Great Day in The Morning (1956) and Owen Pentecost

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The backdrop is important to understand where we’re at in America’s history. It’s the 1860s. We’re in the Colorado Territory but it’s the eve of the most egregious war that ever was fought on American soil. Already blood is boiling between diehard Northerners and the Secessionists who want nothing better than to bury each other under a foot of dirt.

We get a taste of it in a man name Zeb who helps save another man’s life from marauding Indians only to turn right around and wish he’d left him for dead upon hearing he’s from North Carolina. However, he’s not the one giving orders. He and a more reserved companion, with a covert mission of his own, are working under hardy Virginia Mayo who is intent on setting up a dress shop out west. She obliges the stranger, the wonderfully named Owen Pentecost (Robert Stack) and he gladly joins their peculiar company.

When they get to town, Pentecost challenges a local saloonkeeper (Raymond Burr) in a high stakes poker game and in the last hand winds up owning the place. As a result, he’s made few friends on either side of the brooding town except for the flirtatious chorus girl Boston (Ruth Roman) who frequents the joint and stacks the deck in his favor.

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He takes up with his brethren below the Mason-Dixon line because he’s heard rumblings that they have a payload of gold and no way to get it back home. Their goal is to use it to bankroll the early stages of the inevitable war. Pentecost is no rebel and no patriot. He’s purely in business for himself and that makes for a thoroughly enjoyable character given the present climate. Because he ends up being an outsider to both contingents.

Instead, he looks to start a revival, preaching a gospel of gold as he’s got a lot of stakes in his ownership, which have yet to be excavated. Though most people around hate his guts, some are in desperate need of money. He lets everyone know he won’t tolerate any double crossing and yet it ends in the inevitable. One man is left for dead and it means very little to Pentecost until the orphaned son comes west, oblivious of the fate of his father or by whose hand. Pentecost takes him under his wing, foregoing to tell the boy about the precise events behind his father’s untimely demise.

He has no sentimental lumps in his throat about going off to war. His only goal is staying alive and he has quite the test ahead with Fort Sumter surrendering and the territory overrun with bloodthirsty Union men as it is. The northern loyalists come to his saloon with one thing on their minds. Making “The Rebels” pay by filling them full of lead. Hanging is too good for them.

But violence only sows more violence and hate still more hate. The collateral damage is far-reaching. The minister (Regis Toomey) watches the world continually shot to hell around him and he puts his hands up and runs into the fray to be some voice of peace even as he too is affected.

A daring escape is finally undertaken with the Union soldiers camped out nearby looking to gun them down decisively if they won’t surrender their goods. It ends up not mattering. The wagons loaded with gold take off in the cover of the night as the loyal Northerners look to chase them down led by the Union officers who have been tasked with the assignment.

It’s at this point that Pentecost finally seems to get a noble streak. In one sense, we see a certain amount of gallantry even on the verge of such a traumatic war but there are also tones that are unquestionably, even morbidly dark. It’s as if to suggest that war might bring out heroism in people but it can also bring out our very worst tendencies too. It’s just our innate nature as human beings.

It seems such a long distance that we have traversed since those opening shots on the brightly lit plains, one newcomer, a lady giving the orders, and two men who will turn out to be deeply invested in this newly forged war. The Civil War changes the entire complexion of the film by its end, even the mores of our main character.

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Cinematographer William E. Snyder boasts chiaroscuro color photography that’s so easy to take for granted because it bathes most of the picture, particularly the later scenes where it seems like more and more drama unfolds during the evening hours.

Part of the reason there’s little to no fanfare around a picture such as this is it’s wholly counterintuitive for B-grade entertainment to be formalistically stylish but that’s what Tourneur always seemed capable of since the days of Cat People (1942). It’s little different here and in one of his final westerns, he continues shooting beautiful sequences with storylines that don’t have any right to be.

There are interludes where Great Day in The Morning has rather peculiar beats and one could say the ending comes early or it’s anticlimactic or it didn’t matter, to begin with. Any one of those conclusions could, in fact, be correct but regardless, some might be taken just as I was with this unassuming oater.

