Friday, December 27, 2019

Follow Me Quietly (1949)

Anatomy of a B movie

What is a B movie? Books have been written about it, duels have been fought over it. No, not really but you know what I mean. Discussions about the subject can get incredibly heated, one thing leads to another and before you know it people start throwing squeaky little toys at each other. And then it all end in blood and tears. As it is still Christmas and we don’t want that, I’ll try to spare you the pain and come up with something akin to a classification. You’re welcome. I know you’ve been waiting for this with bated breath for eons.

The simplest definition is that B movies were cannon fodder to fill the bottom half of a double bill. They used second (or third and fourth) tier talent, had starvation budgets, barebones sets, crackpot plots, five-day shooting schedules and frequently barely cracked an hour in running time. There’s something to be said for brevity. No detours, no side streets, just a step into the gutter where the sidewalk ends. 

Most major studios employed B units and if a hopeful couldn’t make it there, there was always the Gower Gulch where you went to avoid an eviction notice or if the hamburger joint at the corner didn’t need a dishwasher. Perpetually cash-strapped Poverty Row studios provided a refuge for filmmakers who had fallen from grace (Edgar Ulmer) or filmmakers who never got anywhere because they were a dead duck from the get-go (W. Lee Wilder). PR was also the last stop before the glue factory for actors whose star had crashed and burned. The story of Bela Lugosi who had to slum it out of necessity in Ed Wood productions late in his career is one of the most tragic.

But really, it isn’t quite so straightforward and artless as all that. What the “B hive” provided, more often than not unintentionally, was a canvas for pioneering and highly creative directors and cinematographers. It was a training ground for talent on the rise, like the incredibly gifted Anthony Mann who would go on to bigger and better things after his stint at various lower-echelon studios. 

B Units were a sandbox for innovation. Very often low budget, low oversight and little respect gave the filmmakers a certain artistic freedom, because the studios - and the PCA - wouldn't keep very tight control on a production of such relative unimportance. When low-rent quickie assignments were put into the hands of talented filmmakers, the results were quite often stunning, to probably everybody’s surprise. If no one in the head office cared about the finished product, it stood to reason, then you could do what you wanted so long as you came in on time and on budget. In this anything goes environment where less money equaled less oversight, Noir grew unimpeded by the usual restrictions on style, content and moral turpitude. 
It just goes to show that the aesthetics and artistry of a movie do not in the least have to be constrained by a low budget and more importantly low-budget does not have to be an excuse for subpar filmmaking.

B movies may not have any pretensions at high art but that doesn’t mean they deserve the Golden Turkey Award. B is not a quality judgment but a well-defined production level. In his seminal article Notes on Film Noir Paul Schrader puts the disdain that can often be found for B movies down to “economic snobbery…high-budget trash is considered more worthy of attention than low-budget trash.” Spot on. Those little films were never critical darlings which is another notch in their favor in my book.

Maybe many Bs were assembly-line products but their directors could be counted on for efficiency, economy and a bit of polish on a tight allowance. They were able to bring the movie in on schedule and on budget. That alone required extraordinary technical skill. And, if the stars were aligned right, these professionals brought style and energy to a product that was expected to have absolutely none.

The sparseness of the budget forced the producers to use low-key lighting and darkness to hide the lack of sets and a lavish decor, camouflaging the paucity of the production values. Quite often the distinct Noir aesthetics derived directly from simple financial constraints, but a $5 electricity bill was a nice side-effect. 
Grand historical epics depended on big budgets for optimal effect, crime dramas and Noirs depended on the tight disciplining constraints of small ones.

Arthur Lyons states in his book Death on the Cheap that 
“Film noir was made to order for the Bs…because it required less lighting and smaller casts and usually entailed story lines that required limited-scale sets”. 
Noir is by definition a style that epitomizes this phenomenon. B is the spiritual home of Noir. A shadow-filled world for shady characters living in seedy environs just one step away from the gutter. 

At its best the B Hive meant narrative economy and efficient picture-making. Sure, plots were often abstruse, relying heavily on contrivances and coincidences piled on top of one another. Logic often fell by the wayside and the producers expected the audience to swallow six impossible things before breakfast. B has its own rules and rationality doesn’t necessarily come into it.

Still, occasionally these coincidences are so spectacular that the mind boggles. They can jeopardize a B movie’s credibility and in the hands of an incompetent hack they could drive a movie off the cliff. In the hands of an assured director they were shortcuts that allowed a whole lot of story to be crammed into a few reels. Bs had to have an uncomplicated shorthand. Denied big budgets or luxurious running times they had to kickstart their stories straight into high gear. There’s just so much time for character development and navel-gazing when you only have 60 minutes. Messages are happily left to Western Union.

If the viewer thinks these structural weaknesses threaten plausibility, he’d be right…but shouldn’t watch a B movie. Just as in melodrama, these “weaknesses” are features, not flaws. If it’s done smoothly and with panache and style, you’ll hardly notice and there’s no reason why you should care. For me the no-frills approach works perfectly fine.

In the forties and fifties studios cranked out a seemingly unending series of cheapos to fill out the bottom of double bills. B movies, quite frankly, were the backbone of Hollywood. The town survived on a steady output of these lesser vehicles. While many of these one-hour throwaway products were instantly forgettable, occasionally you make a wonderful flea market find.

Follow Me Quietly was made by RKO, the studio that - much more than any other of the Big Five studios - relied on B pictures to fill its coffers, especially from the 40s on. The studio churned out Western, adventure and crime serials by the bucketload. 

1946 had been an extremely profitable year for RKO but it would soon suffer setbacks. Richard B. Jewell writes in RKO Radio Pictures: A Titan is Born that “executive turnover was in fact the distinguishing feature of [RKO’s] twenty-nine year existence.... RKO’s management was never stable.” 

In 1948 aviation millionaire/tycoon Howard Hughes - who could charitably be described as eccentric - took over RKO, made himself head honcho and troubles began almost immediately. As studio boss his overpowering ego could never resist meddling in production matters, often demanding extensive changes to scripts. He unfortunately kept the directors he employed on a very short leash instead of trusting them to do their jobs right. He routinely held up promising films for months and even years with re-writes, re-shoots and re-edits causing interminable delays and skyrocketing production costs which drastically affected the studio’s bottom line. During his 7-year tenure, he put the studio through the meat grinder and it suffered massive financial losses due to his controlling and volatile management style. The man was a one-man wrecking crew. But despite this predilection for tampering RKO was able to churn out one good Noir after another, at least for a while, many of them becoming (minor) classics, such as On Dangerous Grounds, Out of the Past, Cry Danger and The Narrow Margin. It was RKO’s B unit that held things together and turned a profit. In the long run nothing though could stop the studio’s steady decline. Hughes was responsible for several expensive flops and as a consequence by the mid-50s RKO was in dire financial strains closing shop in 1957.

