Then the old man, who has no use for his pious Middle West sister, beats a hasty retreat back to the party. The scene continues . . .

That’s Anne Revere as George’s mother; she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Elizabeth Taylor’s mother in “National Velvet” (Metro, 1944). “A Place in the Sun” was the last picture she made before being blacklisted. Twenty years passed before she made another picture.

A few weeks pass, then Angela calls George out of the blue and invites him to a dance at her parents’ palatial home.

The disapproving gentleman is Shepperd Strudwick as Angela’s father; Frieda Inescort is Angela’s mother. Inescort made a career playing tart-tongued snobs and high society bitches. I’ve never understood their reaction when they see their daughter with the nephew of the richest man in town: the young man is an Eastman and he looks like Monty Clift . . . What’s their objection to him? If he’s not good enough for them, what are the rest of us up to? (John Simon once wrote of Strudwick in a late-career Broadway performance: “Shepperd Strudwick is respectable but dull.” That observation fits his entire career.) Here’s the famous scene that follows the parental opprobrium. To my knowledge, it’s the most ravishingly romantic scene in any picture. Franz Waxman’s score does a lot of the heavy lifting, but it’s also beautifully costumed, staged, acted and photographed.

Taylor, who was only seventeen at the time, fought with Stevens over the script in this scene, which he rewrote the night before he shot it. When he handed her the new pages, she glanced at them and demanded, “Forgive me, but what hell is this?” According to Stevens, “Elizabeth dissolved when she had to say, ‘Tell Mama.’ She thought it was outrageous she had to say that — she was jumping into a sophistication beyond her time.” But Stevens was adamant. As Patricia Bosworth described it in her excellent biography, “Montgomery Clift”: “He wanted to create a mood that was at once primitive and basic, ‘a kind of preordained meeting.’ ” I’d say he succeeded admirably.

“A Place in the Sun” was the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship between Taylor and Clift. For the rest of her life, she claimed that he taught her to act. A few years before she died, she recorded a seven minute appreciation of Clift’s career for TCM’s Star of the Month series. Most of those TCM Star of the Month shorts range between very good and wonderful, but if I had to choose, I’d say the one she did for Monty was the best of them all (with John Gielgud’s for Claude Rains in a very close second place). Alas, neither of those shorts is available anywhere that I can find. TCM’s website has Paul Newman’s appreciation of Elizabeth Taylor, but it’s merely workmanlike. At the end of Taylor’s appreciation of Clift, she says, in a voice choked with tears, “I miss Montgomery Clift. I miss talking with him and laughing with him  . . . He was so talented!  . . . and such a tragic figure! Oh, I loved him . . . !” She stops a bit short, composes herself and finishes with: “He was the best friend I ever had . . . and I think he’d say the same about me.” Often, when TCM shows a Clift picture — “From Here to Eternity” or “Raintree County,” for example — they run that video. I never liked Elizabeth Taylor more than I liked her in that little clip.

‘Rear Window’: ‘We’ve Become a Race of Peeping Toms’

Original Poster. This one is not nearly my favorite, but it's fun to count the willful inaccuracies in it.

Original Poster. A rather tawdry work, this poster, but it’s fun to count the willful inaccuracies in it. There are at least four mistakes — a maven will probably count more.

Since this week has been this summer’s hottest here in Manhattan (with dire predictions that the rest of the week will be even more sizzling), I thought that instead of ignoring the heat (a losing battle), I’d write about “Rear Window” (Paramount, 1954), which takes place in the middle of a New York heatwave. Nobody in “Rear Window” has air conditioning; I lived without it until the mid-1980s, though how I managed to survive those summers is a mystery I must never hope to solve. Moreover, everyone in Hitchcock’s picture lives with their windows wide open, without benefit of screens to keep the flies and mosquitoes out. New Yorkers in the 1950s must have been a much hardier lot than we’ve become in the years since.