It’s buried movies like this keeping hungry cinephiles always searching for a new delight. It doesn’t have to be a glowing success but if it even momentarily sparkles with shards of inspiration while bringing together a fine cast, we have a winner. Maybe I’m just an ardent Tourneur fan or have a soft spot for Ruth Roman and Virginia Mayo, not to mention the western genre as a whole. Either way, I have few qualms in liking this outing for precisely these isolated reasons.

3.5/5 Stars

Rear Window (1954): Visual Cinema and “Lisa”

 

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There are such a vast number of levels to appreciate Rear Window on and one of those is its impeccable use of sound as well as a score courtesy of Franz Waxman. In fact, it is quite easy to consider it as a film with a wholly diegetic soundtrack but it’s really a complicated weaving of sound orchestration playing against the images onscreen. For instance, against the credits, as the blinds come up, we’re met with the playfully cool jazzy beats of “Prelude and Radio” which proves to be in perfect juxtaposition with the deathly hot heatwave hitting Greenwich Village in the film’s opening moments.

We’re also inundated with all types of songs popular and otherwise which can be picked out of the story organically if you’re paying attention. Two of the most obvious additions are “That’s Amore” and then “Mona Lisa” which can be heard being sung by a group of party guests.

Whether or not it’s a slight nod to our heroine Lisa is up for debate but it’s also notable that she, in essence, receives her own theme song which is concurrently composed by the songwriter who lives in the courtyard that we come to know over the course of the film. It slowly involves from its nascent stages into a full-fledged tune that gains its wings once the romance between Lisa and our protagonist L.B. Jefferies has come into its own.

Obviously, beyond the elements of soundtrack Rear Window develops so immersive a world and Hitchcock expertly inserts us directly into the environment to the extent that we have no choice but to become involved in the whole ordeal. We are accomplices, if you will, in this viewing party of Jimmy Stewart’s.

It truly is an exhibition in the moving image because the film works so brilliantly with them. Certainly, it begins with the staging and the complex setup Hitchcock had to work with at Paramount Studios but there’s simultaneously the use of color cinematography, the lighting of the stages which sets the scene given the time of day, and common street noise that lends an almost imperceptible authenticity that we take for granted.

Furthermore, working with his long trusted photographer Robert Burks you see Hitchcock moving so fluidly and with so much purpose through the playground provided him. The camera captures objects with clear intention and a crispness that far from simply giving us the illusion of being in the space, in many ways, makes us feel like we are actually right there with Stewart looking out into the courtyard.

You also get the true essence of what visual filmmaking is because his powers of suggestion and even persuasion of the audience are impressed upon us by what he deems important. Hitchcock lays out nearly all of Stewart’s backstory not with clunky expositional dialogue but by giving us a wordless parade of his apartment while our protagonist sleeps. And the whole picture is a constant rhythmic cadence of being fed images followed by Stewart’s reaction shots. It’s Film at its primacy. Where two images put together are blessed with so much more meaning and suggestion than they could ever have alone.

But far from simply marveling at what Hitch has accomplished it’s far more miraculous that we become so enveloped in this story. It’s an admirable mystery plot chock full of tension that’s built up over time and successive shifts in perception, time of day, and personnel moving in and out of the complex. Our one commonality is Stewart stuck in that wheelchair with only his broken leg, his camera, and the neighbors to keep him entertained. They do far more than that.

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Rear Window’s A-Plot is a perplexing mystery thriller that we watch unfold with a systematic unraveling that’s unnerving in part because Hitchcock has orchestrated it all in a limited space. Furthermore,  he has handicapped his protagonist and the outsiders coming in are constantly causing us to second guess or reevaluate our assumptions be they the insurance agency nurse Stella, Jefferies’  policeman pal, or his best girl Lisa. Each character is at one point in opposition to Jefferies while also providing a sounding board for his cockamamie theories which start to bear the grain of truth. We get to be a part of it all.

The utter irony is that once more not only is Hitchcock’s villain atypical — in nearly all areas a seemingly unspectacular man — he’s also quite overtly styled after David O. Selznick. If you know anything about the producer he shares some resemblance with Raymond Burr and there’s no denying that Hitchcock was never fond of the other’s meddling. As much as I love the Rebeccas (1940) and his earlier American works if Rear Window was a representation of the hands-off approach to his filmmaking than I would have to side with him.

