Posted by David Kalat on October 20, 2012
Last week I introduced the idea of chasing Hitchcock through movies he didn’t make. This week I’m exploring faux-Rear Windows.
We will find these are like weeds–they crop up whether you want them to or not, and they don’t seem to need much tending to flourish.
I’m going to take for granted that as regular visitors to TCM’s Movie Morlocks blog you are sufficiently acquainted with Rear Window that I don’t need to describe it and can just skip ahead to the wanna-bes and also-rans and trust that as we encounter similar characteristics you will naturally spot them.
With that in mind, our first port of call is 23 Paces to Baker Street, a real oddity. For a film that pointlessly (and possibly unintentionally) invokes Sherlock Holmes in the title, it has nothing at all to do with that famous sleuth but a fair bit of overlap with Rear Window, which came out about 2 years before 23 Paces.
Van Johnson plays a playwright, recently blinded, who has moved to London and become an angry recluse. In other words, we find a newly impaired protagonist struggling with seclusion and alienation, who hails from a profession for which an attentive and observant nature is a defining attribute, and who has way too much time on his hands. He happens to overhear a snippet of a conversation in a pub that he believes is evidence of some impending evil plot (a kidnapping perhaps), but can’t get the authorities to take his suspicions seriously, so he turns to a household servant and an estranged girlfriend to be his accomplices as he rallies an impromptu amateur investigation—only to find his inquiries make him and those he loves the targets of the danger he sought to root out.
OK, check, check, and check.
Before we go any further its worth taking a moment to note that the Hitchcock connections run deeper than mere surface similarities. The pedigree of this thing is shot through with Hitchcockian links: as Rear Window-y as the plot seems, it is ostensibly adapted from a novel by Philip Macdonald, who actually wrote for the real Hitch. Macdonald wrote the screenplay adaptation of Rebecca, and later wrote for Alfred Hitchcock Presents on television. And the female lead is none other than Vera Miles, the very actress that Hitchcock had once groomed as a replacement for Grace Kelly.
And this brings us to our first important conclusion: having a Hitchcockian plot and a bunch of Hitchcock collaborators is not enough to guarantee your movie is actually, y’know, suspenseful. 23 Paces is surprisingly and disappointingly slack, which is a shame because it has some delightfully weird digressions. For example, after overhearing the conversation, Van Johnson rushes back to his apartment in a tizzy to turn on his tape recorder and preserve an archival reproduction of the incriminating evidence, with Van performing both sides of the conversation.
It makes sense on a logical level—memory is fleeting and unreliable (as will become significant once we reach the bottom of this week’s post), and so preserving first impressions is a valid and conscientious way of combating that problem. And as our hero notes, his job is to be good at remembering dialogue, so there’s a plausible reason for him to be able to do this. But still. . . that’s just rationalizing something that, on screen, is just gloriously strange.
And opportunities for Hitchcockian set-pieces come up with such promise—such as the moment when the woman that Van Johnson has been pursuing appears to show up at his apartment, disguised as someone else, and he frantically sends his valet after her. An awkward chase scene ensues, as the inexperienced investigator tries to keep up with his quarry and figure out how to photograph her secretly. This is prime Hitchcock material, and in his hands could have turned into easily a half-hour long tour de force of suspense and nervous comedy. The makers of 23 Paces do a game job of it, but don’t stay committed to the material long enough before allowing the chase to peter out anticlimactically and return to the business-as-usual stuff of watching Van Johnson brood.
To some extent the problem sits at Van Johnson’s feet. I mean no disrespect to the man, who I’m sure has his fans and I bet some of them will weigh in below, but there’s a reason why this is one of the few sentences ever written that mentions Van Johnson and Jimmy Stewart in the same phrase. Johnson has obviously done a lot of research into how blind people look and behave—and at every moment he is on screen, that attention to detail is evident. Van Johnson never convinces as a blind playwright, but instead he is self-evidently a man determined to behave exactly the way a blind playwright does. By contrast, Jimmy Stewart doesn’t seem to have concerned himself with how a photojournalist comports himself, or how a person with a broken leg behaves—he just plays his character, who happens to be a photojournalist with a broken leg, and we accept him as such.
