Hollywood is swarming with serial killers. And for this I blame Jonathan Demme. Ever since his Silence of the Lambs hit the box office jackpot in 1991, psychological thrillers mean one thing only: deranged killers. Luckily, they are ever pursued by psychically empathetic detectives who can decipher long trails of ingenious clues by "thinking" just like the murderer. Alas, if only screenwriters and studio heads could "think" just like real filmmakers instead of copycat offenders.
Instead, we are awash with a new serial killer every month trying his or her darndest to out-cannibal Hannibal Lector. You've got your Bone Collectors, Eye of the Beholders, and Copycats; your Glimmer Men, Kiss the Girlses, Sevens, Kalifornias, Natural Born Killers Could it be that we the public are so fascinated by the quirky habits of diabolical psycho-killers that we just can't get enough of them? Or is it that studios can no longer imagine anything else when it comes to making a "suspense" movie? With the restoration and re-release of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, you can get an entertaining reminder of how rote and thoughtless thrillers have become today. Even when viewed on a blurry, home theater-sized screen, Rear Window exudes enough wit and imaginationand alarmto supply four entrails-filled thrillers of today. But one can only imagine the results if Hitch had to pitch such a movie over lunch at Spago to a hipster exec clutching at his cell phone.
H: So we have this fellow who can't leave his apartment, he's a photographer
Suit: He's a child pornographer! I like it!
H: No, just a photojournalist who
Suit: photographs the President murdering his intern after having rough sex with her!
H: No, he's merely a news photographer who's broken his leg. At any rate, he relieves his boredom by spying on his neighbors.
Suit: Now we're talking! He records their every move with a secret closed-circuit video system, watching them have graphic sex!
H: Nothing like thatone of his neighbors is actually quite lonely, and another one has a little doggie.
Suit: Okay, I'm lost. Where's the hook?
H: All right, then, here it is: After hearing a stifled scream, he comes to believe that one neighbor may have killed his wife!
Suit: Let me get this straight: WeI mean, hedoesn't actually see the murder?
Suit: Alf, baby, what am I supposed to do with this? No sex, no sadistic disembowelings involving signs of the zodiac it makes no sense!
Sadly, it's doubtful whether even the finished film makes sense to a modern movie producer. There are no rain-swept chases in dark alleys, no wisecracking partner who gets murdered as the requisite first-act plot point, no handcuff sex scenes. In fact, with its self-contained courtyard set and small ensemble, most studio execs would simply dismiss it as an "art film," because that's how we now define any movie that has no special effects and pacing slower than breakneck. If they are cognizant of Rear Window at all, then they understand that it is a "classic," which is nothing to worry about, since that means it's old-fashionedpeople made movies different way back then, not like today with audiences who demand fast action and big explosions.
But that's changing. Classic films mean more to audiences than they used to, back in the 70s and early 80s when the best opportunities to see these films were at revival theaters or universities. Now, with VHS, laser discs, DVDand especially cable channels like AMC and TCMaudiences are rediscovering the virtues of older films and different styles of storytelling. And this growing market has given new life to back catalogs, proving to studio marketing departments that it is indeed economically feasible to pay for the restoration and distribution of older movies. Viewers are much more educated about cinema, and have a desire to see landmark movies on a big screen.
Certainly, we do enjoy some of these movies simply because we've invested a good deal of nostalgia in them, or have a fondness for their conventions, such as the recent re-releases of Touch of Evil or Gone With the Wind. But others are hardly old-fashionedthey entertain with their original merits, creating universes that straddle time, like the polished-up releases of The Third Man or The Wizard of Oz. Likewise, Hitchcock's Rear Window isn't just a "classic"it's a vibrant bit of storytelling that works just as well today as it did in 1954.
While Jimmy Stewart makes his grumpy voyeur as likable as your favorite bartender and Grace Kelly endows her society femme with a melancholy yearning, it is Hitchcock who fashions the movie's most important characterthe neighborhood. His camera isn't afraid to linger among the everyday people of this concentrated bit of urban society, capturing utterly fabricatedbut authenticslices of life. Rather than a traditional musical score, most of the movie's soundtrack is crowded with the incidental sounds of city life. Hitchcock takes almost as much joy in exploring this place as he does in revealing the mystery of what happened to Lars Thorwald's wife; he doesn't manipulate viewers so much as guide them into the darkness. And it makes for a much more affecting, timeless storyparticularly in comparison to today's mechanized contrivances where the only goals are 1. Show the murderer at his gruesome work, and 2. Show the hero blow his fricking head off. (Ah, catharsis!)
Maybe that's changing, too. Although ostensibly a ghost story, last year's The Sixth Sense had genuine characterization and a sense of pacing while delivering its thrills. Perhaps there's a new breed of studio exec who's been using his DVD player and taking notes. Most likely, though, it just means we'll soon be seeing a spate of movies about dead people, rather than innovative ways to tell suspenseful tales.