There’s something special about Hitchcock films, they can be enjoyable and make you uneasy at the same time. This is my favourite and I was lucky enough to catch a screening last week at ACMI for the Melbourne Festival. It has all the elements of a good Hitchcock – tricky, stylish camerawork, dry humour, an interesting subtext and a bit of moral ambiguity. It also has Grace Kelly at her best in some very stylish outfits.
The premise is a simple one – Jimmy Stewart plays L. B. ‘Jeff’ Jeffries, an intrepid news photographer laid up in his apartment with a leg in plaster. Through his windows he can see into all of the apartments surrounding him and he passes the time by spying and sometimes judging his neighbours. Grace Kelly plays his beautiful, cultured and spoiled girlfriend, Lisa, who is keen to settle down with him, imagining a perfect life with him as a society photographer. He of course is not so keen. As Jeff languishes, he sees something suspicious and becomes convinced that a crime has occurred.
The whole film is based in the one room and we mostly see things from Jeff’s perspective, albeit sometimes through binoculars. We are hampered as much as he is from moving around and this creates a certain claustrophobia and a fair bit of suspense as the action hots up. What is interesting, for me, is how much Jeff sees but doesn’t see and I wonder if this is a comment on his role as journalistic photographer, the voyeur but also the dispassionate bystander. It is often up to the women, Kelly and one of my favourite character actress of the 50s and 60s, Thelma Ritter, to recognise the humanity of those around them. There is a beautiful scene with ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’ where we can’t quite believe Jeff’s blindness.
The gender roles are interesting. Jeff is obviously who we are supposed to sympathise with but it is Lisa who shines. She is of course sold out by Hitchcock, I’m not sure I can think of a single lead female role in a Hitchcock film who isn’t badly treated or undermined and although Hitch shows she has more gumption than Jeff believes, he also makes her vapid and ultimately sly. Nice dresses though.
Bechdel test – pass