`Rear Window' offers a look at Hitchcock's genius

FILM

May 14, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

A FI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring celebrates the 50th anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window with a weeklong engagement beginning with two showings today (6:40 p.m. and 9:10 p.m.). It's more than one of Hitchcock's greatest comedies of terrors. Set in a Greenwich Village apartment and its adjoining courtyards, this urban variation on the backyard-murder story is a once-over-lightly satire of the quality of modern life and a once-over-thoroughly exploration of the allure of voyeurism.

It revolves around L.B. Jeffries, nicknamed Jeff (James Stewart), a photojournalist laid up in a wheelchair with injuries he received while shooting the Indianapolis 500. To get his mind off the pain, the summer heat and his troubled romance with gorgeous fashion plate Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), he takes to looking out the window (eventually using his camera as a telescope) and immersing himself in the lives of his neighbors. The joke lies in how Jeff confronts the melange of sights and sounds, from a hefty female sculptor chiseling a figure with a hole in place of its stomach (she calls it "Hunger") and an unemployed composer battling the piano keys to such sitcom types as the ravenous newlyweds or the childless couple pampering the family dog.

Jeff siphons it all into his camera lens while carefully limiting what he allows to touch his heart. He's even hesitating to marry the warm, sweet and witty, altogether perfect Lisa because he's afraid that she wouldn't fit into his peripatetic career as a journalist. The only major character who's got it together is Jeff's nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter), who thinks that any analytic approach to life, and especially to love, is a lot of hooey: In her day, she says, you saw each other, you got excited, you got married.

The amorous sparring goes on until Jeff is roused from sleep one night by a scream and a crash; after that, he begins to notice strange comings and goings in the apartment of a traveling costume-jewelry salesman, Lars Thorvald (Raymond Burr), and his invalid wife (Irene Winston). Jeff can't come up with enough evidence to warrant a police search of the Thorvalds' apartment, so he and Lisa and Stella become an unlikely trio of sleuths. Their life-or-death adventures peel away his journalistic smugness and Lisa's haute couture (some of the movie's funniest moments are those in which Kelly performs derring-do in glamorous Edith Head get-ups).

By the time of Rear Window, Hitchcock had already refined his use of subjective camera - putting the audience in the mind of the characters. In this film he pushes the technique to new heights. As our heroes gibe and quibble over the suspected murder (which we never see), we take refuge in the anonymity and safe distance of Jeff's flattening long lens - until the terrifying moment when Thorvald stares right back. It's an astonishing visual and psychological coup, like those moments in "live" theater when the houselights are thrown up during a performance and the actors can stare at the theatergoers.

You leave Rear Window feeling titillated, horrified and then purged - and sublimely entertained.

Check www.AFI.com/Silver for updates; call 301-495-6720 for general information or 301-495-6700 for pre-recorded program information. Tickets: $8.50 for general admission, $7.50 for AFI members, students and seniors.

At the Charles

Cinema Sundays at the Charles has its own choice thriller this weekend: I'm Not Scared, an Italian film (directed by Gabrieles Salvatores) about a 9-year-old Sicilian boy who finds himself face-to-face with what looks like a wraith - but turns out to be an abducted boy hidden in a hole and chained to the ground. Coffee and bagels: 9:45 a.m. Show time: 10:35 a.m. For more information, go to www.cinemasundays.com.

Tomorrow at noon and Thursday at 9 p.m., the Charles' revival series offers Sawdust and Tinsel, Ingmar Bergman's 1953 film about the conflicts among a traveling-circus owner, his mistress, his wife and his mistress' lover. Not generally regarded as a masterpiece, it's long been a favorite of Bergman buffs like critic John Simon, who called it, "One of the extremely rare instances of a film's elements all blending perfectly." For more information, call 410-727-FILM or go to www. thecharles.com.

FilmTalk

Tomorrow's FilmTalk at the Enoch Pratt Free Library features King Vidor's 1931 screen version of Elmer Rice's 1929 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Street Scene - the epitome of the slice-of-life urban drama and, like Rear Window, a one-set movie given cinematic life by the eye of its director. The cast includes the magnificent Sylvia Sidney. The program starts at 10 a.m. in Wheeler Auditorium; coffee and tea will be available. For more information, call 410-276-7837 or 410-466-8341, or email fpct@fpct.org.

Film challenge

The Elevator Pitch film challenge has extended its deadline to Wednesday. Open to Washington, Maryland and Virginia residents, the contest invites filmmakers to create a 60-second video treatment illustrating their vision for a three- to five-minute short with an elevator somewhere near the center of it.

From the first pool of entrants the judges will pick 10 semi-finalists and give them 10 days to turn their pitch into a five-minute-or-under movie. The top prize is $2,000, to go toward future film production. The indie filmmaker-support group Independents, created by Urban Film Review and Red Bull Energy Drink, sponsors the challenge. For information, e-mail elevatorpitch2004@yahoo.com.

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