It was RKO that gave director Richard Fleischer his start. If we were to ask a group of passionate Film Noir fans to come up with a list of their favorite Noir directors, Fleischer likely wouldn’t be on that list. For no discernible reason Fleischer isn’t as revered as other denizens of Dark City, such as Mann, Ray, Dmytryk, Tourneur, Siodmak, Feist, Ulmer, many of them now considered heavyweights who continue to be celebrated and studied. Fleischer though is responsible for such entertaining time wasters as Bodyguard, The Clay Pigeon and Trapped, and genuine B Noir classics as Armored Car Robbery and The Narrow Margin
Jason Ney called him “Noir’s forgotten man” in his Noir City Magazine article Richard Fleischer’s RKO years. Fleischer’s directorial career spanned almost 50 years, and maybe it is that he never seemed to have a distinctive signature or that his later A pictures overshadow his early Noir efforts that are worth a second look and more recognition. Fleischer was a solid Noir director who showed occasional flashes of utter brilliance.

He himself took the same attitude towards his B pictures as many of his critics. After the success of The Narrow Margin, Fleischer moved on to As and never looked back. In his memoir he shrugs his early efforts off dismissively with a sentence or two. He really shouldn’t have, and his work demonstrates that he could really deliver the goods.

Follow Me Quietly is a taut economical one-hour police procedural that’s well-paced and nicely photographed. Good old Bosley played the Grinch again, calling the movie 
“... an utterly senseless little thriller is patently nothing more than a convenient one-hour time-killer between performances of the eight-act vaudeville bill.” 
I’m beginning to think Crowther hating a movie should be taken as a ringing endorsement.

Obsessed cop Lt. Harry Grant (William Lundigan) has been hot on the trail of an elusive serial killer known only as The Judge for months without being able to nail him down while the bodies keep piling up. The Judge strangles his victims randomly on rainy nights. He’s motivated by some mixed-up religious sense of purity and sin, punishing “sinners” and meting out justice. Grant’s own lack of success is driving him crazy. The Judge seems to stay just one step ahead of his investigation. Grant is receiving “help” in the shape of Ann Gorman (Dorothy Patrick), intrepid girl reporter for a muck-racking tabloid rag that brings you all the news that’s not fit to print. She’s a pest - though a charming one - and sticks to him like glue which isn’t alleviating his headache.
This movie holds a claim to originality because Grant has the imaginative and slightly creepy idea to construct a life-size faceless dummy of the killer based on the evidence they got, instead of sending out routine bulletin information. It’s an early version of psychological profiling. Through that the cops get a better idea of his size and shape. They use the dummy in the lineup room for witness recognition and take photos of it to show to witnesses. On a side-note, the French movie title is Assassin sans visage, a much more apt title than the original.

If we think now the logic of this plot device is bewildering and hokey we’d be right. 
“Why would a dummy be any better than a sketch, especially when in many instances they’re just using pictures of it to try to identify the killer?” 
asks Nighthawk quite rightfully in his Noir of the Week review of the film. The entire setup doesn’t bear close inspection. But who’s to complain? Not us B movie lovers.

Fleischer is able to sell this setup as a serious idea and not a hammy plot device and I think he succeeds. If the actors ride roughshod over script absurdities with absolute seriousness and play a goofy script with heartfelt conviction, it usually works.

Or maybe it’s just that my tolerance level for this kind of stuff is very high. I take my doses of B Noir intravenously.

The scenes with the dummy are so effective because they are incredibly creepy even if they should be silly. The dummy is turned into an icon of evil. In the lineup room a sole spotlight illuminates the back of the dummy and we hear a voice asking The Judge questions about his motives. Late at night in his office where he’s working overtime Grant talks to the dummy, who sits with his back to him, pouring out all his frustration with his inability to successfully catch him. Again the scene is not silly, instead it is very eerie and tense. It gets even more unsettling when the dummy - after Grant has left - gets up and leaves! The Judge has sneaked into the police station. It’s never quite clear if this is actually happening in reality or if the audience is supposed to take it metaphorically because Grant is on the verge of cracking as his partner tells him.

To quote Nighthawk again: 
“Fleischer sells the seriousness of this scene, which successfully walks the line between disturbing and unintentionally ridiculous, through creative camerawork and stark lighting on the dummy.”
The reason why the entire movie works is because of the performances of the lead actors who have great chemistry and bring a lot of energy to their performances. Lundigan is a capable and handsome lead in these second-string features and Patrick in a rare lead role shows spunk. Plus we get good supporting performances, especially by Jeff Corey - who could steal the thunder from anybody - as Grant’s sidekick Sgt. Collins.

From the beginning the relationship between Grant and Ann is more flirty than professional. The lady is quite tenacious and single-minded in her quest to get what she wants: the inside scoop on a story that would be the making of her as a journalist. She demonstrates her determination by breaking into Harry's apartment at night to wait for him on his sofa, wearing a snazzy evening dress. Well hello…

In the end it is her knowledge of pulp magazines that gives Grant the clue to latch on to the mysterious killer who turns out to be a rather mousy Joe Schmo and not a brilliant criminal madman. I’ve seen a few reviews stating that this somehow ruins the movie. I really don’t know why. If I know my serial killers - and granted my knowledge on the subject may be a bit spotty - my guess is that this is much closer to the truth. Fleischer would later direct the utterly chilling 10 Rillington Place, based on the real life case of John Reginald Christie, a nondescript and unassuming man who nevertheless did away with at least eight people. The face of evil is commonplace and ordinary, easily able to blend into a crowd and hide in plain sight.

As opposed to the current strain of serial killer movies of the last three or four decades which portray the killers as brilliant, charming but tortured prodigies who almost invite the audience to identify with them, Follow Me Quietly does not delve into the workings of the criminal mind. Just as in He Walked By Night (which according to Eddie Muller on Noir Alley inspired Quietly), we never find out what makes The Judge tick. His motives, as his face, are always in the dark and he remains a cypher. We are in a B quickie and the only explanation we get is from Sgt. Collins: 
“I used to know a guy who cut the tails off of cats. He didn’t like cats. The Judge cuts the air out of people. I guess he don’t like people.” 
There’s no rational to his killings and the movie doesn’t even try to explain his psyche. Why does The Judge hate “sinners”? Why does he hate rain? Why does he kill? Damned if I know, and I’m sure damned if the producers knew.