There’s no consensus about which Alfred Hitchcock picture is his unrivalled masterpiece, though there’s plenty of agreement about which of them belong in the top four or five. I’m unprepared to say which Hitchcock picture I think is the best of the lot, but my favorite is unquestionably “Rear Window.” This surprises me somewhat, because as a rule I am highly allergic to its stammering, toupee-topped star. It drives me crazy when he’s called an “everyman.” If he’s Everyman, I’m content to be Nobody. In fairness, I must admit that, apart from a few missteps, he’s damned good in this one. In all of his reaction shots (that is, when he’s not talking), he’s exceptionally fine — really first rate. He speaks ironic and barbed dialogue badly, but he reacts to what he sees with intelligence and subtlety. “Rear Window” is more languorous than the average Hitchcock picture; the real suspense comes later than usual, but when it comes, it’s the most intense he ever concocted. (“Psycho” is scarier, but it’s less suspenseful than it is startling and terrifying.) The crime that sets “Rear Window” ‘s action in motion also comes late: almost thirty-two minutes into the picture. And Hitchcock, the old devil, doesn’t even show us the crime as it happens. Hitchcock is famous for his pictorial sense (show: don’t tell), but in this one, we hear the moment the crime is committed, and only half hear it at that. For much of the picture, we’re not even certain that any crime has occurred. If this is giving too much away, well then . . . oops. (It’s hot . . . ) If you haven’t already seen the picture, I can assure you I’ll divulge little else that is better not to know in advance. On the other hand, plot twists and surprises are a very small part of “Rear Window” ‘s bag of thrills: what makes it so enjoyable is not just its suspense (which, after all, is the opposite of surprise), but its setting, atmosphere and cast of supporting characters, few of whom have dialogue that we can hear. As so many critics have observed before now, “Rear Window” gives us the opportunity to spy on our neighbors with impunity — a consummation devoutly to be wished. Here’s how it opens. Dig that black cat, harbinger of troubles to come, that goes frisking by . . . Any picture that opens with a kittycat is already headed in the right direction, as far as I’m concerned.

Franz Waxman’s jazzy score that plays over the opening credits gives way to source music (what film scholars call “diegetic” music) one minute into the picture, when the radio announcer (Art Gilmore: the ubiquitous announcer/narrator throughout the 40s and 50s) interrupts with “Men? Are you over forty?” All of the scoring for the rest of picture is diegetic. The absence of music coming from an unidentified source (such as a studio orchestra) is not unique, but nevertheless quite rare in pictures, especially in the studio era. Hitchcock’s use of it reinforces the sense of verisimilitude in a near-subliminal manner; it also gives the action a lot of swing and verve. The scoring and sound effects are really wonderful in this picture. Hitchcock had a greater appreciation of the effectiveness of scoring than any other director I can think of. In fact, the only instances I can think of when the scoring of a Hitchcock picture was overly intrusive were in the pictures he made for his arch-nemesis, David O. Selznick, to whom he was under contract for seven fretful years. Hitch hated Selznick so much that he specifically altered Raymond Burr’s appearance, whitened his hair, gave him rimless glasses and costumed him to make him look like Selznick. By the time “Rear Window” was released, Hitch was hugely popular and an acknowledged master, with several more of his finest pictures and biggest hits still to come, while Selznick was the most despised man in Hollywood, swimming in debt, hopelessly addicted to pharmaceuticals (especially uppers) . . . and his career was over. But in the previous decade, during the years Hitch was under exclusive contract to him, Selznick — realizing he couldn’t bring Hitchcock to heel — had lent him out to other studios at exorbitant fees, paid him the minimum and pocketed the difference. Now that Hitch had finished out his contract and was riding high, he had no compunction about kicking the bastard while he was down. Besides, Hitch could never resist a good joke, especially if there was a good deal of cruelty in it: that’s what made him Alfred Hitchcock.

Raymond Burr, David Selznick: When 'Rear Window' was filmed, Selznick's hair was snow white.

Raymond Burr, David Selznick: When ‘Rear Window’ was filmed, Selznick’s hair was white.

“Miss Torso” (Georgine Darcy), the beautiful ballerina manqué who loses her bra while her back is to us, is only the first of many Peeping Tom pleasures to come: the picture is full of such jokes; the next one happens moments later — we see it from the rear window (as, indeed, we see everything throughout the movie), but the Peeping Tom aspect comes not at eye level, but from the skies above. Two bathing beauties appear on “tar beach” in their pajamas, lie down out of sight, then drape their pajamas over the brick wall that hides them from our view. No sooner have they disrobed, but a helicopter appears out of nowhere and hovers above. Peek-a-boo . . . ! A classic Hitchcock joke.

Rear Window 02
Rear Window 02a
Rear Window 02b

The basic premise of the picture is simple. After an accident lands globe-trotting photojournalist L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) in a wheelchair for seven stifling midsummer weeks, he is stuck in his West Village apartment with nothing to do but look out his back window at his neighbors.