At least by this point in his career, there’s no denying that he projected a singular vision that could hardly be quelled by any individual. This is “Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window,” after all, as the opening credits proclaim.

However, the beauty of this picture is that it truly does stand up to multiple viewings and every repeated viewing offers up new depths or at least minor revelations that add an even greater relish to the experience.

In particular, are the underlining themes of romance. Because this is a film about love in all its many facets with each character or couple reflecting a certain permutation of what romantic love looks like.

The love stories are playing out in each compartment of the apartment complex. Miss Torso, the queen bee with the pick of the drones. She’s very much eye candy but in the final frames, we realize there’s more to her as her love comes back home from the army. There’s Miss Lonelyhearts who is desperately seeking love and yet has enough respect not to stoop below her dignity. It’s a song that lifts her out of her despair. The Newlyweds are still in the honeymoon phase and we never see them.

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Meanwhile, you have Stella providing her homespun philosophy that people shouldn’t overanalyze their situation. Jefferies is pushing back against any serious romance because in his estimation Lisa is far too perfect for him. Meanwhile, Lisa is left believing she can live in any world that Jeff is in. The list goes on and on.

But for the threads to be resolved that must become fully intertwined with the murder at its core because such an event calls for a response from our characters — at least our main ones. When Lisa sacrifices so much to show her love and devotion to him, he realizes how much he misjudged her character and perhaps more profoundly how dearly he loves her and never wants to lose her. He has made the transition from armchair philosopher and misanthrope to a man smitten with someone else. As long as he ditches the window watching he should be fine.

That leads us to another area of discussion. There’s a bit of a moral commentary present though Hitchcock doesn’t seem all that interested in those conclusions per se as much as he likes manipulating them for the sake of his drama. And yet like Vertigo four years later there is this unnerving sense that he is tapping into some of humanity’s darkest desires to watch and spy on others for pleasure without any consequence or any vulnerability on the part of the peeper.

That draws me to another aspect of the film that I’ve never really considered. Rear Window implicitly asks what it is to be a neighbor or at least what it is to live with neighbors. There’s very little in the realm of actual judgments except for the small condemnation that comes from the woman who lives just above the murderer after her yippy dog has been killed. What does she say?

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.

What she provides is a heartfelt and searing indictment which is nevertheless lost in all the commotion whether it’s the big party going on across the way or the realization by our heroes that their theories about murder have been confirmed. It did make me consider even briefly if the so-called Great Commandment is to “Love Thy Neighbor,” what does that look like?

Far from peering in at other people and staying anonymous, it seems like it involves reaching out to others. In some ways, being vulnerable and candid — transparent even — so others feel comfortable entering into our lives. Like Stella says sometimes people need to go on the outside and look in for a change. If nothing else that breeds empathy.

Of course, if that was the case, there would probably have been no murder and that’s what we want right? Well, anyways, Rear Window still stands as my favorite Hitchcock picture and one of the most clinical and compelling thrillers of all time.  But you probably already knew that. If you did not I implore you to break both your legs if need be and go lock yourself in a room and force yourself to watch it right this minute.

5/5 Stars

Review: Rear Window (1954)

Hitchcock_stills_0006_rear-windowWho in their right mind would make a film that takes place in a courtyard? Rear Window has always been fascinating from a technical standpoint, and Alfred Hitchcock is certainly not “The Master of Suspense” for nothing. He uses the confined space of a single Greenwich Village courtyard with an incapacitated individual to truly build the tension to immeasurable heights. The events within the film are often highly bemusing as Hitchcock has a wicked sense of humor, whether Jefferies is trying desperately to scratch that itch or the conversation turns morbid as he tries to eat breakfast.

The script has so many great little moments of back in forth repartee; some supplied by the always dynamic Thelma Ritter who plays the nurse with a lot of advice and opinions about rear window ethics: “We’ve become a race of peeping toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change. Yes, sir. How’s that for a bit of home-spun philosophy.

James Stewart is always a pleasure, but this time around he is perhaps at his most constrained as famed photographer L.B. Jefferies, who is laid up in his apartment for weeks on end with a leg in a cast. He got the injury thanks in part to his last big photo shoot where he ran in front of an oncoming race car. With nothing better to do, he spends his idle moments people watching and getting to know his neighbors. That’s one way to put it at least. As an actor, Stewart is stuck and relegated to conveying his whole performance through his gaze and the dialogue he speaks to those few who come in and out to see him. Most of what he’s doing is simply looking across the way and yet it works.

