Goddess in the Rear Window

rear1It struck me, re-watching Rear Window last night (thanks to The ‘Burbs, but to explain that you’re best reading my prior post), that a great appeal of that movie is just re-experiencing it, wallowing in it, as if the screen was an actual place, in just the same way as watching Blade Runner is always a little like visiting LA 2019 (a place just as impossible now as the 1950s setting of Rear Window seems to be). Regardless of the plot, for almost two hours one can feel oneself transported to this other world, soaking up the visuals and the sounds (I think the audio track of Rear Window, utilising mostly ‘source’ or ‘diegetic’ music, is one of its greatest achievements). Certainly, never has the Greenwich Village courtyard of Rear Window seemed as captivating and tangible as it does on this 4K UHD release- the film looks quite ravishing: the fabrics and textures are so detailed, the colours so vibrant, the sense of time and place so dreamy and evocative (partly because its actually all a set, something that just intensifies the strange dreamlike feel of the setting). And then of course there is Grace Kelly, possibly the most beautiful actress to ever appear onscreen, the definitive Hitchcock Blonde: beautiful, intelligent, sexy… she is so fascinating to just watch, she seems to light up the screen with her presence. It is astonishing to think her acting career only lasted barely six years, as she retired from acting at just 26 years old upon marrying Prince Rainier of Monaco, becoming Princess of Monaco, never returning to acting (despite overtures from Hitchcock, for one). Her life had suddenly become a real-life fairy-tale, I suppose, so returning to Hollywood likely seemed pointless. Kelly’s entrance in Rear Window, a slow close-up culminating in a long, slow sensual kiss, and then literally lighting up the room as she steps from light to light, switching each lamp on in turn, is one of the most astonishing entrances in all cinema, in my book; there is something intensely magical and quite timeless about it.

 

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

anatomy1Otto Preminger’s courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder is a powerful and fascinating film, but I have to confess, I think I really need a second viewing to properly judge it. This is really through no fault of the film itself, but instead due wholly to me being distracted by Lee Remick’s character, Laura, the raped wife who proved to be a particular point of difficulty for me. This wasn’t anything to do with Remick’s performance, which was excellent, and as it turned out, quite true to the real-life origins of the film which I’ll get into shortly.  Rather, it was perhaps my perspective of enlightened times some sixty years later, and my disbelief at her apparent casual reaction to her own rape. Having reflected upon it for several days, I suppose that casualness was the whole point, but on my initial viewing of the film (and who knows? It might irritate me always) it bothered me throughout, it didn’t ring true; it seemed grossly nonsensical. Laura has been raped, a deeply traumatic and devastating experience for any woman, and yet Laura not only seems to have dismissed it as just an unfortunate episode, but subsequently continues to flirt with every man she meets, including our nominal ‘hero’ Paul Biegler (James Stewart) and dresses provocatively, like some kind of decidedly dumb-blonde femme fatale.

Of course, the unreliable narrative of her rape is the whole point of the film, but on this first viewing it appeared to me to be too obvious, too blunt. I suppose this may be a case of how strange real-life can be (the film is based on a real 1952 case, but I didn’t know it at the time – perhaps coming into a film ‘unspoiled’ can actually sometimes be counter-productive) but it hampered my enjoyment of the film somewhat. I guess what I’m getting at is that I think more subtlety would have been preferable, as I was repeatedly distracted by it: how could anyone take her, or her story, so seriously, if it was so blatantly dubious? Again, maybe that’s the point of the movie.

