Thelma Ritter

Rear Window (1954, Alfred Hitchcock)

Rear Window is an absurdly good time. It’s breathtakingly produced and the set is a marvel on its own, but it’s also an absurdly good time. You’ve got Thelma Ritter chastising James Stewart not just for peeping, she also chastises him for not being serious enough about Grace Kelly. How could it not be an absurdly good time.

So the film is simultaneously Hitchcock the popular filmmaker–enjoy these stars in these performances–it’s Hitchcock the technical filmmaker. The first half of the film, maybe even longer, is usually Hitchcock showing off what he, cinematographer Robert Burks, editor George Tomasini, and uncredited(!) sound editor Howard Beals can do. What they do is transport the viewer into a New York apartment, staring out at the world, with Stewart around to play tour guide for a while. Rear Window isn’t just the story of Stewart healing from a broken leg or deciding whether or not to settle for Grace Kelly or even solving a murder–it’s all the little stories going on around. It’s the care screenwriter John Michael Hayes takes in how Stewart’s interpretation of these stories comes through. It’s delicate and deliberate and just part of that breathtaking production. Rear Window takes itself very seriously. You have to take yourself seriously if you’re going to have Jimmy Stewart complain Grace Kelly is just too perfect for him. You need Thelma Ritter there. With Rear Window, there can be no substitutions. Everything is just so.

After setting up the murder mystery–which brings Wendell Corey into the film and apartment as Stewart’s old war buddy now copper–Rear Window still takes its time. Hitchcock and Hayes play around with the mystery plot line, really changing up the pace of the film. It takes place over less than a week, with the initial nights really emphasized. The repetitive effect, with the occasional car horn and steady rainfall, brings the viewer in. Rear Window enthralls, quite intentionally. The last act is real time, neither the viewer nor the narrative able to handle much more. Hitchcock has a great sense for when he’s going too far, asking too much. He guides it beautifully.

All of the performances are great. Ritter’s hilarious, Kelly’s too perfect, Stewart’s–Stewart. Stewart is immobile, but always active. He’s simultaneously the viewer’s guide and de facto view finder and protagonist. He doesn’t get a lot of protagonist help from Hayes’s script after a while, just because there’s too much going on, but Stewart makes it happen. In fact, he’s almost good enough for it to be believable he’s closer in age to Kelly than he is to Ritter. The chemistry between the actors is just too good. Rear Window’s got a lot of dialogue and it has to be done just right, not only for exposition, but to cultivate that chemistry. Hitchcock knows without it, Rear Window would be too voyeuristic.

Wendell Corey’s a lot of fun too as the straight man. It’s a hard part because everyone wants there to be a crime, everyone wants there to be a mystery. Except Corey. He wants to go home, so the viewer’s inclined against him. Hitchcock and Corey play with that hostility. Because it’s a smart movie.

Rear Window’s all-around awesome.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by John Michael Hayes, based on a story by Cornell Woolrich; director of photography, Robert Burks; edited by George Tomasini; music by Franz Waxman; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring James Stewart (L.B. Jefferies), Grace Kelly (Lisa Carol Fremont), Wendell Corey (Det. Lt. Thomas J. Doyle), Thelma Ritter (Stella), and Raymond Burr (Lars Thorwald).


A Hole in the Head (1959, Frank Capra)

The first hour of A Hole in the Head is slow going. It shouldn’t be slow going, not with everything the film has going for it, but director Capra is real lazy. He’s lazy with his composition, he’s lazy with his actors, he’s lazy with the pace. It’s amazing how the film’s pluses are able to turn things around in the second half.

The script’s a very stagy adaptation of a play, with original playwright Arnold Schulman doing the adapting. Capra takes the easiest approach possible to everything in the first half of the film, which takes place almost entirely at lead Frank Sinatra’s hotel. It’s not a nice hotel, Sinatra’s not a good hotelier, but there’s something interesting about a little bit of a rundown hotel amid otherwise glamorous Miami Beach. Capra is indifferent to that possibility, unfortunately. Instead, he plops the camera down and shoots almost everything in medium shot, two characters in profile. It’s beyond boring.

Sinatra’s not just an unsuccessful businessman, he’s a widower with an eleven year-old son (a likable Eddie Hodges) and a twenty-one year-old girlfriend (Carolyn Jones). Between Schulman’s script and Capra’s direction, none of the actors get much favor, but Jones easily gets the worst treatment. She’s actually got a character and she does well. Schulman’s just lazy. She lives in Sinatra’s hotel, they’re not discreet, yet Hodges never gets to acknowledge her. Not really. When the film finally does try, it cops out. Worse yet, it cops out with one of editor William Hornbeck’s awful fades. Terrible editing in Hole. Not sure if it’s Hornbeck or just Capra refusing to take the time to get solid coverage. I’d assume the latter.