Is the movie Noir? The jury is still out on this one. I’d say not really. It’s a police procedural with Noirish elements. It certainly has style to spare and visually fits the bill. We get atmospheric deep, dark shadows, canted angle shots and that almost (pseudo)Freudian attachment to water found in a lot in Noirs. It creates an aura of menace and mystery.

The Judge only strikes on rainy nights, Grant works through the night with a torrential downpour outside, in the final scene The Judge freaks out at the sight of water dripping like rain from holes shot in a pipe by a police machine gun.
The opening scene shows us Ann’s gams as she paces nervously back and forth on a rain-soaked street in front of a grubby dive while waiting for her mark Grant. In a see-through rain coat (slinky!) reminiscent of Joan Bennett’s in Scarlet Street nevertheless. She flicks her cigarette away in a less than classy gesture and enters the dive. The audience could be forgiven for mistaking her for a dubious dame, but we’d be proven wrong.

The Judge personifies one aspect of Noir, the randomness of fate and death. The people he kills are clearly not evil - despite his declarations to the contrary - and he chooses his victims arbitrarily. He doesn’t discriminate by sex, social station, race or political affiliation. Pure dumb luck decides who lives or dies.

The most damning evidence against Quietly as a full-blown Noir though is that alienation, loneliness, darkness and desperate choices Noir characters have to make are completely absent. The movie is very lighthearted despite the subject matter and both main characters are wholesome. Grant’s and Ann’s relationship is sexy and I love their banter but it is without any dark undercurrents.

I’ve seen a few reviews remarking on the cop/serial killer mirror image subtext. No doubt this notion is in the script which several times identifies Grant and The Judge as two of a kind in their obsessiveness. Grant even once states: “I'm too restless, the rain makes me nervous.” To which his partner replies: “You're getting more like The Judge every day." 

But it is not something that clean-cut Lundigan is capable of selling completely, as Eddie Muller points out in his Noir Alley intro. Grant may be desperate to catch the killer but he’s no defective detective. He’s neither neurotic nor is he close to losing his marbles over an obsession with a stiff like Lt. McPherson. The Noir (anti)hero usually has more traumas than an ER, but Grant is too well-adjusted for that. The inner turmoil and soul-destroying agony eating up the cop is not there. Robert Ryan, Dana Andrews or even Lawrence Tierney would have supplied Grant with an extra layer of twitchy hauntedness. 

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what we call these movies as long as they entertain. One thing is certain, so often these cheap little films are better than they have any right to be. There’s poetry to be found on the trash heap.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Sunshine Blogger Award

Paul Batters from Silver Screen Classics has nominated me for the Sunshine Blogger Award. A big thanks to Paul whose writing I very much respect. 

Here are the rules for the Sunshine Blogger Award.
      1. Thank the person who nominated you and provide a link to their blog.
      2. Answer the eleven questions from the blogger who nominated you.
      3. Nominate eleven bloggers.
      4. Create eleven new questions for your nominees to answer.

Here are my answers to Paul's question.
  1. Which actor or actress who hasn’t received an Oscar do you think deserves one? And for what film?
Edward G. Robinson. With his looks an unlikely box office draw, he carved out a niche for himself in Hollywood and always made his presence felt. He could elevate any movie even if the material was beneath him.
He was never even nominated but should have been, at least for The Sea Wolf, Double Indemnity, Key Largo and Scarlet Street.

  1. Who is your favorite child actor and name a film they were in which you love.
First, a confession. I hate children in movies. Despicable little twerps. They’re supposed to add the human element, cute and cuddly, but are usually simply precautious, all-knowing, smug, cloying and as such annoying. 
I make an exception for Gigi Perreau in Has Anybody Seen My Gal? She was charming and is one of the few children in films I did not actively want to send to have a lobotomy.

  1. If a biopic was made of you during the classic film era (1920s to 1960s), who would you like to play you and why?
Lauren Bacall ca. 1946. The Look. Nuff said.

  1. Which famous starry couple (of any time and place) would you want as neighbors? 
Reel couple: Nick and Nora. Perpetually sloshed and living the high life, they solve mysteries while making marriage look like fun. They not only love each other, but like each other. 
Real couple: Frank and Ava, though their constant loud fights probably would get on the neighbors’s nerves very quickly. But the parties at Sinatra’s Twin Palms Estate in Palm Springs must have been fun. Plus I'd get the Rat Pack.

  1. Of all the classic monsters, which one do you feel associated with and why?
Unfortunately I have to skip this question. I’m not really into horror/monster movies and can’t think of one.

  1. Is there a classic era actor/actress that you have a crush on?
One?? Darling, what kind of a question is that? What can I say, my heart is big and I have a one-track mind. 
Here it goes: Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Paul Newman, Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Richard Widmark (not as Tommy Udo though), Robert Stack, William Holden, Stanley Baker, Clint Eastwood, Rory Calhoun, Steve Cochran, Jason Statham (have to include a modern one) and so many more.
Plus a one-off: Groucho Marx, just for his snarky zingers.

  1. If there was ONE actor or actress (living or deceased) whom you could interview for your blog, who would it be and why would you choose that person?
I’m not sure it’s just one but I would love to talk to actors and directors who worked primarily for Poverty Row studios. Nobody set out to work for PR, but many started out there and got stuck. PR meant crackpot plots, haphazardly constructed cardboard sets, no-name actors. Yet these cinematic slums produced many fine pictures. Film critic Dave Kehr wrote in 1990: “A director on Poverty Row labored on films in the absolute certainty that no film critic would see them, no sophisticated public would encounter them, and no financial reward whatever would accrue to their auteurs.” No glory at all, yet they soldiered on.

Peggy Cummins of Gun Crazy fame is the one I’d like to talk to most. Her career in Hollywood unfortunately never took off, but she was in what is now considered one of PR’s greatest classics. When it came out, literally nobody saw the movie. She died in 2017 and was a guest at several Noir festivals where - very belatedly - she finally got at least some recognition. I’d love to know how it was working on the set with Joseph H. Lewis and how it felt to only get recognition decades later.

  1. Which film character’s closet would you love to raid? 
The question is more, which closet would I not raid. Clothes were fantastic from the 30s to the mid-60s. Grace Kelly’s entire wardrobe in To Catch a Thief and Rear Window, Eleanor Parker’s dresses in The Naked Jungle, Jane Russell’s wardrobe in His Kind of Woman. Kay Francis wore a lot of fab outfits in the 30s. Plus Gilda’s and Kitty Collins’s black dresses.