Anatomy of a Murder is a film about a man who has killed someone in cold blood, in front of witnesses who clearly saw him do it, who then tasks a lawyer to try to engineer some way through the law to ensure he gets away with it. Not so much the law getting justice done but the law thwarting justice. In these troubled and more cynical times we are used to injustice and criminals escaping their just deserts but in 1959 this must have been a very troubling,  radical and rather scandalous subject for a film. Its detailed dramatisation of the courtroom and machinations of the justice system enables a view that must have been remarkable at the time it was first released.

anatomy2The key to me accepting some elements that I initially deemed preposterous was something done in retrospect (hence thinking a second viewing will prove more enjoyable), by later discovering the true events that inspired it. The film is based upon a book written by attorney John Voelker (under the pen name Robert Traver) that was based on one of his own cases, in which Voelker secured an acquittal for his client Coleman Peterson, who had shot dead Mike Chenoweth, a tavern owner in July of 1952 (Voelker is pictured above with Coleman Peterson and his wife, Charlotte). Charlotte claimed that she had been raped by bar-owner Chenoweth, and Voelker’s case centred upon the argument that the enraged Peterson acted out of brute instinct and temporary insanity- an “irresistible impulse”- essentially that he didn’t know what he was doing, unaware of right or wrong and was therefore innocent of the charges. This was a case not without precedent (as is detailed in the film) but remains a rather dubious chapter in judicial history. For my part there is lingering distaste considering the injustice done to the victim, whose murderer got away scot-free.

The film followed the real events very closely, indeed proving to be a fairly reliable and sincere representation (even the dog and his torch was real): so much so in fact, that it largely filmed in the locations (or close to them) that the events occurred, including the trailer park where Peterson and his wife lived and from where they skipped town without paying the Voelker the three thousand dollars they owed him. In the film, this appeared to me to be one twist too many, but incredibly it did indeed happen, even down to the note Peterson left him claiming he was following “an irresistible impulse” in clearing out, the bitter irony of it being the same justification used to get him out of the murder charge serving the film as a final moment of fitting black humour (Voelker, of course, later earned plenty for his efforts by turning the story into the best-selling novel and later selling it to Hollywood).

Its pretty clear that Anatomy of a Murder has a certain noir sensibility and feel- partly this is the atmospheric soundtrack by Duke Ellington, whose modern jazz score lends a definite moody, semi-noir ambience. Moreover, the characters themselves are quite dark and multifaceted, doubling the films moral ambiguity. Traditionally, our attorney defending Frederick “Manny” Manion (Ben Gazzara), would be a righteous and noble defender of justice, especially with James Stewart cast in the role (the modern equivalent would be someone like Tom Hanks): instead Paul Biegler knows he’s on the ‘wrong side’ and isn’t avert to subverting justice to win through. Biegler is clearly suspicious of Manion’s claim that his wife Laura was raped but then suggests to Manion the mechanism of how to get away with the murder, leading Manion into the idea that he was crazy with rage and temporarily insane. Biegler seems to be a typical hometown, ordinary decent guy and unassuming, but at others is canny and astute and manipulative: its almost disconcerting seeing Stewart in such a role, but the almost unlikely casting certainly works in the films favour.

anatomy3Laura Manion, as I have noted, is definitely an unlikely victim – clearly an attractive woman with low self-worth, she evidently seeks the attention of men which is hardly wise whilst married to a blatantly jealous, violent and abusive husband who perhaps neglects her. It could be inferred that she cheats on him often and that any sexual contact with  innkeeper Bernard “Barney” Quill was likely consensual; the rape claim was either a defence she made to her husband or one they concocted together after Manion killed Quill. Biegler makes a point of instructing Laura to dress less provocatively when in court, to play up to the jury her role of decent and loving housewife, to reinforce the idea that she was raped rather than a cheating nymphomaniac. Manion, of course is a hot-tempered and violent military man who is using the system to escape justice and is shady enough to skip town without even paying the attorney who saved him.

Perhaps the biggest noir element of the film is what it chooses not to show us- the film lacks any flashbacks to the night of the murder, so we are not given any visual clues, only aural testimonies which at times contest with each other. Flashbacks might have been perceived as definitive, revealing the truth, which in the film is left as uncertain. We only know what the Jury is led to believe, and the ambiguity, both implicit and moral, is rather concerning.

What a subversive and shocking film for the 1950s! Indeed the film came under fire by the censors, criticised for its use of words like “panties” and “contraceptive” and terms like “penetration”, “sexual climax”- the film pushed the boundaries of what was permissible at the time and its clear how groundbreaking and scandalous the film was back then. Even today -perhaps particularly so- its sense of thwarted, even abused justice resonates.

