Jimmy Stewart’s “Rear Window”

An Essential and Stylish Movie Classic

Made in 1954, director Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, starring Jimmy Stewart and the always beautiful Grace Kelly, set the standard for classic movie thrillers for decades to come. In fact its voyeur-who-witnesses-a-murder-and-isn’t-believed theme is an essential part of any movie that seeks to encourage a bit of paranoia and suspense. Alfred Hitchcock himself relied upon this premise in several other movies of his over the years, to great effect.

The film opens with Jimmy Stewart’s photographer character, Jeff Jeffries, bound to a wheelchair, convalescing after an accident. Actually more of a professional voyeur, he spends the day observing the comings-and-goings of the neighbors in his apartment building. The films darkens quickly enough, after he observes what he thinks may have been a murder. It’s at this point that Jeffries has a very hard, if not at first impossible, time convincing his girlfriend Lisa — effectively played by Grace Kelly – and others that the upstanding citizen across the way may not be as harmless and nice as he seems.

A lot of critics, including this one, feel that the murder that Stewart’s character may or may not have witnessed is nothing more than what’s called a “MacGuffin.” That is, it’s a pretext with which to give motivation to certain characters to make them do what they need to do in the movie. This makes sense, because Rear Window forces us to examine Jeffries, Lisa, and the possible murderer (Raymond Burr), and how they react to what’s going on around them; their interrelationships and the emotions which play across their faces, at times. The possibility of murder itself, cold as it may seem, is just something that’s used to get these characters going in the directions they need to. We especially find ourselves interested in examining how Jimmy Stewart, in the role of voyeur or sentinel, reacts to his situation, hobbled as he is by his confinement to a wheelchair. And that’s the genius behind this film, for only a truly masterful actor (which Stewart was) could be convincing enough to make the average movie audience of the time care more about him than about a person who may have been killed.

Honored as one the 100 best movies of all time, Rear Window set the standard for the classic movie thriller. Its cinematography and skillful use of camera work by Hitchcock, who propels you into the feelings of the main characters as effortlessly as a river of water flows downstream, will keep you riveted to your chair. If you get a chance, rent it or buy one of the re-mastered DVDs available for sale.

“Metropolis”: A Film Teeming With Symbolism

In 1927, there was a critical examination going on among intellectuals and filmmakers that looked at the relationship between working classes and the people who were felt to control the so-called “means of production.”

Communist theory of the day used that relationship to great effect, and it was genuinely believed among many people who may not have even had any sympathy for the idea of Communism that a growing tension between workers and rulers — the owners of the means of production — was destined to culminate in a final and possibly fatal struggle between the two for supremacy. Director Fritz Lang’s cinematic exploration of this theme, 1927’s Metropolis, is arguably one of the most groundbreaking silent movies of its time, and it took seriously its mission to critically examine one of the most important issues existing in that era. That it’s also one of the best science fiction movie classics of all time, with special effects still worthy of complement, is a side benefit that’s greatly appreciated among true movie aficionados even to this day.

The movie itself takes place in the year 2027 in the fictional city-state of Metropolis, which is designed and ran for the benefit of the corporate ruling elite, who are the “thinkers” (they don’t know how anything works, really, but they have all the beneficial ideas that eventually lead to the manufacture of things by other classes). Because thinkers live above ground, high up, the maintenance and upkeep of Metropolis falls onto the shoulders of the underground-dwelling working class, called “workers,” or “hands” (thinkers are also called “heads”). While a science fiction movie (for all intents and purposes) on the surface, Fritz Lang ably explores the issues of class and societal division so masterfully, one will walk away from this movie wondering at how we still have issues very similar to what he examined in 1927, today. Lang’s movie, though, is ultimately hopeful, even amidst the struggle between the thinkers and the workers for control of Metropolis. And his resolution, which at least in the movie solves the problem of inequality between social classes, can’t be anything but pleasing. Metropolis also skillfully makes use of prophetic vision in its central theme that there will be a “One,” or so-called “savior” who unites the classes at some point in the future. Most memorably, the recent Matrix franchise employed an idea of “The One,” and it drew some of its inspiration from Lang’s 1927 cinematic effort.

Both a science fiction masterpiece and a classic movie in any genre, Metropolis adeptly tells its story of urban stress — and how people are eventually negatively affected by it — in a way that discretely insinuates its exploration of class struggle, and also a prophetic vision usually found only in biblical or fantastical literature, without a moviegoer even realizing it’s been done. Truly a four-star effort.

“Forbidden Planet” Starring Walter Pidgeon

One of the Best Science Fiction Movies Ever Made

Forbidden Planet, one of the best classic movies of the science fiction genre, is a film made in 1956 that pays direct homage to William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Starring Walter Pidgeon as Doctor Morbius (the Prospero character in Tempest) and Anne Francis as his daughter, Planet examines how a paradise-like existence on the distant planet Altair-4 may not be all that it appears. That this is so is amply demonstrated by the arrival of a spaceship, captained by a youngish Leslie Neilsen, and what happens when he and his crew are injected into the mix. The movie is also famous for its introduction of Robby the Robot into our popular culture. The robot in Lost in Space is a direct descendant of the Robby archetype, as are many of the space crew portrayals in later science fiction movies and television productions like Star Trek and Babylon Five.

Anne Francis, who plays Altaira, the lovely young daughter of Morbius, gives a nuanced performance, especially after the arrival of Neilsen and his spaceship, which had been sent out in search of the crew that had previously gone to Altair-4.

Of that crew, only Altaira and her father remained, the others having been killed off by an unseen force surrounding the planet. Robby fills the role of loyal servant, who also may be more than is apparent at first blush. While Forbidden Planet uses science fiction as its motive force, it’s clear that it serves as a convenient device with which to examine the issues that underpin the film’s broader narrative. What happened to the race of beings that previously lived on Altair-4? What exactly was the force binding Walter Pidgeon’s Morbius and his daughter to the planet? Does the doctor know more than he lets on, and will he (or the mysterious force) tolerate Nielsen’s courtship of his daughter, who’d never seen another man prior to the arrival of the latest spaceship?

The 50s were a time of anxiety over nuclear power, and our presence in the cosmos. Roswell and UFOs also served to turn up the level of concern over science and its role in the world. But that same concern was also mixed with wonder and a desire to explore, and the movie reflected that. Planet also set cinematic standards for special effects – which still look impressive even today – and for musical scoring, it being the first to entirely use electronic sounds to create a movie score. All in all, when speaking of a science fiction movie classic, Forbidden Planet receives four stars.