  1. Marry, Kiss, or Kill: Which film character would you marry, which would you share a hot, pre-code kiss with, and which would you kill like a noir anti-hero or villain(ess) with a score to settle? (And why did you pick these 3?) 
Marry, that’s not so easy because a lot of my crushes are not the marrying kind, especially the Noir (anti)heroes. I’ll probably go with one of those upright and stalwart Western heroes. John Wayne's character(s) in Ford's Cavalry Trilogy.
Hot pre-Code kiss: the obvious choice, Clark Gable. But then there’s always Warren William (must be pre-Code William though), the man we hate to love.
Kill: Many villains are bad but also very entertaining, so we need them alive. It would have to be someone truly despicable. I go with Noah Cross from Chinatown.

  1. Of all the classic film studios, which is your favorite and why?
Hard to say. I think I’ll differentiate by genres. For Noir, RKO was great though Howard Hughes did his damnedest to drive the studio into the ground and in the end succeeded. For my second favorite genre - Westerns - Universal International is hard to beat. And Warner Brothers for their fantastic gangster movies.

  1. Choose a film where you would love to change the ending. Explain what that change would be and why you would do it. 
There are a number of Noirs/crime films out there that frustrate with their code-imposed endings to the point of inducing anger simply because the ending doesn’t at all fit the tone of the movie. Sometimes these tacked-on happy endings are so soapy that they almost drive the movie off the cliff. 
Two I can think of are Tomorrow Is Another Day (1951) and The Hunted (1948). Both clearly cried out for a downbeat ending but the studio tacked on a happy one. Both would be minor classics with the bleak vision intact.

The 11 Nominees for the Sunshine Blogger Award are:

Many people already have been nominated, so I won’t nominate them again. A few on the list unfortunately don’t seem to update their blogs anymore (or not very often) but they belong on my list nevertheless.

Here are my 11 questions for the bloggers (not all original).
  1. Is there a movie that didn’t have a sequel but cried out for one?
  2. Who is your favorite movie villain of all times?
  3. Which movie do you think is better than the book it’s based on?
  4. If you could live in a movie, which one would it be?
  5. Dream date with a classic movie star?
  6. Worst miscasting in Hollywood history?
  7. Favorite quote from any movie.
  8. Which film character’s closet would you raid?
  9. Your favorite guilty pleasure movie?
  10. You can hop on a time machine, which era/decade would you go to? And would you go even if there’s only a 50/50 chance of coming back?
  11. What classic song/soundtrack/theme would be the soundtrack of your life?

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Hell Bound (1957)

The Times They Are a-Changing.

Noir's thorny Road to Perdition was a long and complicated one. Noir has always been a slippery concept and defining it can be very problematic, after all it was a label retrospectively applied. The nonexistence of Noir as a production category during its heyday obviously problematizes the history of the genre.  When did it begin and what was its swan song? To me the general consensus of it lasting from 1941-1958 is capricious. 

We could argue now that, like Elvis, Noir never really died. Foster Hirsch does exactly that in his book Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir (p.15 et al.). In the same vein C. Jerry Kutner maintains in his article Beyond the Golden Age: Film Noir Since the ’50s for Bright Lights Journal that “there is no ‘neo-noir’, there is no ‘proto-noir’, there is only Noir”. If we see Noir as a worldview, a mood, a tone and a general feeling of malaise while disregarding the historical context I’d agree with this assessment. As long as there is life on this planet, there will be existential dread, doom, paranoia, obsessive love and despair. 

It is a different matter when we talk about the Classic Noir cycle. By the late 50s Noir's halcyon days were over and the genre was without a doubt coming to a fork in the road. It’s very hard to nail down exactly when Classic Noir was laid to rest, if it was at all. Some maintain it breathed its last in 1958 in a little Mexican border town helped along by a fat corrupt sheriff, others say it was blown to smithereens in a refinery explosion outside New York in 1959. My brilliant academic research unearthed conclusive evidence for a different scenario (in other words, I had this epiphany after an all-night bender. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it). The last vestiges of Classic Noir hemorrhaged to death one night in the shower of a run-down motel room, its sins washed down the drain forever. We all know the culprit and he can deny the accusations till the cows come home, we know better.

There have been quite a few reported sightings during the 60s and every time people thought they’d buried Noir, every time the coffin stayed empty. But by now Noir’s trajectory had changed. Noir tropes mean nothing when they stray too far from their original message. Noir has always been more than just men in fedoras and dames in fabulous outfits. It was a reflection of its time and as such it is hard to replicate because the historical and societal circumstances that made it possible are not present anymore (WWII and its lingering aftereffects, returning veterans, postwar disillusionment, HUAC, the A bomb and McCarthyism). Nothing happens in a vacuum. Classic Noir loses its soul when it is removed from its time and place in history, and certain historical events are always at the very least subtext in Classic Noir. Paul Schrader wrote in his seminal article Notes on Film Noir
“You can't pull a style out from its roots and the roots of Film Noir are World War II, German Expressionism, Existentialism and Freud as they were filtered into pop culture."
Noir needed to be slyly subversive to get its point across. It needed the Code and got its distinctive look and sound when it was skirting censorship rules. By the late 50s the Production Code was eroding, the once-powerful studio system was coming apart at the seams. Independent Producers gained hold and they could - just like Poverty Row Studios - much more easily challenge taboo subjects, because they were less under the microscope of scrutiny by the guardians of morality. Their under-the-radar B-ness and an anything-goes approach often eluded the censors. At the end of the cycle, Noir’s DNA was mutating.

On her fabulous website The Last Drive In Jo Gabriel writes in her article Film Noir: Transgression Into the Cultural Cinematic Gutter
“Film Noir had an inevitable trajectory…the eccentric and often gutsy style of Film Noir had nowhere else to go…but to reach for even more off-beat, deviant, endlessly risky and taboo oriented set of narratives found in the subversive and exploitative cult films of the mid to late 50s through the 60s and into the early 70s.”
Spot on. My friend Joe over at Noirsville phrased it like this: 
“With nothing really giving some of these directors and producers some parameters, or putting the brakes on, there was no speed limit, they just shot past the limits of contemporary common sense, cultural acceptability and good taste.” 
Films that went too far showing violence would then be classified as horror or thriller, those that went too far depicting sex, drugs and torture were being lumped together as Exploitation.
What had happened? The 60s happened, but that is a discussion I will bore you with another time, kids.

As of now it is 1957 and Hell Bound is full of pulpy seedy goodness. Made on a quarter, if not a dime, it has everything a proper B Noir should have. Sexy dames, suggestive situations, good dialogue, harsh violence and a soundtrack by Les Baxter. 

