Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Rear Window/Disturbia

So here we are again with one of Hitchcock’s greatest films, and a terrible movie based off of it. Rear Window is quite possibly Hitchcock’s most famous and enduring film (as I write this, it’s his highest ranked film on IMDB’s Top 250 at #22, just ahead of Psycho). It was so popular, in fact, that it got remade in the late 90s as a TV movie that I haven’t seen. Then Steven Spielberg decided that wasn’t enough: what the world really needed was for him to produce a tween version of it to cash in on the Twilight/High School Musical crowd, and so we got Disturbia.
First, let us discuss Hitch’s film. It’s so well-known that it’s almost beside the point to talk about the plot: Jimmy Stewart’s stuck in a wheelchair, starts spying on his neighbors, and suspects one neighbor of having killed his wife. It’s such a famous story that the Simpsons devoted an entire episode to it, and I can only assume Family Guy followed suit. In the sheer familiarity of the story, it can be easy to forget how it thoroughly deserves its legendary status (in much the way that each new generation brings an army of teens with chips on their shoulders ready to try to hate Citizen Kane), but pretty much no matter who you are this has to have some level of resonance with you.

One thing that modern audiences (not all, but the ones who see films like Transformers) may take issue with is in how it’s a definite slow build movie, with the murder not even occurring until around half an hour in (I didn’t time it, so I may be horribly off there), allowing us to focus in on all of the characters first. Not just Stewart and Grace Kelly, our leads, but all the various neighbors he’s spying on, including future Perry Mason Raymond Burr. Compare this to a modern thriller like Edge of Darkness, which hurtles through plot so fast that you never get an actual reason to give a damn about any of the characters in it. To those who dislike spending time building up your characters before building up the plot, try this film, and see if it doesn’t change your mind a bit.

In a similar vein, it’s a bit surprising in how it doesn’t go for the lavish set pieces Hitchcock is normally fond of, like the frenzied carousel in Strangers on a Train or the dream in Spellbound. Instead, we get an entire film with the camera planted in one apartment (though frequently aimed out the window at other apartments) for almost the film’s entire running time. It’s a claustrophobic effort that manages to add to the tension later on without requiring any wild chase scenes (which would have had difficulty working anyway when the main character is in a wheelchair). A bit of a gamble, but he clearly pulled it off.

As always with Hitchcock, the film is as much a technical achievement as it is a dramatic one. Not only was it his first film in widescreen, but it was at the time the largest studio set Paramount had yet built, with the entire apartment complex constructed from below the ground up (indeed, they actually had to remove the ground, placing the courtyard in the studio’s basement), and placing a whole lot of lights on the ceiling to simulate sunlight. It’s the kind of mad effort that a person can get away with when he’s one of the most popular filmmakers in the world.

Of course, Disturbia takes pretty much every good decision Hitchcock made with his film and straight up ignores it. Stewart’s character was a mostly good, decent man? Shia LaBeouf is a violent psychopath with an ankle bracelet on after he assaulted his Spanish teacher. Stewart was trapped in his apartment and had a mostly good relationship with the police? LaBeouf runs all over the block, just so that the cops can repeatedly show up and scream at him while pointing their guns everywhere. Rear Window mostly avoided sentimental schmaltz? The opening fishing scene in Disturbia is so saccharine that it belonged in Patch Adams. Grace Kelly was classy and smart? Let’s have Sarah Roemer spend half the movie in a bikini! The original villain tried to cleverly dispose of the body all throughout the city pretty much immediately? Let’s have this villain leave the corpse in his closet, because that won’t smell after a day! The villain keeps the shades drawn in his wife’s bedroom, so Stewart can’t be completely sure there even was a murder? Here LaBeouf has his video camera recording the girl trying to run away from the guy while screaming and him assaulting her (and for some reason, he never once thinks to show this video to the police). About the only good part of this remake is that David Morse does a pretty good job as the villain, as one would frankly expect from a veteran of the industry like him. There is literally nothing else the movie gets right.

I don’t normally dislike LaBeouf when I see him in movies. His utter lack of personality in Transformers was aggressively inoffensive, and I actually liked him in his full greaser mode in Indiana Jones 4. But why it was decided to make him pretty much a complete asshole and then expect us to root for him anyway because he was in Holes. I’d say it’s the worst remake ever of a Hitchcock film, but then I won’t be watching the Psycho remake for the first time until next week.

Rating: Rear Window - **** / Disturbia - *

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