But I didn’t show up this week to slam Van Johnson. Why bother when I can wag my finger at director Henry Hathaway instead? Here’s a guy who’s been handed a Rear Window-alike script, and he has Vera Miles—he could work around Van Johnson’s more obtuse tendencies if he tried. This material is capable of being suspenseful and entertaining—there are scattershot moments of pulpy thrills in the film as it stands that just needed to be nurtured. This is the sign that what made Hitchcock what he was can’t be reduced down to the thriller stories he told—those things are a dime a dozen. If that’s all it takes then all the Hitchcock remakes over the years should have been masterpieces. Instead, what made Hitchcock great was his ability to bring all the tools of cinema to bear on these stories.
And that brings us to our second stopping point, The Window.
I spend so much time digging through the detritus of cinema, watching the forgotten and the unloved—and as such I spend most of my movie-watching life sitting through bad movies. But I do it because every once in a while I find a gem, a forgotten treasure, and it gives me such a thrill to “discover” these lost classics and to marvel that they ever got lost in the first place. How in the world is The Window so little known?
I’m curious to find out in this week’s comments thread how many of you have ever even seen it before—and for all of you who have not, drop everything right now and go get it. Use the bookmark feature on TCM’s schedule to email yourself an alert the next time it screens, go buy the Warner Archive DVD, maybe it’s on Netflix (I haven’t checked). Do something. Treat yourself.
So, it’s good—and by “good” I mean it’s a low-budget B-movie with modest resources that manages to transcend all those limitations and become scary, memorable, and richly textured. This is the movie equivalent of the $5 plonk wine you find in the grocery store that tastes like a $90 Turley.
It stars Bobby Driscoll, a child actor on loan from Disney, halfway between starring in Song of the South and Treasure Island, as the proverbial boy who cried wolf. One sweltering night, right after getting lectured by his exasperated parents (Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale) for telling tall tales, he tries to escape the summer heat by sleeping on the fire escape–where he just happens to spy his neighbors murdering a man!
As you might expect, his history of fabulism renders his eyewitness testimony suspect–and the poor kid can’t get anybody to take him seriously. That is, anybody but the next-door killers, who learn of his accusations and decide to take them very seriously indeed.
As the frame grabs above should indicate, part of the joy of this deliciously tight thriller is its visual panache–it was directed by Ted Tetzlaff, who had a reasonably impressive list of credits to his name as a director but was bext known as a cinematographer–among his credits as director of photography was Hitchcock’s Notorious.
One of Tetzlaff’s contributions was the single-minded commitment to presenting the film from a child’s perspective. This is worth noting, because not all movies about children are told from their viewpoint. In fact, I’d say most movie in which child protagonists are endangered are actually told from an adult point of view, with a child hero. But The Window is like Invaders From Mars (itself the work of a cinematographer-cum-director) in orienting the tale to the boy’s perspective–both narratively and visually.
In this case, any parallels we find with Rear Window can’t be explained as an attempt to mimic the success of a hit movie—The Window came out 5 years before Rear Window and therefore can’t be a knock-off. And we can’t say Rear Window took any inspiration from The Window, because it was a micro-budgeted supporting feature that few people even saw.
That being said, the parallels are genuine links—you see, both movies were adapted from Cornell Woolrich stories. As it happens, they were adapted from different Cornell Woolrich stories: The Window is derived from The Boy Cried Murder and Rear Window is derived from It Had to be Murder. It’s just that Woolrich apparently plagiarized himself from time to time and ended up writing two separate short stories so incredibly similar in concept and content that the movie versions of those two stories naturally seem like remakes of each other.
Most sane people would consider Disturbia to be self-evidently a remake of Rear Window, with some slight tweaks: a kid hero instead of an adult; he’s under house arrest instead of injured; the neighbor is a serial killer instead of a lonely one-off murderer. In fact, those slight tweaks were sufficient to allow a court ruling to decide that Disturbia did not infringe on the copyright of Cornell Woolrich’s original story and could exist as a movie without having to pay any royalties. And I think I agree—as we’ve already seen with The Window and 23 Paces to Baker Street, you can be thisclose to being a Rear Window copy without actually being one, and if they can stand alone as independent entities not beholden by license to Rear Window or Cornell Woolrich, then Disturbia has the same right.
I don’t actually have a lot to say about Disturbia. I think there probably is plenty to say about it—it’s just that I’m not the one to say it. It hails from an era of filmmaking that I find hard to talk about, and which I don’t easily engage with. Disturbia is a perfectly OK movie, and I wager millions more people are thrilled by it than will ever enjoy The Window—but I just don’t count myself in that number. The mechanics of Disturbia feel cynical and contrived to me—if The Window is the plonk that tastes like vintage wine, Disturbia is the craft beer that ends up tasting like Bud Light.