Clocking in at under 70 minutes, this low-renter doesn’t overstay its welcome. Director William J. Hole, whose career was largely an undistinguished one, worked almost exclusively in television and Hell Bound was his only Noir. It’s a lurid wallow in the lower depths of American life. So often these little cheapos are better than they have any right to be. Low budget is not a crime until it meets low scriptwriting, bad acting and awful dialogue. And thankfully we don’t get that here.

John Russell plays ruthless Jordan, the mastermind of a surplus narcotics heist worth $2 million from a cargo ship. His plan is as follows: the cargo ship picks up a bogus seaman found adrift as the sole “survivor” of a bogus fishing boat accident. The ship has to be put under quarantine, the seaman steals the drugs and puts them in the coat pocket of an on-the-take diabetic health inspector called in to check up on the “seaman”. A phony nurse, Russell’s girlfriend Jan (Margo Woode), takes the inspector’s coat off the ship and everyone’s happy.

Russell just needs a money man to bankroll the operation and finds him in crime boss Harry Quantro (Frank Fenton). He pitches the idea to him, via “infomercial”. It is a strange way to open a movie, but stay with it. Quantro isn’t averse, he is willing to stake the heist under the condition that his girlfriend Paula (June Blair) - who he doesn’t keep around for her brilliant conversation - plays the nurse who will get the drugs off the ship. Quantro needs to keep the tabs on Jordan. The plan goes sideways when Paula genuinely falls in love with unwitting ambulance driver Eddie Mason (a very young Stuart Whitman).

The 40s had been a world of perpetual night where evil lurked in every shadow and around every corner. Maybe it was that by the mid-50s Noir had become aware of itself as an art form, and self-consciously so, that the decade gave way to naturalistic lighting and gritty realism. The cinematography by Carl Guthrie is very good, but it is lacking the characteristic Expressionist play of light and shadows. Often shot in a rather flat style, on the whole late 50s Noir is stripped of much of the visual poetry and elegant stylization that qualified earlier Noirs of the classic period. Now Noir hid in broad daylight. 

As camera equipment became lighter, filming was going away from backlots and closed sound stages too. On-location shooting became more and more the norm. Hell Bound showcases many evocative exterior scenes of bleak industrial sites. The film is worth watching alone for the last scene of a chase through the desolate Los Angeles trolley graveyard, one of the most creative shooting locations I have seen. 

Hell Bound indisputably has an exploitative angle in the gleeful depiction of brutal and unrestrained violence which isn’t in the least bit cartoonish. The administered beatings look like they really hurt, much more so than in any other films of that era. 

We also get a wonderful Grindhouse moment. One of the best scenes in the movie must be the one in the seedy strip joint where a burlesque artiste gives her best for the appreciative audience. This being 1957 we don’t see too much, she teases a lot more than she strips, but nevertheless it is unexpected to see in a mainstream film. It gets better. Her most ardent admirer is a blind (!) dope dealer named Daddy with a penchant for milk who’s doing his business right there at his front-row table! It’s marvelously weird.

Into the bargain, a decided shift in tone could be noticed compared to the 40s. The narrative was less about powerlessness in the face of pre-ordained fate, more about moral corruption of the individual and institutions, with emphasis on personal culpability.

40s Noir was asking existential questions that its protagonists had no answer to. Hell Bound doesn’t bother with that. There’s no loneliness, despair, existential torment, moral ambiguity and obsession. Hell Bound completely dispenses with the romanticism and sentimentality that was part of 40s Noir and goes straight for violence and cynicism. Though the picture is still recognizable as Noir in the classic style it has a barren, devoid of humanity feeling about it. Like chunks of ice drifting on a river.

Compared to other heist movies like Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle and Kubrick’s The Killing, Hell Bound’s entire philosophy is different. The narrative is not manipulated so that the moviegoer sympathizes and identifies with the criminals. No desperate down-and-out characters who are only looking for a way out populate this picture. No existential dreamers whose longing for a better life spurs them on and who have the audiences’ sympathies all the way. Hell Bound is way too mean-spirited for that.

Playboy Playmate January 1957
It’s a heist-gone-wrong movie with a difference. Jordan’s robbery is ingeniously planned but when things go sideways it’s not one of Doc Riedenschneider blind accidents that louses up the perfect crime. Frankly it’s sheer stupidity. Thing is, if you want a heist to go off smoothly, don’t surround yourself with a bunch of flunkies from the shallow end of the gene pool who are a liability from the start and sell out for easy money on the drop of a hat.
Jordan's recruits include an deadbeat junkie in constant need of the next fix, an unbalanced health inspector on the verge of a nervous breakdown and a dame who goes soft. What could possibly go wrong with that setup? 

Very hunky John Russell is a favorite actor who unfortunately so often was relegated to playing second or third fiddle to other actors, before he became the upright lawman of the West. Amoral, vicious and sadistic, he could be straight out of a Tarantino movie and mixes an overdose of lethal charm with an equal dose of ice-cold menace. He has no redeeming qualities. He isn't driven by any kind of mad desire, especially not for a dame, a dream or a paradise lost. The robbery is a matter of simple economics. That uncut dope is worth about $2 million.

Paula tries her very very best to get cozy with him. She doesn’t get anywhere though it’s not for lack of trying. Disappointed she pouts: “You better see a doctor, Jordan. You’ve got a low blood count.” His chilling answer: “You're wrong, Paula. I’ve got no blood”. 
He controls everybody around him through sheer terror. He snuffs the snitch who gave him the plan of the ship’s cargo hold. He beats one of his cronies to a bloody pulp and he has a way with dames too. Paula gets a nasty beating before he knives her. Russell is riveting and simply makes this movie.

June Blair makes for a great Paula who looks every luscious inch just exactly what she was: Playboy Playmate of January 1957. She’s as pure as the driven and refreshingly never makes a floozy’s feint at virtue. Literally anybody who wears pants is fair game. The girl can’t help it.

She gets a great introduction. Laying in a chair she asks Jordan to help her put her shoes on, incidentally giving him a view up her skirt. As a phony nurse, she doesn’t really know the ins and outs of her supposed profession, but that shouldn't pose any difficulties for her. She knows she has her own qualifications for the job. “There isn’t any part of the anatomy I don’t know, even with my eyes closed”, the lady coos. We believe her. 

We get a little bit of shoe fetishism here. Kicking off her shoes means it’s action time for some lucky guy. And Paula seems to be willing to kick her shoes off with alarming frequency. There’s another dame in the movie who does the same with her glasses. 
Paula is Noir’s good-bad girl. Once she falls in love, things change. The only jarring note in an otherwise nifty little caper is that Paula survives the knife attack and gets her happy ending. A remnant of those dreaded Code-enforced endings maybe, but it's a minor flaw in an otherwise very entertaining film.