His neighbors are as follows:

There’s Ms. Torso who is an aspiring dancer and always the target of many men. There’s Ms. Lonelyheart who never can find the love she so desires. A washed-up composer spends the entire film trying to figure out his newest project (even getting a visit from Hitchcock himself). There are the newlyweds who hardly ever leave their bedroom because they’re doing something… Then, comes the older couple on the second floor with a cute little dog and the sculptor who lives below.

Most interesting of all is the couple directly across the way from Jefferies’ because that’s where a long-suffering husband and his wife live. All seems normal, to begin with, however, Jefferies begins to have his suspicions thanks to circumstantial evidence and no sign of Mrs. Thorwald. His first thoughts immediately shoot to murder, but it seems highly unlikely. Day and night he continues to watch seeming to get more evidence, only to have his theories crushed, and then gain new hope through more evidence.

James_Stewart_in_Rear_Window_trailerThe interesting part is that as an audience we are fully involved in this story. We see much of the picture from Jefferies’ apartment, because there is no place to go, and so we stay inside the confines of the complex. In this way, Hitchcock creates a lot of Rear Window‘s  plot out of actions occurring and then the reactions that follow. We are constantly being fed a scene and then immediately being shown the gaze of Jefferies. It effectively pulls us into this position of a peeping tom too. Danger keeps on creeping closer and closer as he discovers more and more. The narrative continues to progress methodically from day to night to the next day and the next evening.

In the climactic moments, he finally faces the man who he always looked in at from the outside and yet by the end the roles are reversed with Jefferies space being fully invaded, and yet he can do little to flee, because of his cast. Hitchcock cuts it in such a choppy and chaotic way which breaks with the smooth continuity of the rest of the film, but it works so wonderfully in stark juxtaposition.

This is one of the main appeals of Rear Window because it has this Hitchcockian story of murder, mystery, and suspense. However, I am constantly eager to revisit this story, since there are so many other intricacies that are of interest.

Although the film uses a score by Franz Waxman, the majority of the sounds heard are diegetic and they either are street noises or music wafting around the courtyard from one of the apartments.  Also, there is only one small outlet to the outside world. At times, it becomes fun to survey what is going on whether it is kids playing on the street corner or cars passing back and forth. It builds this sense of realism suggesting that this world that has been created is larger than this one set full of apartment buildings.

Another important element is themes of romance and love. Jefferies comes into the film with issues in his own love life. His girl is the elegant and refined Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), who seems perfect, too perfect in his estimation. In his mind, they just don’t seem compatible enough, and he cannot see marrying her. It’s something they have to work through because she truly loves him.

Really every character essentially has a different outlook on love and different struggles, because romance is never an easy thing. Like the lyricist’s song, it is so often fragmented, but in their case, Jefferies and Lisa seem to figure things out just as the song finally gets finished. The moment where you can see it in Jefferies’ face that he is both impressed and worried for Lisa’s safety seems to be the time when things change. He realizes his love for her since she is very dear. He quits his thinking and his analyzing of their relationship, as gut-wrenching emotions take over when she is caught. In a sense, he listens to Stella’s earlier advice: “Look, Mr. Jefferies, I’m not an educated woman, but I can tell you one thing. When a man and a woman see each other and like each other they ought to come together – wham! Like a couple of taxis on Broadway, not sit around analyzing each other like two specimens in a bottle.”

Wendell Corey, in his supporting role as Jefferies’ friend and the police detective, is a man who can be a skeptic and still prove his loyalty as a friend. They can be at odds and still poke fun at each other with mutual affection. It feels real. Raymond Burr as the villainous Lars Thorwald works well too because he is certainly an angry, unfriendly grouch, but he does not seem altogether evil. It shows how easy it is for the lines to be blurred.

rear-window-first-shot-of-gkAbove all, Grace Kelly shines opposite Jimmy Stewart. There’s no one quite like her, so elegant, eloquent, with a touch of playfulness and adventure. She is willing to fight for her man and even go out on a limb for him (ie. breaking into Thorwalds’ apartment). One of the film’s most extraordinary images, out of many, has to be when a shadow covers the face of Stewart as he rests. Then there is a close-up of Kelly, her face slowly descending towards him. It’s hard to forget and for the rest of the film, she attempts to not let him forget her.