I’d like to be told why I’m wrong, though—so all you Disturbia fans this is an invitation. But before I hand the reins over to the commenters and see where this goes (my money’s on the Van Johnson fans over the Disturbia fans, by the way) I’ve got one last point to make.
In all of these stories so far we have a recurring pattern in which the paranoid voyeur hero has to struggle to convince others that what he has witnessed is evidence of a crime—and indeed these films dangle the possibility that the hero has allowed his imagination to run away with him and is misinterpreting the fragmentary evidence. Sure, the films don’t indulge that notion all that seriously, but they do so just enough to justify the authorities resisting the hero’s suspicions.
It’s easy enough to see why—if Jimmy Stewart calls his buddy Detective Doyle to say, “Hey, I think my neighbor killed his wife,” and then Doyle pops over and arrests Raymond Burr, the movie’s over in 5 minutes and everybody goes home. You need to drag things out a bit. (Rear Window also drags things out by digressing into the strained relationship between Stewart and Grace Kelly, and how their shared experience brings them together and enables him to finally make a commitment—23 Paces copies this idea in its own way, too. The Window substitutes the familiar strife between the boy and his weary parents but doesn’t need much of this because at 73 minutes it has less screen time to occupy).
I mention this fairly obvious point because there’s one last Rear Window-alike I want to cover and it takes the bold step of defying this narrative logic. The film is Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Some obvious Hitchcockian bona fides we can note upfront include the fact that Argento was often called “the Italian Hitchcock,” and he cultivated this comparison happily. Also, Bird features an (uncredited) appearance by Reggie Nalder, previously seen in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, here playing a sinister baddie once again.
And the setup starts off in familiar Rear Window territory—a depressed and alienated creative person in an environment where he is predisposed to be especially attentive. The specific iteration of this in this instance is: frustrated American novelist in Italy fighting off writer’s block. And he winds up witnessing a crime:
Well right away we can see something’s different. Not only is this stunningly realized and visually aggressive cinema, but unlike the other films we’ve been talking about there’s no doubt whatsoever that a crime has taken place. In fact, far from having to convince the police to take this seriously, our hero (Tony Musante) will be quickly seconded by the cops as an unwilling surrogate investigator. He doesn’t pursue this case because he wants to—he does it because he has to.
And so the film actually becomes a runaround, a shaggy dog story as a bunch of stuff happens that doesn’t really move the plot forward, until our hero starts to remember the details more clearly and coheres a picture of what he really witnessed.
So why do I persist in seeing it as Rear Window descendant? Well, because despite this fundamental change to the premise, the actual dynamics of how the story then works follow the Rear Window paradigm.
In all of these films, the main character starts off with a single puzzle piece, and spends the rest of the movie trying to assemble enough other puzzle pieces to figure out what’s going on. While Bird with the Crystal Plumage gives the hero and the audience something more of a headstart in terms of knowing that a dangerous criminal is at large, Musante still needs the better part of 2 hours to make sense of what he saw in that glass house.
Back in 23 Paces we had the absurd sight of Van Johnson acting out what he overheard, but that had a rock solid logic to it: memories fade. Whatever he overheard in that one fleeting instant is disintegrating with time, and his audio recording at least preserves his memory of it to some extent. In Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Tony Musante has no effective way to export his memory because he can’t remember it correctly. And here’s where Bird is weirdest: instead of taking place in our universe, where memories degrade with time, it takes place in some alternate dimension where memories improve the more you obsess over them—by the end of the movie, he is finally able to crack that “a ha!” moment and identify what he’s been trying to remember all along. This is just plain nuts, but only if you think about it literally—and if you like your movies to make literal sense then you’re never going to enjoy an Argento movie and shouldn’t even try.
Instead what we get with Bird with the Crystal Plumage is a sort of metaphor for psychoanalysis: Musante has a problem, and the solution to that problem is rooted in his past and accessible only through his mind and memories. Instead of laying on a couch and talking he faffs around getting variously attacked by assassins and otherwise menaced, but the effect is the same: he gains insight into his mind and unlocks his hidden memories, resolving his present day situation. It’s no sillier an approach to psychoanalysis than Hitchcock’s own take on it in Spellbound.
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