Apart from that, Hell Bound stays true to the spirit of Noir. In the end it all adds up to nothing. Jordan dies the way he lived, violently. As decommissioned trolleys are waiting for their disposal in the junk yard, so is Jordan. He’s climbed into one of the empty rail cars trying to evade capture, unfortunately a bunch of scrap metal is coming towards his way.

Noir’s appeal is eternal, it lives on in other genres and pictures and many filmmakers owe it a debt that cannot be repaid. Jean-Luc Godard acknowledged this debt and famously dedicated his 1960 movie À bout de souffle/Breathless to Monogram Pictures. As long as there are rotten dames, suckers, desperate men on the run, shyster lawyers, losers without a friend, but with a plan and dames that can’t help loving the wrong man, Noir doesn’t need an epitaph. It doesn’t even have a tombstone yet.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Rear Window (1954)

Sorry for having been AWOL for so long. I have officially dusted off my little battered Remington and am reporting back for duty.
Virginie over at The Wonderful World of Cinema, Samantha at Musings of a Classic Film Addict and Emily of The Flapper Dame are hosting the 5th Wonderful Grace Kelly Blogathon on November 10-12, 2019. This is my entry.

The Fine Art of Snooping or
Spies Like Us
"We've become a race of Peeping Toms." Stella
Hitchcock and phobias, books have been written about this subject. Authority figures, priests, domineering mothers, teachers, policemen, eggs (!)…in short the man was a bundle of nerves and neuroses. He once stated: “I’m fortunate to be a coward, to have a low threshold of fear, because a hero couldn’t make a good suspense film.”
A very interesting take on “How to Make a Thriller 101”, but his success obviously proved him right. He reveled in his fears and used them like other people use their special gifts. They gave him a profound understanding of the human psyche.

Michiko Kakutani wrote in her NYTimes review of Peter Ackroyd’s book Alfred Hitchcock: A Brief Life:
The world of menace [Hitchcock] conjured embodies our deepest, most existential fears. Fears …that the universe is irrational, that evil lives around the corner, that ordinary life can be ripped apart at any moment by some random unforeseen event.”
Murderous birds, crop dusters, mother-fixated weirdos with knives who don’t let you shower in peace… For Hitchcock the veneer of civilization was just a thin layer beneath which darkness and terror lay. In Noir danger and evil frequently pervert ordinary settings, and so they do in Hitchcock movies. 

Is Rear Window Noir? (I must ask this question, after all this is a Noir blog). As opposed to Strangers on a Train, Shadow of a Doubt and The Wrong Man, Rear Window’s Noir credential are tepid, though Hitchcock was always someone who let darkness infuse his films, even his lightest ones. He was never labeled a Noir director, yet Hitchcock and Noir shared certain sensibilities even if Hitch never really made his home in Dark City. He didn't let himself be confined by cinematic boundaries. At best we could say that Hitchcock used Noir themes as psychological and aesthetic framework. For him, fear, guilt, paranoia, obsession, moral corruption and desperation lurked everywhere. Hitchcock made these themes his own, and ultimately he is one of the very few directors who can lay claim to being their own genre. 

Most of his films work perfectly on the surface. Rear Window can be enjoyed as a simple thriller. Ostensibly the movie is one of his most accessible - like that glass of effervescent champagne called To Catch a Thief - but the audience could always rely on a maelstrom of unexpected intrusions to wash away any illusions of safety and normalcy. 

Hitchcock was immensely interested in everything subversive and made no bones about it. With Rear Window Hitchcock made a movie about your friendly Neighborhood Watch busybody as hero. What? Spying on people while they go about their private business is bad, bad, bad, right? If Hitchcock had been a tiresome moralist, the film would make it blatantly clear that Jeff is a creep who - with his unproven snooping - ruined the life of a good man. Thankfully Hitch spares us this pap. Hitchcock was a connoisseur of all things marvelously pervy. You name it, he envisioned it. He not only validates Jeff’s paranoia, Jeff is the wheelchaired crusader for justice. The ethics of snooping turned upside down. Kinky. You can’t make this stuff up. Well, Hitchcock could.

Good old Bosley called the movie “not significant” in his NYTimes review. Ooooh, that’s a low blow. How that guy managed to keep his job for 20 plus years is anybody’s guess. A success so richly undeserved.  

Naturally Joe Breen got his knickers in a twist about the smuttiness of it all and had his cleaning crew put in overtime. He pontificated that the entire picture had “the flavor of a peep show” (Memo – as quoted in Writing for Hitchcock by Steven DeRosa). Perceptive lad! How did he figure that out? Somebody should have told him that the audience was perfectly capable of taking the 100 proof stuff and not choke on it, even if he couldn’t. But I digress.

Laid up with a broken leg in a hip cast in his small Greenwich Village apartment, professional photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jeffreys (James Stewart) is incapacitated and wheelchair-bound for the next seven weeks. Jeff’s introduction is wonderfully done. While he's asleep in his wheelchair, with one panning shot the camera tells us the story of Jeff’s life. His walls are hung with pictures of his adventurous exploits that take him all over the globe to war zones, disaster areas, exiting sporting events, forrest fires, explosions… Without a word being spoken the audience understands that here is a man who likes to live dangerously, a man who doesn't like to be tied down to an office job.
While photographing a race car crash he almost became roadkill himself and now he’s a prisoner in his own apartment. All by his lonesome, he’s frankly bored to tears and so gets his kicks looking out his rear window into the courtyard observing the neighbors. One night he sees his neighbor Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) acting extremely suspicious, you know like cleaning huge knives and saws, rubbing down the bathtub walls, going out in the middle of the night in the pouring rain each time carrying a heavy suitcase. His nagging invalid wife seems to be ominously absent from then on. Jeff starts to suspect nefarious goings-ons. He believes the salesman has bumped off his wife. Armed only with binoculars and a telephoto lens, Jeff sets to work. His evidence for murder is shaky at best, but Jeff - like Juror No.8 - is soon able to convince his visiting nurse/self-appointed amateur shrink Stella (Thelma Ritter) and his beautiful fiancée Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly).

Certain themes crop up again and again in Hitchcock's movies. The innocent man accused of a crime he didn’t commit, domineering mothers, chase scenes, the MacGuffin. None of them we get here. We do however get a few others. Ordinary people placed in the line of danger, the most beautiful of all Hitchcock blondes and the very conspicuous elephant in the room, voyeurism, something Hitchcock was more than just a little preoccupied with. Rear Window is the first entry in Hitch's voyeurism trilogy.