But Sinatra’s also unlikable in this first part of the film because it’s about him being a deadbeat dad. When redemption does arrive, in the film’s deftest move, it doesn’t come in the shapes of Edward G. Robinson and Thelma Ritter (Robinson’s Sinatra’s successful, if miserly, brother and Ritter’s Robinson’s very patient wife) or Eleanor Parker (as the widow who Robinson wants Sinatra to marry), it comes because Sinatra finally gets a character to play.

By not shooting his actors in close-up, except as comedic reaction shots, Capra never asks them to act. He never asks them to try. I guess Hodges does get close-ups, but it’s so he can be likable, which is probably worse.

Sinatra and Parker have a very nice, very grown-up scene, with Sinatra leaving the hotel and going somewhere not shot in front of rear projection for once. Hole definitely shot on location in Miami, but not enough. At least not when none of the studio-shot inserts come close to matching. (Again, Capra’s clearly checked out).

After that scene, the whole thing starts to turn around. Schulman and Capra take Sinatra (and the viewer) outside the hotel, the script gives Hodges something to do besides be cute, Ritter and Robinson aren’t just playing for laughs anymore.

And, in the last half hour, A Hole in the Head gets quite good. The cast has a whole lot of goodwill banked from the first half, when Capra and the script clearly waste them, and it all pays off towards the end. The actors save A Hole in the Head. They save it from Schulman’s unsteady script, from Capra’s unimaginative visualizing of said script, from Hornbeck’s jarring cuts. They even save it from the awful Nelson Riddle music.

Capra asks everyone to do movie star acting in a story needing a far more muted approach. Sinatra, Parker, Ritter, Robinson. They’re all good enough actors to know what their characters need. Would better direction improve the film? Definitely. But it does all right without it.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Frank Capra; screenplay by Arnold Schulman, based on his play; director of photography, William H. Daniels; edited by William Hornbeck; music by Nelson Riddle; released by United Artists.

Starring Frank Sinatra (Tony Manetta), Eddie Hodges (Ally Manetta), Carolyn Jones (Shirl), Thelma Ritter (Sophie Manetta), Edward G. Robinson (Mario Manetta), Keenan Wynn (Jerry Marks) and Eleanor Parker (Mrs. Eloise Rogers).


The Mating Season (1951, Mitchell Leisen)

The Mating Season is an awkward social comedy of errors. I say awkward because to make the plot work, Gene Tierney has to act selfishly every time she’s supposed to be garnering sympathy. Thinking about it now, the film never even resolves her flirtations with the guy out to ruin her husband (and their marriage).

If Tierney’s unsuccessful navigating the film, leading man John Lund doesn’t do much better. His character remains sympathetic throughout (even taking the blame for Tierney’s shortcomings), but Lund can’t bring believability to it. It’s never believable he wouldn’t have punched out his gold digging mother-in-law (Miriam Hopkins, who creates an impressively evil character).

The whole plot of the thing reminds me a little of “Jerry,” the show in a show on “Seinfeld” with the court appointed butler. The writers of Mating Season clearly thought they were on to something, but they can’t pull it off. The plot requires supposedly likable characters to be far too disagreeable far too often.

However, there is a bright spot. Thelma Ritter. Ritter’s wondrous as Lund’s mother (who Tierney, being upper crust, mistakes for a cook). The film’s a disjointed pairing of Ritter’s compelling story and Lund and Tierney’s contrived one.

There are a couple nice supporting performances from Larry Keating and James Lorimer.

Leisen’s direction is uninspired. He seems to understand there’s only so much he can do with the script and relies heavily on a scantily clad Tierney.

It’s definitely worth seeing for Ritter, but it’s a disappointment.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Mitchell Leisen; screenplay by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch and Richard L. Breen, based on a play by Caeser Dunn; director of photography, Charles Lang; edited by Frank Bracht; music by Joseph J. Lilley; produced by Brackett; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Gene Tierney (Maggie Carleton), John Lund (Val McNulty), Miriam Hopkins (Fran Carleton), Thelma Ritter (Ellen McNulty), Jan Sterling (Betsy), Larry Keating (George C. Kalinger Sr.), James Lorimer (George C. Kalinger Jr.), Gladys Hurlbut (Mrs. Conger), Cora Witherspoon (Mrs. Williamson) and Malcolm Keen (Mr. Williamson).


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