The Philadelphia Story (1940)

2015 #54
George Cukor | 108 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | U

The Philadelphia StoryKatharine Hepburn is the high society heiress getting re-married to someone dull from daddy’s company. Cary Grant is the husband from her tempestuous first marriage. When he turns up uninvited, screwball hijinks ensue.

There are even more thanks to James Stewart, the journalist covering the wedding who no one wants to be there, including himself. He won an Oscar for it, too, and well deserved it was.

The whole thing deserves such accolades, mind. It’s a hilarious, timeless classic, from an era when rich Americans still had class. I doubt they ever had what Hepburn, Grant and Stewart did, though.

5 out of 5

Rear Window (1954)

2014 #119
Alfred Hitchcock | 112 mins | Blu-ray | 1.66:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Rear WindowAdrenaline-addicted photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart) finds himself house- and wheelchair-bound during a New York heat wave. Whiling away time spying on his neighbours around their shared courtyard, he begins to suspect the man opposite, travelling salesman Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), has committed a murder and is trying to cover it up. Jeff persuades his high-society girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), visiting nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and police detective friend Doyle (Wendell Corey) to help investigate, but no hard evidence is forthcoming. Is Jefferies just bored and paranoid?

The end result of this, as a film, is a heady mix of suspicion, tension, voyeurism, and a light romantic subplot — Hitchcock through and through. It’s one of his best-regarded films, too: Vertigo may gain the Sight & Sound plaudits, but Rear Window is second only to Psycho on the IMDb Top 250; and, as I write, they sit precisely side by side, which on a list that long is tantamount to equality. (Not that S&S ignored Rear Window: it’s at #54 on their last list.)

At its most basic level, Rear Window is an incredibly effective thriller. The setup is intriguing, followed by a drip feed of facts and clues that invite us to play detective too, joining in with the characters’ speculation. Jeff believes Thorwald’s guilt almost unequivocally, but not all his friends and associates agree, which gives us permission to doubt the movie’s ostensible hero. Maybe this isn’t the story of a well-executed murder uncovered by a right-place-right-time layman, but instead the narrative of an adrenaline junkie driven half-mad by being cooped up at home? The final reveal might turn out to not be the truth of the crime, but the truth of Jeff’s paranoia. The romantic subplot, which pivots around the vastly differing lifestyle desires of the pair (Lisa loves being a fashionable New Yorker, Jeff desires to explore the dangerous parts of the world), only emphasises the notion that Jeff may just be unhappy being ‘settled’.

The titular portalHitchcock certainly didn’t consider Jeff to be an out-and-out hero, even aside from the very real possibility that he may be wrong — as he put it in one interview, “he’s really kind of a bastard.” After all, what right does he have to be poking his nose so thoroughly into other people’s business? Not only to spend his time spying on all and sundry, which in many respects is bad enough, but to then investigate their lives, their personal business, even break in to their homes. If he’s right, they’ve caught a murderer, and the methodology would be somewhat overlooked; if he’s wrong… well, who’s the criminal then?

So Jeff is a voyeur, a position that one can interpret the film as implicitly both condoning and condemning; perhaps not in equal measure, but there are pros and cons. Through his directorial choices, Hitchcock makes us into one as well. In a genius move, we’re limited to Jeff’s perspective: we only see inside his apartment and the view from his window, pretty much as he sees it. If he falls asleep, we most often fade to black. We don’t have the advantage of knowing much that he doesn’t (as is sometimes the case in this kind of movie), but we do know exactly what he does, no less. The only difference is we can consider the possibility that he’s fooling himself — we have slightly more objectivity. Nonetheless, placing us in his shoes so thoroughly makes us consider the feeling of being a voyeur too. For some it’s uncomfortable; for others, probably a thrill; for many, I suspect, it’s a bit of both.

All of this is made possible, in part, by the movie’s incredible set, which has to be one of the greatest ever constructed. To quote from IMDb’s trivia section:

The entire picture was shot on one set, which required months of planning and construction. The apartment-courtyard set… consisted of 31 apartments, eight of which were completely furnished… some of the buildings were the equivalent of five or six stories high. All the apartments in Thorwald’s building had electricity and running water, and could be lived in.

Rear Window courtyardClick to enlarge.

It’s an incredible toy box for Hitchcock to play in, and every technical element rallies to use it to its full effect. Virtually the entire movie is shot from within Jeff’s apartment, the camera panning from apartment window to apartment window as we follow Jeff’s voyeuristic gaze. (This choice has, decades later, led to at least one striking re-working.) In every film the camera’s lens is our window on the world, of course, but you rarely feel it so much as you do here. We share in Jeff’s frustration about not being able to get a closer, better look; at only being able to watch as his friends imperil themselves, so close — only the other side of the courtyard! — yet so far away. Nonetheless, he’s afforded something of the same perspective we get as film viewers: late in the film, as Lisa searches the suspect’s apartment, Jeff can see Thorwald returning home, but he has no way to warn his girlfriend — just like us in so many moments of movie suspense. (These days he’d just send her a text, of course. Though I suppose you could still milk that: He can’t handle predictive texting! Autocorrect’s got it all wrong! He’s dropped the phone! How did he load a Chinese keyboard?!)

There’s the sound design, too. The heat wave means windows are open, letting the sounds of parties and whatnot drift to all ears. It’s not as meaningful a commentary on the viewer’s experience, I don’t suppose, but it lends a veracity and sense of immersiveness to the situation, Suspense!further enhanced by the almost total lack of a score (only present in the opening few shots).

In crafting both a suspenseful thriller and a commentary on the audience’s perspective, Hitchcock created the kind of movie that can be appreciated by both the casual movie fan and the analytical cineaste alike. Whatever one’s reasons for appreciating Rear Window, it’s certainly a masterpiece.