Rear Window 03

The Incomparable Thelma Ritter and What’s-His-Nose. She: ‘Oh, dear, we’ve become a race of Peeping Toms . . .’

A salesman, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), lives directly across the courtyard from Jeff’s apartment. When his nagging, invalid wife (Irene Winston) disappears suddenly, Jeff begins to believe Thorwald has murdered her. Thorwald is guilty, all right, but how Jeff pursues his investigation from his wheelchair is diabolically entertaining — and often hilarious . . . that is, until the final reel, when it becomes almost unbearably suspenseful.

“Rear Window” was not shot on location in Greenwich Village, of course. It wasn’t even shot on a backlot — Hitchcock avoided shooting outdoors as much as possible, since he had no control over the weather and he was a director who always sought absolute control over everything, including the weather. (This, by the way, made him the worst type of director to be under contract to Selznick, who was a dictator in all aspects of every picture he produced: Selznick always insisted on complete control over everything, especially the final cut, but Hitch never shot anything more than he knew in advance would be needed (he storyboarded every shot): this made it impossible for Selznick to re-edit anything Hitch shot. The outtakes for “Rear Window,” for example, didn’t add up to an entire reel of film (i.e., less than twelve minutes).) Quite remarkably, “Rear Window” was shot indoors on a soundstage. Paramount didn’t have a soundstage high enough to accommodate the setting Hitch had in mind. J. Macmillan (“Mac”) Johnson, the art director on the picture went to Paramount’s art director, Henry Bumstead, with the problem. Bumstead said, “Why don’t you cut the floor out [between the first floor and the basement]?” “They won’t let me do that, will they?” “I bet they will for Hitchcock.” And that’s how the problem was solved: the set went all the way from the bottom of the basement to the lighting grids — the poor lighting technicians up top grilled all through the shoot, like steaks under a restaurant salamander.

Preliminary sketch of the floor plan.

Preliminary sketch of the floor plan.

Alfred Hitchcock on the set during filming.

Alfred Hitchcock on the set during filming.

Jeff’s second floor apartment was therefore on the original ground floor, while the first floor garden apartments were located in what had been the basement. It was the largest indoor set ever constructed at Paramount. While the picture was in production, it became a favorite point of interest for visiting dignitaries to come take a look at.

Jimmy Stewart with Grace Kelly, the best and coolest of the Hitchcock cool blondes.

What’s-His-Nose with Grace Kelly, the best and coolest of the Hitchcock cool blondes, in her best role. She was never better or more beautiful.

Before anything amiss happens, Hitchcock establishes the discomfort of a New York summer before air conditioning, and the boredom endured by an action photographer who has been sidelined from his profession — but without boring us for a moment. This short clip — about fourteen minutes in to the picture — is a perfect example of how Hitch diverts us, develops character and creates atmosphere. Notice the amusing diegetic music: “That’s Amore” on a street musician’s calliope . . . That slays me.

(And what, may I ask, is that fatso landlord (Alan Lee) doing wearing a black cardigan in the middle of a heatwave?)

Another way Hitch keeps us interested while he creates the crowded little world where mayhem will occur is in the all-important area of good casting. First, we get the always-welcome presence of Thelma Ritter as Stella, the insurance company nurse assigned to Jeff’s case. Next, we get Grace Kelly, as Lisa Fremont, Jeff’s dazzling girlfriend, who works in the high-end fashion business. Here’s how Hitch introduces us to her. It’s famous for being one of the great entrances in pictures.

Paradoxically, the more popular a picture from the studio era has been over the years, the worse condition it is likely to be in. This is because when a picture was a hit, more prints were struck from the original; each time the original was run through the copier, the previous coat of lacquer (used to protect the film stock) was removed, then replaced with another coat, which compromised the integrity of the original film stock. When a coat of lacquer was removed, it usually took portions of one or more color layers (most often, the yellow layer) with it. “Rear Window” had fallen into such terrible shape, it couldn’t be shown until technology had advanced far enough to be able to do something to repair it without running the risk of permanently damaging it. When “Rear Window” was shown on television in the 60s, for example, the entrance of Grace Kelly was in such terrible shape, they simply omitted it. On the existing print, she was Margaret Hamilton green.

