It is almost beyond argument within the world of cinema to say that Alfred Hitchcock is one of the greatest film makers of the 20th century. Aside from his more renowned masterpieces such as Psycho- an incredible thriller bursting with intrigue and suspense- Hitchcock single-handedly redefined the thriller genre with the most basic necessities needed to make a film; a single set and a cast of characters, so as to give the appearance of watching a play.
This style of filmmaking is practically scarce in the modern world, mostly due to the high risk factor. Watching characters interact in one room for an hour and a half doesn’t sound very appealing when scrolling through the plots of the newest Marvel film, or whatever ‘thriller’ Michael Bay has churned out, with technological advances allowing characters to interact beyond Planet Earth. The film industry has come a long way from being restricted to using hand-built sets and live music in theatres, so how can classics such as Rope or Rear Window possibly hope to stand strong today when creations of this category have devolved into the modern day bottle episode?
For starters, Rear Window is generally focused not in Jeffries’ (James Stewart) apartment but on the view of the building across the courtyard. This permits us to only see what Jefferies’ sees, allowing for greater immersion and for the MacGuffin of the film to remain ambiguous in the eyes of the viewer and the supporting cast; did Jeffries’ neighbour kill his wife?
The true beauty of this film is really in watching this view; we can only see characters interacting through their windows, with the view disrupted by walls or curtains, enabling Hitchcock to build his trademark suspense. In many scenes we can even watch as one character hides in one room or goes to a door with the other character being totally oblivious, leaving us on the edge of our seats watching the fallout of the resulting discovery and laughing at the dramatic irony. The hand-made set of Rear Window is really what makes it such a masterpiece of classic cinema, being so complex as to, at times, give us more knowledge and yet hinder us all at once to perfectly build suspense which even critically acclaimed thrillers like The Raid, or even the modern Bonds struggle to replicate.
Sound is also fundamental as, sinister music aside, we hear mostly what the characters hear, such as car horns or menacing footsteps climbing the stairs. This technique allows for a more immersive feel that many modern blockbusters trade in for more basic escapism. Yet this and the brilliant design of the mise en scene in Rear Window give way to genuine entertainment.
How then can Rope expect to hold up with its single set of a penthouse apartment living room? Characters are occasionally called through to the kitchen, but it is never shown and so we are kept in the dark as to what is going on, leaving all the focus on the interactions taking place in the lounge. The beauty of this film is that it is practically an extended second and third act, with the film opening as Philip (Farley Granger) and Brandon (John Dall) kill their friend; leaving the viewer to lie in wait as to why they did it and to hear about their plans. This permits the viewer to be in suspense from the moment the supporting cast arrive, wondering when (or if) they will discover the body, the rope, or if Rupert (James Stewart) will figure it all out. The dramatic irony of the corpse inside the casket off of which the characters are eating makes for wonderful black humour, only serving to further the audience’s interest. This production is in essence a true hour and a half bottled episode, but keeps the viewer fixed from start to finish. Yet there are times when looking around during modern thrillers that audience members seem to be on their phones or talking, barely interested.
Therefore it is clear that while these films can be considered basic in their set up and design they still hold strong, in many ways surpassing their ‘grandkids’ in ways that can only be accomplished by employing simplicity as a method of enthralling the viewer. Sometimes overly realistic grittiness just equates with gritty silliness, and perhaps modern directors such as Michael Bay should be looking to this artistic genius on how to genuinely thrill an audience.
Image: Sorovas; Wikimedia Commons