Vintage Cable Box: “Rear Window, 1954”

“Nothing has caused the human race so much trouble as intelligence.”

Rear Window, 1954 (James Stewart), Paramount Pictures

Freshman year of high school, we had a cocky, smarmy English teacher who enjoyed watching us fumble through Shakespeare, and apparently lived to correct our pronunciations of various phrases and outdated language. In the middle of the semester, he directed our school play, It Had To Be Murder!, based on the Cornell Woolrich story, which would also be adapted as Rear Window. I read for the part of “Jeff”, but was given the part of Doyle, “Jeff”s” cop buddy, who ignores him and lectures him on the U.S. Constitution. Our teacher had an interesting take on how to tell the story. He wanted us to pretend there was an enormous window at the edge of the stage, and when the principal characters are looking at what they think is a murder, we’re actually looking out into the audience. Where “Jeff” is supposed to fall from his window into the courtyard, he simply falls off the stage. The actor playing him, ironically, shattered his coccyx, but luckily he didn’t have to do an encore.

James Stewart is our “Jeff” for this movie. He plays adventurous photographer, Lionel “Jeff” Jeffries who, when he isn’t convalescing (with a broken leg set in a heavy cast) in his tiny one-room apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village, or dodging his gorgeous girlfriend’s demands for a more serious relationship, enjoys peeping on his neighbors across the courtyard. He even has nicknames for them: Ms. “Lonely Hearts,” Ms. “Torso,” etc. Traveling salesman Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) seems doomed to care for his sick wife forever until one night, as “Jeff” drifts off into sleep, he hears (or thinks he hears) the sound of breaking glass and a woman’s scream. The next day, Mrs. Thorwald is nowhere to be seen, so he starts putting pieces together. At first, his girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly) doesn’t believe him, but then she starts putting her own pieces together. His Nurse, Stella (hilarious Thelma Ritter), is all in and begins to speculate about what Lars did to conceal the body.

Lisa’s big pitch is Mrs. Thorwald’s purse. There’s no way she would leave her purse behind if she were going on a trip (this is Thorwald’s alibi to Doyle). My wife always disagrees with her line of reasoning. Maybe she just doesn’t like being pigeon-holed, but it is a woman doing the pigeon-holing, for what it’s worth. Try as he might, “Jeff” can’t convince Doyle to launch an investigation. Doyle tries to tell him about the difficulties of obtaining a search warrant, so “Jeff” puts the two women in his life in danger by sending them out to dig up the garden where they suspect Thorwald has buried his wife’s body parts. Lisa takes it one step further by breaking into Thorwald’s apartment, where she finds his wife’s wedding ring! This is very exciting and suspenseful, especially when Thorwald realizes somebody is watching him from an apartment directly opposite his across the courtyard! You’re seriously on the edge of your seat watching this as it unfolds.

There are beautiful character moments in Rear Window. Lisa (and Thelma’s) bravery in the face of “Jeff’s” obvious impotence in the situation; constricted by a wheelchair and a broken leg. The sarcasm and quick humor of everyday New Yorkers. Lisa and “Jeff’s” near-constant arguments and debates about their relationship and “rear window ethics.” “Jeff” is somewhat turned on by his girlfriend’s courage. What’s even more staggering is that all of this occurs within the confines of a tiny New York apartment. This is a fantastic movie and goes in my top five of Hitchcock movies. Speaking of five Hitchcock movies, August marks Alfred Hitchcock Month on Vintage Cable Box, wherein I will review the five movies (the “missing Hitchcocks” or the “forbidden five”) that were re-released in 1984, and then shown on cable the next year. These were the movies that introduced me to Hitchcock.

Special thanks to Bronwyn Knox for supplying the artwork.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties. 

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Vintage Cable Box: “The Lonely Lady”, 1983

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“I don’t suppose I’m the only one who’s had to fuck her way to the top.”

lonely lady

“The Lonely Lady”, 1983 (Pia Zadora), Universal Pictures

Let’s get this out of the way first.  Pia Zadora is fucking hot!  She’s such a soft, sensual creature – goddess and demon.  She makes me nuts just thinking about her.  A diminutive yet voluptuous combination of nymph and vixen struggling tooth and nail against the evil masculine forces which circle her in tribal formation and threaten to destroy her delicate creative genius.  You can damn me, but I understand her frustration.  Not that I’m some babe out there with talent that’s always being ignored in favor of my gorgeous breasts and well-toned ass, but I get that when you’re out there, trying to take a swim, you’re going to run across a lot of leeches in the pool.

The movie opens with Pia’s character, Jerilee, on her way to a big award ceremony in Hollywood. From there, we go into a flashback. In high school, she wins her first creative writing award. Later, after a party, a young Ray Liotta rapes her with a garden hose. This movie pulls no punches when it comes to naming man as woman’s ultimate aggressor. The rape is filmed in such a way that a female acquaintance is laughing at her, and taunting her while Liotta does the deed. I can’t imagine any woman ever behaving in such a way when another woman is being raped, but this story is the brain-child of Harold Robbins, famous for a particular form of exploitation disguised as the trashy “romance” novel.

After an untold period of time chronicling her recovery, Jerilee gets back on the horse and continues writing. She ultimately marries her boyfriend’s dad (against mother Bibi Besch’s wishes), because he is a successful screenwriter. They try to consummate, but the old man has a heart condition. Her marriage gets her critical meetings with the power-brokers of Hollywood, but everybody seems to be interested only in her body. Tensions between her and her husband escalate when she rewrites one his scripts. They divorce, and she proceeds to screw every actor and producer in Hollywood to get her screenplay sold. She dates a manipulative actor (Jared Martin), who knocks her up, forcing her to get an abortion because he won’t support the child.

Sleazy Introduction
A sleazy introduction.

I don’t believe I understand the message of this movie, other than that men will rape you, take advantage of you, manipulate you, abuse you emotionally, or try to destroy you should you dare to live your dreams.  The meaning is lost in the details because Jerilee, while obviously telegraphed as being “talented”, is also extremely naive, and more often than not, idiotic in her ambitions.  Moreover, Zadora, in her depiction, doesn’t strike me as a writer.  More like a curious observer in a world of snakes masquerading as men.  The other women in the movie aren’t much help, either.  They are either strict, judgmental authoritarians (like her mother), or slutty gold-diggers.  So, “The Lonely Lady” deceptively labels itself a product of feminine empowerment, but instead it skewers the fairer sex by creating a culture of victimization in it’s central character; an interesting female archetype who must be punished for being beautiful and sexually attractive.

A naive young man myself when first watching the film, I assumed this what movies for adults were; products laced with sex and nudity, violence, and profanity, but done up in a dismal melodramatic watercolor painting with unusual outbursts of primary color.  Unfortunately, the music, and the editing, and the many montages of “The Lonely Lady” make it seem like nothing more than a made-for-television drama with tits.  Not that I mind.  The movie is never boring.  I have to give Pia props for her bravery in being made the fool of this peculiar morality fable; she is remarkably easy on the eyes, even as her dialogue hurts our ears.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.