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.

Hitchcock’s gleeful dive into 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.

26 comments:

  1. Those neighbours also represent possible futures for Lisa. Do Jeff and Lisa realize this at all? Or is it a case of, as Margaret Leighton says in The Holly and Ivy, "One thinks of other people as types, oneself as an individual." (Something like that.)

    Over the years I have come to feel sorry for Thorwald. It looks like everything was going his way if not for Snoopy-nosed Jefferies.

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    1. Yes, you are right about Lisa. I doubt either of them realizes.
      As for Thorwald, I have to tell myself every time that he committed a horrible crime. Otherwise I just feel sorry for the guy.

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  2. Surely Stewart's character with his glamorous job and girl friend would have a better apartment. I would. All the rest is the director and his writer friend playing with your head.

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    1. But Jeff is a self-described camera bum with no more than one month's salary in the bank.

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  3. Well that was worth waiting for. Now I know why it took three months! Really great stuff.

    Murder, He Hoped! I like that. It is disturbing how keen they are to find that old Thorwald really has done her in. But then that reflects our feelings as the audience too. We wouldn't want to find out Thorwald was innocent and Jimmy and Grace were just a couple of busy-body nosey parkers spying on their neighbours for no reason.

    One thing it's easy to overlook is just how contrived the whole thing is. Other people have tried to follow this and do something similar, but they're not Hitchcock. No one else has the skill to manage it. Note to everyone everywhere: Never try something like this. You're not Hitchcock!




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    1. Thanks Jay, actually it took me less time to write this than usually. I guess I just needed some time off.

      I found it very interesting that Jeffries never uses the word justice as a justification for what he's doing. He doesn't really care about Mrs.T., he cares about his mystery.

      The whole thing is incredibly contrived. Put the blinds down, game over.

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  4. Great to see you back posting again, and with a characteristically cogent and entertaining piece.
    As a fairly serious Hitchcock fan, I struggle to pick what I feel is his best work (something which is arguably unnecessary to do anyway) but Rear Window has to be right up there among the contenders.
    My top three, which is about as far as I can narrow it down, have to be Rear Window, Vertigo and North By Northwest - three movies which are different in tone, theme, setting & look, all made within a few years of each other, all effortlessly entertaining and approachable on a range of levels. And each one a flawless piece of cinema.

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    1. Hi Colin, I usually differentiate between the light Hitchcocks and the serious ones. Favorite light(er) ones are To Catch a Thief, 39 Steps, Rear Window, Notorious. The dark favorites are Vertigo and Psycho.

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  5. Margot, You don't think Notorious is dark?

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    1. Actually I should have phrased it differently. Yes, Notorious is pretty dark though it has a happy ending. Probably creepy is a better word because later in his career Hitchcock had a much freer hand with the Production Code and could do things he couldn't have done before.

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  6. An open ending,rather than happy. What makes anyone believe that Alcia, Bergman's character, does well after such abuse. Also there is a warning for the weak and stupid amongst us -- beware of soft voices.

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    1. She has Cary Grant to take care of her, that's what makes me believe in a happy ending. :)

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  7. Alicia, of course. Sorry about that.

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  8. Not Cary Grant, but Devlin, a dangerous but human being. many people I know, being none to clever, think of Devlin as the villain, Alex Sebastian in warm, sympathetic terms, and that goes to the second clause in my comment. Devlin will obviously do the best he can, but this girl has been seriously damaged.

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    1. Devlin is definitively not a villain and Sebastian is. I still believe in a happy ending.

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  9. PS love the piece on Rear Window may reblog it ;-)

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  10. A most excellent article! I love your brilliant and in-depth analysis of this film and Hitchcock style in general. I would never forget the first time I saw Rear Window (and now I've seen it countless times) but, although it's a favourite of mine, I never dared writing about it on my blogs. You proved the point that there so much to say about it! I wouldn't know where to start. Thank you so much for your participation to our blogathon!. Ps: Emily from The Flapper Dame is also hosting with us! https://theflapperdamefilm.wordpress.com/2019/11/09/day-1-the-5th-wonderful-grace-kelly-blogathon/

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  11. No matter how many times I read an article about Rear Window, the writer always gives a fresh spin on the film. I always have wondered why the so called critics back in the day didn't realize the brilliance that was playing in theaters all around them. I wonder what the critics of yesteryear would call the garbage movies being made today. I love how you refer to Grace's Lisa as a Down-to-Earth- Goddess- PERFECTION! THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR participating!! I'm unfamiliar with your blog, but am very glad to have found you!!!

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    1. Thank you so much, Emily. Sometimes maybe a certain perspective is needed, time-wise, to really appreciate something.
      Please stop by again, I'll check out your blog too.

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  12. Wow, this was so in depth and enjoyable to boot! Fabulous article! Rear Window is a delight and you definitely captured it's essence here. I think it's one of Hitch's best endings. We get not only one but a series of endings of the stories that have been playing out. It always makes me smile, and Lisa pulling out her Harper's Bazaar is the icing on the cake. Thanks for a great read!

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    1. Hi there, don't think I've seen your blog yet, but I'll check it out.
      I love the ending too, especially the Harper's Bazaar issue.

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    2. Oh, thank you! I've just discovered your blog recently and have been enjoying it.

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