Roger Ebert stated in his Rear Window review: 
“The hero … is trapped in a wheelchair, and we're trapped, too--trapped inside his point of view, inside his lack of freedom and his limited options.” 
Voyeurism is the act of living your life vicariously…through others, without sharing their problems or pain. Distance and the avoidance of involvement and intimacy characterize the voyeur. 
Jeff’s addiction to peeping is born out of boredom. Don't forget kids, idle hands are the devil’s workshop. Spying on his neighbors quickly turns into an obsession that takes up his every waking minute. Stella warns Jeff: 
“In NY State the sentence for a Peeping Tom is six months in the workhouse. They got no windows in the work house. You know, in the old days, they used to put your eyes out with a red-hot poker. Any of those bikini bombshells you're always watching worth a red-hot poker?"
In Rear Window Hitchcock keeps the touch light throughout. Next time Hitchcock turned Stewart into a voyeur, his addiction would become a crippling neurosis.

Jeff studies his neighbors like insects under a magnifying glass. We see fleeting snippets of their lives while they go about their mundane activities. Everybody goes by aliases. In Woolrich’s (much-altered) source story It Had to Be Murder the protagonist says about his neighbors: “I didn’t know their names. I’d never heard their voices.” Hitchcock kept this premise. "The silent pictures were the purest form of cinema”, the director maintained. Here he goes back to his roots. Visuals count, not a word is being spoken.

Every window tells a story and Jeff is channel-surfing. There is close to expiry date spinster Miss Lonelyhearts who throws dinner parties for imaginary gentleman callers; she likes a bit of booze with her misery and so has been self-medicating with copious amounts of cheap hooch on a regular basis. There is a female sculptor who’s working on a piece called “Hunger” (attention shrinks, here's your chance to shine). There is Miss Torso (Hitch always had a twisted sense of humor) who frolics around in various stages of undress with her considerable assets ever-present and whose apartment resembles a bee-hive where she throws cocktail parties for susceptible suitors (if Jeff is a voyeur she’s his flip side, an exhibitionist). There’s a composer who fears his career is going nowhere and a couple of amorous newlyweds whose honeymoon is over before it has really begun. As always Hitch is quite honest about sex. Without showing us any more than a pulled-down blind, we know the newlyweds are constantly at it and Mrs. Newlywed is quite insatiable.

And of course there is Lars Thorwald with his invalid wife. She makes his life a living hell and would be much better off dead, at least in his estimation.

That Jeff does not lose our sympathy is entirely down to Stewart, that icon of American likability and integrity. His image was his get-out-of-jail-free card. It let him spy on sexy Miss Torso and not come off as a creep. Not that one can blame him. 

Stewart was a bit of stunt-casting. Before he left Hollywood for active service in 1941, his persona was sincere, boyish, trustworthy. Like a comfortable Saint Bernard. When he came back in 1946, the world had changed, he had changed. Jimmy had toughened up. It started with It’s a Wonderful Life and would be further explored in Anthony Mann’s Westerns. 
Hitchcock was good at exposing character traits in his actors that neither they nor the audience knew they had. Like he had done twice before with Cary Grant, Hitchcock chipped away at Jimmy's nice side. Hitch cast Stewart four times (Rope, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, Rear Window) and each time he laid bare nuances that turned his image on his ears.
Jeff isn’t mild-mannered and gentle, he is morally compromised, moody, bad-tempered and occasionally downright insulting and we can literally feel his seething frustration of being cooped up.

The perspective of the voyeur is by nature a restricted one, for the perpetrator as well as for the audience. We see the world from Jeff's vantage point. We see what he sees, what conclusions he draws we draw. This is so obvious it risks accusations of banality but it bears repeating nevertheless because by now Rear Window has become the textbook example for subjective POV filming. 
Jeff spies and so do we and as such we become accessories to his voyeurism. We share his obsession and even identify with it. We know it’s immoral but spying is like the proverbial train wreck. You can’t look away. 

The film could be retitled Murder, He Hoped. So obsessed is Jeff that he doesn’t even want to hear of the possibility that Thorwald is innocent when his friend Detective Doyle (Wendell Corey) tells him that Mrs.T. is alive. Doyle committed the cardinal sin. He took away Jeff’s toy and stomped on it. Jeff can no longer indulge in his fantasy.

There is the underlying theme of “Love Thy Neighbor” running through the film. The phrase is uttered twice, once by Lisa and once by a woman after her little dog has been killed. She screams:
“You don’t know the meaning of the word ‘neighbors’! Neighbors like each other, speak to each other, care if somebody lives or dies! But none of you do!”
Urbanization has led to a fragmentation of society. People may live in close proximity now but they seem to be more lonely than ever. No man is an island, John Donne said, but the urban jungle seems to belie this assumption.
Hitchcock created the entire apartment building true to scale on the Paramount backlot. This is studio-filming at its best. On-location filming may lend an air of authenticity to the proceedings, but artifice can conjure up the perfect background for stories of entrapment, loneliness and isolation. Rear Window is set in a city that shows nothing of the real city and yet it captures the anonymity that characterizes the urban jungle.

The sad thing is that Jeff catches most of his neighbors on the raw, never at their best but often in their moments of failure. Ugly arguments, dirty linen washed in public, sadness, desperation, disappointed expectations… It’s not a pretty picture Hitchcock paints of humanity. The contemporary Time Out review maintained: “Hitchcock has nowhere else come so close to pure misanthropy…” I can't quite follow this reasoning.
Despite exposing their failings, Hitchcock manages to treat the neighbors with compassion and respect, there’s no doubt he’s sympathetic towards the lonely and damaged. He may show their flaws but he does not condemn and ridicule.

Life in Rear Window is condensed to the backyard and the apartment building. Confined spaces in films always create a microcosmos, containing actions and emotions to a single stage and a restricted environment, while at the same time emphasizing the claustrophobia of a the closed-in space which offers no escape from danger. 
Life outside this apartment complex doesn't seem to exist. We only catch the tiniest glimpse of city life through a narrow sliver of alleyway where we see the outside world go by. When characters exit the apartment building, they essentially exit the cinematic stage. Yet this insular microcosmos shows us a cross-section of society that is connected to its wider fabric.

