“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watching us fumble through Shakespeare, and apparently lived to correct our pronunciations of various phrases and outdated language.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.

“King Kong, 1976”

“He was the terror, the mystery of their lives, and the magic.  A year from now that’ll be an island full of burned-out drunks.  When we took Kong, we kidnapped their god.”

King Kong, 1976 (Jeff Bridges), Paramount Pictures

Once upon a time, movies were made for fun. There was the promise of riches, of course, but technicians took an interest in telling stories, entertaining the masses, and weighing the benefits of big box office grosses and shelf life. There was no room for philosophy or a filmmaker’s personal responsibility. When Jaws brought the fervor and potential of explosive summer movie box office openings to a fever pitch, producers scrambled like mad to make big movies for wide release. The system is still in place today, but with nowhere near as much zeal or child-like enthusiasm as it once had. It’s become a more cynical market for big budget genre movies.

With Kong: Skull Island now making the rounds in theaters, there have been at least 18 incarnations of the “creature who touches Heaven,” and there will be more for sure. We saw the movie last week, and while I was grateful the writers and producers made an all-out monster movie this time around, I was dismayed at the lack of creative enterprise. This was by-the-numbers computerized filmmaking, and so much thought was put into Kong’s appearance that very little effort was left to write a compelling story or develop interesting characterizations, but I don’t want to write about Kong: Skull Island. I call this column Vintage Cable Box for a reason.

Dreamy scientist Jeff Bridges stows away aboard greedy industrialist Charles Grodin’s merchant tanker as it sets a course for an uncharted island obscured by a mysterious fog bank somewhere in the North Pacific. Along the way, they receive a distress call from a sunken yacht and pick up aspiring actress Dwan (delicious Jessica Lange), and it isn’t long before the two most attractive people in the entire cast become attracted to one another. They pierce the white veil of fog surrounding the island and make for shore on an expedition for oil (an interesting narrative choice considering the gas shortage of the time).

The explorers run afoul of unpleasant natives who demand blondie Dwan in exchange for six of their own women so she can be used for a strange marriage ritual. They refuse and set off a light-show with guns to scare off the natives. Later that night, they abduct Dwan, drape her in gowns and offer her up to our titular primate. At times, their courtship is quite endearing. Kong is initially furious with her because of her stubborn streak, but he grows to like (and then, admittedly inexplicably) love her. For Dwan’s part, she spends most of her time with Kong in fear, either of his temper, or the other various creatures and dangerous situations on the island. She ultimately develops an affection for the enormous ape. Rick Baker (in the ape suit) and Carlo Rambaldi (responsible for the expressive mechanical makeup effects) create an incredible character in Kong that we feel for, and ultimately pity.

After tests indicate the petroleum isn’t ready for drilling, Grodin doubles down and captures Kong to save his job by making the big guy part of an advertising campaign akin to the Esso “Put a Tiger in Your Tank” promotion.  He takes Kong to New York, and of course, the ape goes … well … ape.  Kong takes Dwan to the top of the World Trade Center and is killed by helicopters.  The movie does a great job of negotiating the terror of the beast with the ethical quandry of removing him from his habitat without the proselytizing quasi-bestial leanings of Peter Jackson’s overblown (and unnecessarily epic) 2005 remake, or Merian C. Cooper’s rambling, unintentionally funny ode to the “white male reality.”  This movie is the “Goldilocks” of all the King Kong movies, for me.  It’s just right.

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.