A Century of Movies at the Alamo: Hitchcock Double Feature - Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958) July 17 at 6pm

Submitted by abertin

On July 17th at 6pm, the Alamo Theatre is hosting an Alfred Hitchcock double feature of Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958). July 17th is also National Ice Cream Day in the United States. Just about now, you might be thinking what does National Ice Cream Day have to do with Hitchcock? Well, let me tell you a little bit about my summer routine. The rest of the staff at NHF all know I stay pretty well-informed on the soft-serve flavor of the day offerings at the Dairy Port. I try not to go everyday because that could get unhealthy, but I do go fairly frequently on my lunch breaks, particularly when Peanut Butter is the flavor of the day (it’s way to good for it’s own good and it knows it….). So I walk over to the Dairy Port and I get my Peanut Butter cone and I walk down to the waterfront and I sit at one of the benches looking out over the water, listening to the waves and watching the people and boats that go by. It’s strangely soothing to sit there eating my ice cream and observing the community we all live in. What’s even better is noticing some of you down by the waterfront doing the same thing, sharing in this peaceful summertime Bucksportian stillness down by the water. We all like to watch as the lives of others unfold around us. We enjoy being spectators, which is one reason we continue to go to the movies or watch television or attend sports games or even sit down by the waterfront eating ice cream. It’s oddly comforting to feel both a part of something, yet in the same instance completely separate from it. That might not be something we want to acknowledge about ourselves. It might even make us feel a little uncomfortable with ourselves, but it is a strangely universal aspect of our human nature for better or for worse.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958) both tap into this observational bent in all of us. Both Rear Window’s L. B. “Jeff” Jefferies and Vertigo’s John “Scottie” Ferguson are voyeurs who spend much of their respective films watching and observing the lives of others. Rear Window’s Jeff is a newspaper photographer. His professional life is dictated by capturing significant moments so that they can be recorded for posterity. When he breaks his leg and is confined to a wheelchair in his apartment, he turns his camera, and his penchant for observation, on his neighbors. As he carefully views their everyday lives, he believes he witnesses a murder and sets out to convince his friends that he truly did see what he thinks he saw and that the perpetrator should be brought to justice. Vertigo’s Scottie is a former police detective who has to retire from the force because of his debilitating vertigo. He is soon hired by an old friend, Gavin Elster, to follow Elster’s wife because Elster is afraid she might harm herself. Much of the film then focuses on Scottie as he follows Madeleine Elster around San Francisco trying to determine her mental state and gradually becomes more and more obsessed with this mysterious woman.

Even though in both Rear Window and Vertigo, Hitchcock intentionally places the audience firmly in the perspective of his two voyeur protagonists, both played by James Stewart, he creates this effect in decidedly different ways that create two decidedly different atmospheres. In Rear Window, Jeff’s voyeurism stems from a fairly innocent place. He is unexpectedly confined to his apartment by a broken leg and, out of boredom and frustration with his situation, takes up people-watching. The entire film unfolds from inside his apartment. All of the action takes place either inside Jeff’s apartment or through the lens of his camera.

No, really, the whole film takes place in Jeff’s apartment. Hitchcock and his crew built the entire set for this film on one giant soundstage at full scale. The whole set, built from scratch, was said to be approximately six stories high. It was so large that it didn’t even fit in the soundstage at first. Hitchcock had his crew tear out the floor and excavate the basement so that they could use that as well. When you watch the film, the courtyard between the two buildings is actually the basement of the soundstage that was excavated specifically for this film. Jeff’s apartment, which appears to be on the second floor in the film, is actually at ground level in the soundstage. At least eight of the several apartments featured in the movie were fully furnished and all of the apartments featured had working electricity and running water. It is said that almost every single light that was not being used by another simultaneous production, was commandeered for Rear Window so that they could effectively light the huge set to realistically portray early morning, afternoon, late evening, and night as experienced at a real Greenwich Village apartment building. The set was so realistic, one of the actors never even left her set apartment during the filming. She simply stayed there relaxing in between the scenes she was in as if she was at home. It was so elaborate and generated so much interest, it was a consistent feature on studio tours and in magazine spreads even during production. Yet, despite all of the meticulous detail in this extremely elaborate set, the camera and Hitchcock himself spent the entire shoot in only one apartment – Jeff’s. Hitchcock had all of the other actors wear flesh colored ear pieces and communicated directions to them through a short wave radio so that he never had to leave Jeff’s apartment. This creative choice is what firmly places the cinematic audience within Jeff’s voyeuristic perspective and what, I would argue, makes Rear Window so intrinsically and self-reflexively about cinema. Because we are in Jeff’s apartment the whole time and looking through Jeff’s camera most of the time, in it’s very structure, to me at least, Rear Window is a film about the joy of watching film. With each of the apartments that were so meticulously constructed, Hitchcock and his crew created a series of different mini-worlds, different movie screens for the character of Jeff to enter into as he convalesces. Jeff is the stand-in movie spectator for all of us as he scans these miniature screens, picks and chooses which he finds the most interesting, and gets more or less involved in the actions taking place in front of him – a bit like a 1950s version of Netflix.

The voyeurism on display in Vertigo is much less passive than that on display in Rear Window and this is perhaps why Scottie’s observation of Madeleine seems slightly more unsettling than Jeff’s observation of his neighbors. Continuing with the theme of viewing these protagonists as extensions of ourselves as cinema-goers, Scottie fails to remain outside of the action. As Scottie becomes more and more obsessed with the mysterious Madeleine, he becomes more and more determined to intervene in her life and interact with her. He actively wants to break the boundary between himself and the object of his gaze. As we continue on this journey along with Scottie, quite literally at times as many of the shots are taken from inside Scottie’s car from the driver’s perspective as he trails Madeleine around San Francisco, we as the audience are also gradually seduced into wanting to reach out and interact with Madeleine. We don’t want Scottie to retain his professional distance as a private detective. We want him to get closer, to look deeper, to break the veneer because this seems to be the only way to solve the mystery and while we are comforted by figuring out the answers to our questions, we are also unsettled by our own curiosity.

Despite Hitchcock working with one of his favorite leading men, having the beautiful landscape of San Francisco at his disposal, and employing the same meticulous attention to detail on display in Rear Window and all of this other films, when Vertigo was released, it was a huge commercial failure. Hitchcock blamed this on many factors – James Stewart was too old, Kim Novak was miscast, and so forth; but I think it might have just been that audiences in 1958 weren’t quite ready for a film that so thoroughly exposes the darker side of human curiosity and spectatorship. Now, Vertigo is considered Hitchcock’s definitive masterpiece, even surpassing Citizen Kane in Sight & Sound’s 2012 list of best films of all time. I think the reason for this is that Vertigo so unabashedly and unapologetically explores this desire within us all to watch and to observe, while simultaneously exploring what happens when our curiosity and our imagination overtake our ability to remain passive spectators, almost to the point of madness.

Both of these films are absolutely incredible and can be enjoyed either purely as intriguing mysteries or as an exploration of the cinematic form and how we, as spectators, interact with it. So, come down to the Alamo Theatre at 6pm, Sunday July 17th, for this amazing double feature of two of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films. Also, don’t forget to stop by the Dairy Port before the films for a special National Ice Cream Day treat! Tickets are $5 for each individual film, $7 for the double feature, and free for Members and Century Donors. Rear Window is up first at 6pm and we are estimating that Vertigo will start around 8:30pm after a brief intermission. See you there!