I finally get to Grace Kelly, the one and only, the epitome of Hitch’s cool elegant blonde beauty with her dangerously combustible mix of elegance and sex. Hitchcock’s female ideal was ladylike, sophisticated and untouchable, yet at the same time sensuous and provocative. A snow-covered volcano with a hint of unbridled passion behind the cool facade. So impossibly beautiful is she that she seems unattainable in her desirability.
That Lisa is saved from being “a cold and lonely, lovely work of art” has to do with her humor, loyalty, adventurousness and the amazingly candid desire she reveals for Jeff. She doesn’t waste any time with coyness. She pursues him and proves herself to be one determined girl (I can’t bring myself to call Grace a dame). Lisa is no sleeping beauty who has to be kissed to be awakened. Her passions aren't waiting to be unleashed, they already are. This goddess is quite down to earth.

Her genuine love for Jeff makes her vulnerable. Several times we can feel her very real frustration and pain when Jeff yet again maintains that they are not compatible though she steadfastly - with something akin to masochistic desperation - tries to prove her love for him. She's been auditioning for months for the role of Jeff’s wife, she just goes about it the wrong way, with catered dinners and “previews of coming attractions”. He’s holding one of the most desirable women in the world, who is literally throwing herself at him, at arm’s length! It raises some serious question about his sanity. I’m sure Siggie Freud would have a thing or two to say about it. If Grace Kelly decided to slip into something more comfortable, I doubt any guy would care anymore if some other dude across the yard was cutting up his wife.

She’s "too perfect, too talented, too beautiful and too sophisticated", Jeff laments. Oh dear, the poor man has quite a bear to cross. She wouldn’t survive a day in the jungle. His rugged and nomadic lifestyle could never mesh with her wealthy Park Avenue princess life. He hammers the point home. And hammers, and hammers and hammers.
40s Hollywood could never resist the lure of dime-store Freudianism, and neither apparently can many critics and reviewers. I won’t bore your with the telephoto lens as phallic imagery and the plaster cast as indication of impotence (obviously only temporary). And don’t even get me started on the champagne cork. You can fill in those blanks yourself, kids. Siggie has a lot to answer for. Subtlety? We don’t need no stinkin’ subtlety. We head straight for ham-fisted symbolism. But I’m not playing.
Jeff’s desperately trying to make excuses not to marry Lisa because marriage would mean domestication, aka permanent cripplement. Maybe Jeff has the fate of George Bailey in mind, a man who was never able to realize his dreams. 

Hitch could never resist a little stab at marriage and here he’s almost hacking the institution to pieces. John Fawell writes in his book Hitchcock's Rear Window: The Well-Made Film: 
“Hitchcock’s films tend to be simultaneously warmly encouraging of traditional values and mischievously anarchistic about these values.”
He was someone who very much believed in traditional values but at the same time didn’t have too much faith in them. Jeff and his editor are meditating philosophically on the subject of wives.
Editor: “Jeff, wives don’t nag anymore, they discuss.”
Jeff: “Maybe in a higher rent district they discuss, in my neighborhood they still nag.”
The Epiphany
From the sad exploits of Miss Lonelyhearts to the more merry ones of Miss Torso, from non-compatible newlyweds to the worst case scenario, a murderous husband, this is really a story about male-female relationships in the package of a thriller.
Each neighbor is not just a supporting character, but a representation of a possible future for Jeff. No wonder he's commitment-shy. He recognizes patterns when he sees them and doesn’t want to follow the same well-worn paths to doom. 

So, what’s a girl to do? Take part in Jeff’s fantasy. The turning point comes when Lisa starts to believe. She enters Thorwald’s apartment to find evidence of murder and in the process almost ends up in the clammy clutches of Thorwald herself. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say Jeff finds that incredibly thrilling. Throughout the movie he has felt closer to the people he spies on than to his flesh and blood friends/lover. He finally has Lisa in front of his lens, he sees her in his private home movie! If I were psychoanalytically inclined… no, I’ll be damned if I go there. But having the shrink of his trust on speed dial might be just as well.
My favorite scene in the movie must be Grace going up the ladder to Thorwald’s apartment in evening dress and high heels, with nary a hair out of place. Getting her white pristine gloves even a little bit dirty is not an option! That’s my girl.

She’s a risk-taker, proactive and resourceful. She has been confronted with the worst-case scenario and comes through with flying colors. All of a sudden he sees a whole new woman. The look on his face when the new reality sinks in is priceless. Marrying Lisa doesn’t have to mean settling down to an office job photographing society mavens. He can still go to out-of-the-way places and have adventures, with her in tow. 

We have to talk about Mr. Slice ’n Dice and his little shop of horrors. This was Raymond Burr still in his villain phase, and a great villain he made in the 40s and 50s before he became Perry Mason and kept his nose clean.

Hitchcock understood that the unsaid and unseen can be more potent than shocking violence. In not showing the murder Hitchcock is uncharacteristically restrained. In contrast to the in-your-face killings in Psycho where Hitchcock, ever the purveyor of good taste, washed any inhibitions down the drain, this murder happens out of sight, behind lowered blinds. Everything is left to the viewer’s imagination. It has to be to keep the viewer guessing. After all it might all be a figment of Jeff’s imagination.

Thorwald remains an enigma throughout. We never find out much about him. He seems to be just a sad little man trapped in an intolerable marriage and is simply puzzled that anyone would care about him and what he has done. “What do you want from me?” he asks Jeff once he confronts him. As he’s looking straight into the camera he’s posing the same question to the audience. He doesn’t get an answer.

Another standout is Thelma Ritter. Stella doles out homespun bromides along with Jeff’s daily medicine that might sound trite at first - “When a man and a woman see each other and like each other, they oughta come together, wham, like a couple of taxis on Broadway” - but hit the mark every time. Ritter almost steals the show if it weren’t for Grace Kelly. It’s not possible to steal the spotlight away from Grace.

The ending is maybe a tad soapy. The composer finished his song and it is that same song that stops Miss Lonelyhearts from suicide. Miss Torso welcomes her tubby little soldier boyfriend home. However, on downbeat note the sex-happy honeymooners are starting the whole cycle again, the wife having turned into a nag.

In the end we’re back at square one, with a twist. After being pushed out of his window, Jeff ends up like in the beginning, in a wheelchair, now with two legs in a cast. We hope this is not a déjà vu all over again. At least this time his chair is facing inwards.

Lisa, dressed in rugged outdoor clothes - as interpreted by Harper’s Bazaar’s fashion department -  and looking like the cat that ate the canary, is reclining on the sofa, reading rugged outdoor literature. When she sees that Jeff is sleeping she reaches for her holy book, Harper’s. Many reviewers have suggested that this means their battle is not resolved and will continue. I’ll put a much more positive spin on it. She’s capable of juggling both worlds. Jeff just has to ditch the window-shopping.