5 out of 5

Rear Window was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.

After the Thin Man (1936)

2014 #124
W.S. Van Dyke | 108 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U

After the Thin ManImmediately after their New York Christmastime adventure in The Thin Man (the sequel’s title is very literal!), married detectives Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) are back home in San Francisco for New Year. Summoned to dinner by Nora’s stuffy aunt, it turns out Nora’s cousin’s rascally husband has gone missing and they want Nick to investigate. They find him easily, but he’s shortly murdered and our heroes are drawn into a web of conspiracies and deceptions.

For my money, After the Thin Man is a more successful venture than the first film, however good that was. From the start it has its focus in the right place: rather than a lengthy preamble with the supporting cast (as in the first film), here we begin with Nick and Nora arriving in San Francisco and teasing the horde of journalists that greet them. It takes a little while to actually get to the case they need to investigate, but that’s fine because it isn’t really the point — it’s the interactions, the humour and good-natured teasing, particularly between our wedded heroes, that are the films’ primary joy.

Nonetheless, I still found the case to be a more puzzling and intriguing one than the first film’s, though the subsequent fame of a supporting player — namely James Stewart, in just the second year of his career, looking young but sounding like he always would — might help some along in their deductions.

He won't stay thin if he's always in the fridge...There’s also an increased role for the couple’s dog, Asta, granted his own subplot as he has to fend off a philandering Scottie with intentions toward Mrs Asta. I make no apologies for preferring this over the previous film in part because there’s more amusing doggy action.

The original Thin Man may have attracted Oscar nominations and all that, but this first sequel clarifies, sharpens, and perfects the formula, placing more emphasis on the elements that worked so well and still presenting a mystery that’s at least as good as its predecessor.

5 out of 5

Read my reviews of all the Thin Man films on Thin Man Thursdays.

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

2010 #11
Otto Preminger | 154 mins | TV | 12

Anatomy of a Murder is a courtroom drama, adapted from a novel by a real-life defence attorney (“defense attorney”, I suppose), who in turn based his fiction on a real case. This background not only adds to the veracity of what we see, but likely explains the film’s style and structure.

The story is intensely procedural: we meet the lead character, defence attorney Paul Biegler (James Stewart), moments before he first learns of the case; leave the story almost immediately after the verdict; and in between, every single scene is bent to Biegler’s research and the trial itself. It’s so thorough, accurate and real that it is (reportedly) still used as a working example in law education. The complete lack of flashbacks or definitive truth is a perfectly judged part of this: we only know what Biegler would; only hear what would come up in trial; can only be as certain as he and the jury are of the motives and testimonies of all involved.

By the end we have a verdict from the trial, but Preminger leaves what happened slightly ambiguous. We know what everyone claims happened and the facts of what little evidence there is, but there’s still room for interpretation. Despite this, Preminger, Stewart and screenwriter Wendell Mayes have us rooting for the murderer and his attorney by the end: Biegler’s case may be dubious, the man he’s defending likely guilty, but the moment he casually hands over the law book that contains the case-turning precedent is almost victorious; and the moment where the final witness is cross-examined had me literally sitting forward in my seat (this, I should point out, is not a regular occurrence), just waiting for the irritatingly slick and cocksure A.D.A. to ask that one question, fatal to his prosecution… and when he finally does, and receives the answer that we know is inevitable — and, crucially and brilliantly, so does a suddenly-unobjecting Biegler — is triumphant. It’s a perfectly constructed climax to a perfectly constructed tale.

A lot of this support is down to Stewart’s performance — it feels wrong to be cheering the defence counsel of a murderer, even if he had a justifiable motive (which, remember, he may not have) — but we’d probably cheer Stewart on if he was the murderer. His Biegler is always in control, from investigation to courtroom, even when by rights he should be completely out of it. He manipulates the judge, the prosecution, the jury and the crowd to perfection; the viewer sits by his side — we know he’s playing them so we can revel in it — but, in turn, he manipulates us too, tempting us to his team — to laugh at his jokes, to support his case, to loathe the prosecution, even though they might be right. It’s a stellar lead performance.

But in the face of this no one drops a trick — the cast are without exception fabulous. Lee Remick is stunning as Laura Manion, a case of truly faultless casting as she plays every femme fatale-esque beat to perfection. From forthright temptress to harassed and frightened under the glare of cross examination, she is never less than wholly believable. Her performance is second only to Stewart’s by default. Then there’s George C. Scott as that A.D.A., pitched exactly right between slimy and righteous, quiet and controlled at all times, apparently aware that Biegler is playing everyone but unable to prevent it — and most certainly not above using equally underhand tactics.

I could just as well go on to praise Ben Gazzara, Arthur O’Connell, Eve Arden, Brooks West, even the smaller roles occupied by Kathryn Grant, Orson Bean, Murray Hamilton and others. Some criticise Joseph N. Welch’s judge, and it’s perhaps true that his performance is a little less refined than the others, but as a slightly eccentric judge he comes off fine. And to round things off, there’s an incredibly cute dog. Mayes’ screenplay is a gift to them all, finding room for character even within the ceaselessly procedural structure, using small dashes of dialogue or passing moments to reveal and deepen each one.

There are police and legal procedurals on TV all the time these days, but that doesn’t detract from the powerful screenplay, acting and direction here. Perhaps it’s the realism, perhaps it’s a collection of filmmakers at the top of their game, but even after innumerable 45- to 90-minute chunks of this kind of thing being served up several times a week, Preminger and co can keep it thoroughly engrossing for a full 160. I can’t think of a current TV show that could manage the same feat. Absolutely brilliant.

5 out of 5

Anatomy of a Murder placed 4th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2010, which can be read in full here.