Grace Kelly's entrance before restoration: the yellow layer was completely gone.

Green Goddess: Grace Kelly’s entrance before restoration.

Throughout the picture, Hitchcock diverts us with little vignettes of the goings-on in the various apartments that share the courtyard. With dazzling efficiency, Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes introduce us to the lives, loves, sorrows and joys of a wide variety of people. Perhaps the story I like best is that of poor Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn), who lives in the apartment immediately below Thorwald, the wife-murderer. Here’s our introduction to her:

Isn’t Judith Evelyn incredible? What a devastating, heartbreaking actress . . . ! I’ll never forget the first time I saw this scene in a movie theatre. It was back in 1983, when five Hitchcock pictures, which had been out of circulation for more than a decade, were restored, remastered and then released in theatres across the country. This Miss Lonelyhearts sequence is the essence of Hitchcock’s method in “Rear Window”: he allows us to peer in on a private moment that first surprises us, then makes us laugh (or, more probably, snicker) at the foolishness of the character we’re spying on . . . and finally, he surprises us again with a coda that makes us ashamed of our initial callousness. I remember how the whole audience (including me) laughed at the discovery that Miss Lonelyhearts had opened the door to an invisible gentleman caller, laughed again at the prim way she accepted a phantom peck on the cheek, and again at her elaborate politeness to her daydream date . . . and then the gasp of remorse when she could no longer keep up the fantasy, when she suddenly shivered, and in awkward little jerks, brought her head to rest on her forearms, and her shoulders continued to shake as she wept. Oh, the pity of it! I remember how I recoiled with shame and remorse for having laughed at that pathetic creature. The heartbreaking cruelty of that sequence strikes me as being some of the best filmmaking I’ve ever seen. Thirty years have passed since first I saw it and it still gets me every time. And you know, one iota too much or too little and it wouldn’t work at all. As a technical acting feat, it continues to stun me, even as it moves me. Judith Evelyn gives what can only be described as a silent movie performance, but without a trace of the silent era’s artificial Delsarte-style pantomime or histrionics, such as seen in this still from Lon Chaney’s “The Phantom of the Opera”:

Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin in full Delsarte mode . . .

Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin in full Delsarte mode . . .

Believe me, I’m not stretching a point: “Rear Window” terrified audiences in 1954 fully as much “The Phantom of the Opera” terrified audiences in 1925 — and nearly all the terror and suspense of “Rear Window” has no more dialogue than any silent picture. But there’s a big difference. When “Rear Window” was re-released in 1983 — twenty-nine years after its original run — it was still as terrifying and modern as when it was made. But in 1954, twenty-nine years after “The Phantom of the Opera” was released, the acting style, not excluding Chaney’s celebrated performance, made it seem two hundred years out of date. I was fortunate to see “The Phantom” in a grand old Santa Barbara movie palace four years ago, to the accompaniment of a mighty Wurlitzer: it was revelatory, hugely entertaining — and utterly silly. Yet here it is, almost sixty years after “Rear Window” was released, and watching Judith Evelyn’s performance is like watching documentary footage taken yesterday by a professional Peeping Tom. As for the rest of the picture, it’s just as modern as it ever was. Judith Evelyn is my favorite of the courtyard denizens, but the rest of them are all interesting and amusing in their own various ways.

After the night of the crime, Stella the nurse comes to give Jeff a rub-down and to fix him breakfast. From Stella’s first entrance early in the picture, she’s been saying she can smell trouble, so when Jeff tells her what he thinks has happened, she’s interested, but not surprised — nothing surprises her.

My God, just look at that old broad act . . . ! She is the best: she acted with everyone; she stole every scene she was ever in, but at the same time, she always made the people she worked with look good. If I had to choose, I’d probably have to say that her amazing performance in “Pickup on South Street” is her crowning achievement, but I don’t know if I’ve ever really, truly loved her more than in “Rear Window.” Everybody in the business loved Thelma Ritter, and no one — not Bette Davis, not Burt Lancaster, not anyone — ever minded getting upstaged by that diminutive Brooklyn dynamo.

A second crime is committed later in the picture, and again Hitch takes care not to let us see it happen. This time, we don’t even hear it happen. Instead, we learn of it when a neighbor screams upon discovering that a murder has been committed in the courtyard. It’s one of the most famous moments in the picture. The real suspense begins shortly after this scene, which makes this a fine place for me to leave off.