It’s not often easy for me to make statements like this, but Rear Window has to be close to my favorite film of all time. Yes, I said it. It never gets old for me, and I pick out new things every time. It’s more than just a mystery thriller. Hitchcock made it a technical marvel that is also steeped in themes of love and ethical questions. The players are the best of the best from James Stewart, to Grace Kelly, to Thelma Ritter, all down the line. It’s at times deliberate, but never boring, completely immersing the viewer into this drama as a firsthand witness. It’s the type of cinema we just don’t get every day because it has everything and it cuts to the core — to the most visceral level. That is the sign of cinematic greatness.

5/5 Stars

Pitfall (1948)

4ac39-pitfall2In Italy Pitfall‘s title was translated to Tragedy in Santa Monica. And that it is, but it plays out as a typical, everyday tragedy. It is far from Shakespearian. John Forbes (Dick Powell) is sorely tired of the monotony of his life: A wheel within a wheel within a wheel so to speak. And he is tired of being the so-called “backbone of the country” employed at Olympic Mutual Insurance Company.

He has a steady job and all, a beautiful, loving wife (Jane Wyatt), and a cute little son Tommy. He’s your prototypical middle-class man from your typical middle-class family. That’s what’s wrong with his life. To put it plainly he’s in a rut and desperately wants to get out.

Pitfall is a  bit of a riff off of Double Indemnity. There is some of the same framework but very different variables and outcomes, so that’s enough comparison.

Things get interesting when Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott) comes into the picture. She is a model with a boyfriend who was just recently put into prison for embezzlement. Now Forbes’ company is charged with getting back some valuables from Stevens and she gives them up willingly. Along the way, a hired private investigator named Mac (Raymond Burr) takes a liking for her, but the feelings are not reciprocated. That’s before she meets Forbes.

When they meet, Forbes is immediately struck by her and she takes a liking to his goodwill. Everything would be great in another world. Except in the real world, Forbes is married and Mac is jealous. After he gets accosted by Mac, Mona finds out about her fling’s home life. Surprisingly she lets him off the hook, but Mac won’t let her off.

Forbes’ overall demeanor changes and he feels reinvigorated, even back at home and in the office. But it’s never that simple, and things begin to get messy as Smiley finally gets his ticket out of the clink. Mac has been his constant visitor, filling the paranoid brute with ideas. He thinks Mona has been unfaithful, and he wants to get the guy she was with.

The ending of Pitfall is far more painful than a multitude of meaningless deaths in a monster movie. The reason being, these characters actually have some importance. There is a sense that human life is sacred and if anyone dies it is a big deal, whether they were “good” or “bad.”

Furthermore, there are hardly words enough to describe the look on Jane Wyatt’s face when she finds out the truth. This is one instance when the father did not know best, and their marriage was shaken to the core. It feels all too real. However, this film’s denouement is not quite as fatalistic as Double Indemnity. There still is a tinge of hope that these two individuals can salvage something out of a very difficult situation.

This is yet another feather in the cap of film-noir. So simple and yet so potently effective. I cannot wait for more with Dick Powell.

3.5/5 Stars

Rear Window (1954) – Alfred Hitchcock

02805-rearwindowposterStarring James Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Raymond Burr with director Alfred Hitchcock, this is a superb film that takes place in a very limited space. L.B. Jefferies (Stewart) is a professional photographer who is incapacitated in his flat with a broken leg. All he has to pass the time is watching the people across the courtyard. Although he very rarely interacts with them, he slowly begins to know them just by spectating. Pretty soon he realizes something is amiss when the annoying wife across the way is no where to be seen and her husband (Burr) is acting strangely. With help of his ravishingly beautiful girlfriend (Kelly), Jeffries tries to uncover the truth. Everything escalates when Lisa breaks into the man’s apartment and it finally peaks in a climatic confrontation. In the end all is well and Jeffries realizes his true love. This is one of my favorite films because of its unique setting and it is possibly Hitchcock’s best. He takes an environment that is so confined and then makes a very entertaining and suspenseful film with it.

5/5 Stars