What could be better than watching a classic movie in a great theater, surrounded by like-minded people? Last night I was proud to introduce the opening night of the Los Angeles Conservancy’s 25th annual festival known as The Last Remaining Seats. Once a year, vintage films are screened in a handful of our city’s remaining movie palaces on Broadway downtown. These theaters—which truly deserve to be called palaces—generally seat about 2,000 people, and they’re usually full, as tickets sell like hotcakes the minute the series is announced every year. Opening night spotlighted Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window at the Orpheum; upcoming Wednesday evening programs feature The Music Man, Captain Blood, King Kong, Zoot Suit, Sunset Blvd, and Safety Last, at the Los Angeles Theatre, the Palace, the aforementioned Orpheum, and Sid Grauman’s original Million Dollar Theatre, all on Broadway.
Orpheum owners Steve Needleman and his wife Cathy sponsored last night’s program, to their great credit, as the funds raised by this series helps the Conservancy fight “the good fight” for our city all year long. Best of all, the audience is a diverse cross-section of Angelenos, not just the usual roll call of movie buffs. The Orpheum is the only downtown movie house that has been restored, so far, and every time I go there for an event I notice —
—details I haven’t spotted before. That’s why I’m sharing some of my latest snapshots.
As for the film, I hadn’t seen Rear Window on a big screen in many years and it was balm for the soul. As we embark on Hollywood’s summer movie season, which is dominated by juvenile entertainment, it’s both educational and nourishing to harken back to a film like this—a big, mainstream hit in 1954—that spoke to adults and still has so much to offer.
Rear Window flies in the face of contemporary filmmaking philosophy. It doesn’t open with a bang: instead, Hitchcock takes his time establishing the setting, a courtyard surrounded by apartments (all meticulously constructed on a huge soundstage), and introducing our hero (James Stewart), perspiring in the summer city heat. Then we get our first glimpse of the diverse neighbors he observes from his window while confined to a wheelchair, immobilized by a huge leg cast.
The second phase of the opening section is a lengthy conversation between him and his insurance-company nurse (played by the incomparable Thelma Ritter), mostly about Stewart’s reluctance to get married to his practically perfect girlfriend. Hitchcock wasn’t afraid to have his grownup characters engage in grownup talk; there’s a lot of it in the early stages of the story.
Then we meet the woman in question, in a breathtaking closeup of Grace Kelly from Stewart’s point of view as she leans in to kiss him. They continue making out in a lengthy, intimate closeup shot, as she tries to lasso him and he (though obviously smitten with her) refuses to be tied down.
Nothing about this part of the film is hurried; it’s matter-of-fact in tone, and feels almost slow by today’s standards. But this is how Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes draw us into the lives, and thoughts, of their leading characters. They’re reeling us in, bit by bit, so we get to know and care about them. Likewise, we become familiar with the neighbors that Stewart dwells on while stuck in his apartment: the struggling composer, a sculptor, the ballet dancer he calls Miss Torso, a woman he dubs Miss Lonelyhearts, and a salesman who is repeatedly harangued by his invalid wife. We hear only an occasional word from these people but we understand (or think we understand) who they are.
The film is not only masterfully orchestrated, carefully building suspense as the story unfolds, but brilliantly crafted. The entire picture rests on a bed of city street sounds, snatches of overheard dialogue, and music pouring through the windows, all of it created from scratch by Hitchcock and his team. It’s no less striking visually. When Stewart starts actively spying on the salesman (Raymond Burr) with a telescope, and his long-lens camera, he takes care to back away from his window into the dark. Yet even though he and his friends spend much of the time in that half-light, Stewart’s eyes are always clearly visible to us. (Credit Hitchcock’s longtime cameraman Robert Burks.)
When was the last time you saw a screen character whose thoughts were illuminated by his silent reactions—and the look in his eyes?
Eventually, Rear Window escalates to a crescendo of suspense as Stewart, Kelly and Ritter become actively involved in nailing Burr as the murderer they suspect him to be. It was great fun to hear the Orpheum audience’s audible reaction in this climactic portion of the film, responding today just as Hitchcock meant them to so many years ago.
Rear Window plays well on a home screen, but nothing can compare to sitting in a movie palace, surrounded by an attentive audience, sharing the experience of watching this great movie on a giant-sized screen. It’s the way it was meant to be seen; anything short of that, while convenient, is a compromise at best. And there’s nothing more satisfying than revisiting a classic you haven’t seen in a long time and finding that it holds up just as you remembered.
There are still some seats for future screenings in this year’s Last Remaining Seats series. For information click HERE.
And if you live in Los Angeles and aren’t a member of the Los Angeles Conservancy, I encourage you to join at laconservancy.org. No one looks after our living heritage as they do.