The cast is excellent-James Stewart was always a gifted actor capable of considerable nuance, Lee Remick is naturally beautiful but carries with it surprising layers of depth: possibly a manipulator of men, or a foolish young woman and victim of domestic violence: its a remarkable performance from a relative newcomer to the screen (originally the role was destined for Lana Turner whose unfortunate designer wardrobe claims had her at odds with Preminger, and replaced by Remick). Ben Gazarra is suitably slimy and cunning, always submerging constantly pent-up rage; at his wife, at his jailers, at the world at large. I was particularly impressed by a very contained performance by George C. Scott as prosecutor Claude Dancer, who seems well aware of what Biegler is doing: there is a subtlety to him that threatens to steal every scene he is in, just drawing in your attention: I was not surprised to learn that it earned Scott an Academy Award nomination, but was surprised that it was one of his very earliest film roles, it is so self-assured.

The person who does indeed steal the show was, ironically, not even an actor- Joseph N. Welch, a real-life attorney who had served as counsel for the U.S. Army during the Army-McCarthy trials and was at the time a publicly-known figure, plays the presiding Judge Weaver. His quiet and affable nature lends an air of dignity over the courtroom drama and his ease is quite remarkable.

So I really did enjoy Anatomy of a Murder, and suspect my misgivings during my first viewing will be removed upon watching the film again, now that I am aware of the story behind it. Sometimes reality can be crazier than fiction, after all, and its interesting how remaining spoiler-free possibly harmed my first viewing. Fortunately this Criterion edition on Blu-ray looks quite splendid and has a raft of supplements, and I’m sure will indeed reward subsequent viewings.

Sully (2016)

sully.jpgIt seems to me, particularly with films such as this, that Tom Hanks is our modern-day equivalent of James Stewart- an actor whose onscreen persona is one of moral integrity and doing the right thing. I don’t think we have screen icons like there used to be in the grand old days of Tinseltown (empty and false as they might have been in reality), but Hanks seems to buck that – the cynic in me rather suspects it might just be Hank’s crafty choice of projects/collaborators, or maybe his publicity team, but the other part of me just thinks he’s a genuinely nice guy which reflects on his roles.

I still think he would make a fantastic Bond villain, if only for the shock of casting him against type.

Anyway, I often thought about the great James Stewart whilst watching this film- had this been made back in his day it would have been the perfect role for him. As it is, it’s perfect for Hanks, and possibly the easiest piece of casting for any movie project this decade.

I’ve obviously come to this film rather late, but I must confess it was much better than I had expected, which had been a dry, by-the-numbers account of Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s heroic aversion of an air disaster. I well remember the events of January 15, 2009, when a US Airways flight was struck by a flock of birds soon after takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport. With both engines destroyed, the stricken plane’s veteran pilot glided the stricken plane onto the surface of the Hudson River, the first-ever successful water landing of a jet airliner, and saved the lives of all 155 passengers and crew.

It would have been easy to just introduce some of the passengers back-stories, and that of the crew, prior to the flight and then let the events unfold like any other disaster movie (indeed like those old Airport movies of the 1970s). But the film wasn’t the simple retelling of those events that I had expected, as I didn’t really know the full story; instead the film focuses on the days afterwards and the air investigation into the near-disaster, which threatened to lay the blame on Sully and end his career as a passenger pilot- completely at odds with both the public perception of him as a hero and the idolization of the press who loved the ‘feel-good’ story. As the film’s narrative of the investigation progresses we see the graphic account of the fateful flight I’d expected, but broken into sections/perspectives as its framed by the investigation and scenes of Sully trying to come to terms with the traumatic event.

Commendably the film, directed by Clint Eastwood, doesn’t idolize Sully, but rather portrays him as a guy doing his job in extreme circumstances and somehow coming through. Sully certainly seems a reluctant hero overtaken by events. It is, no doubt, still a feel-good story but it’s grounded with some drama and surprising twists. Much better, and more balanced/complex, than I had expected. Nice one.