In early September 2004, I was in a car accident and sustained a back injury which laid me up for months. It was serious enough that I pretty much had to learn how to walk again. During that time I was often doped up on pain meds,1 lying on the couch, staring out the window. I really didn’t see much – my view was just the street, mainly I remember a lot of rain – nothing to divert my attention from the pain or the boredom, no apartment windows through which I might spy on my neighbors.

About twenty-one years prior to the accident, five Alfred Hitchcock films which had not been screened in over two decades were restored and re-released. I saw two of them – Rope and Rear Window – in the theater.2 The former I considered a mildly interesting diversion, the latter I found a revelation. The scenes in both are more or less confined to one apartment each – this is a limitation I particularly enjoy in film.3 I like the intimacy and/or the claustrophobia inherent in such an approach to storytelling.

Rear Window tells the tale of L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart), a magazine photographer who broke his leg while getting a “dramatically different” photo of an automobile race. He’s laid up, in a wheelchair, stuck in his hot Greenwich Village apartment with nothing to do. He does have someone on his mind – his socialite girlfriend, Lisa Fremont, played by the stunningly lovely and dressed-to-the-nines Grace Kelly.4 She wants to get married; he believes they’re too different for the relationship to work in the long term, but doesn’t want to call it off entirely. To distract himself from this situation, he watches his neighbors through his back window. There’s Jeff’s fantasy woman, a dancer whom he’s nicknamed “Miss Torso;” a newlywed couple; a lonely single woman; a salesman and his ailing wife; an older couple with a dog; a songwriter; and others. Jeff often talks about them, so Lisa and Jeff’s nurse Stella have both become familiar with this cast of characters.

What goes on in these apartments is a kind of microcosm of the world of personal relationships, and some of the situations in them seem to parallel or comment on what is happening in the lives of Jeff and Lisa. For example, Jeff’s work as a photographer takes him far afield, just as Thorwald, the salesman, travels for his job; they are also both having problems in their respective relationships. Jeff compares Lisa to Miss Torso, whom he describes as “the eat-drink-and-be-merry girl,” whose apartment is often visited by prospective suitors – “she’s doing a woman’s hardest job,” counters Lisa, “juggling wolves.” However, Lisa relates more to “Miss Lonelyhearts,” and it is later revealed how they are emotionally similar.

After six weeks of relatively benign watching, Jeff hears a scream late one night and soon becomes convinced Thorwald has killed his wife. It is then that the spying, which had been simply something to while away the time, becomes an obsession. Initially, Lisa and Stella think it’s simply Jeff’s imagination running away with him; however, they eventually both believe Thorwald really may have committed murder.

Rear Window still: Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly) in front of the titular window.

Although Lisa, Stella, and Jeff’s friend Detective Doyle are free to come and go, the viewer is trapped in the apartment with Jeff, and sees the neighbors as he sees them, in long shots from his window, across the courtyard. With few exceptions, one gets closer only when Jeff, Lisa, or Stella looks through binoculars or a telephoto camera lens. In contrast, the apartment scenes are, on the whole, tightly composed. Therein lies a dichotomy – Jeff seems closer to, more emotionally invested in, his neighbors whom he only sees from afar than he does to his girlfriend in his own apartment.

Rear Window is about alienation and connection, two themes which are common in the work of many painters, myself included. I didn’t start painting seriously until a few years after seeing the film, but I had already started to form an aesthetic for what my work would become – perhaps that’s why the film had such an impact on me.

Although I haven’t been in constant pain in quite a long time, I still have back problems – I never fully recovered from my injury. I also never suspected a neighbor of murder. If I had, I may have felt inclined to solve the mystery, and it’s just as well that never happened – my better half, who did practically everything for me during those months, probably would have dug up the flower garden, but she definitely wouldn’t have climbed into Thorwald’s second story apartment window, especially in a floral-print dress and high heels.

 

1 Darvocet, which was taken off the market in 2010 because it was linked to a potentially fatal heart-rhythm abnormality, was one of them. It was also one of the “medicines” to which Elvis was addicted. Hey, if it was good enough for the King…

2 I believe it was the late, lamented Showcase, which was torn down in 1984 to make room for a parking lot, at 412 L Street in downtown Sacramento. The other three films were Vertigo, The Trouble with Harry, and The Man Who Knew Too Much.

3 Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and Dial M for Murder are also very limited in terms of location. I think Rear Window is the best of the four, by far.

4 A few years ago, I watched several Grace Kelly movies in a short period of time. I mentioned this to my father, who was something of an old movie aficionado, and he said, “She didn’t make many movies, but she was never in a bad one.” I haven’t seem them all, but so far this has held true.

I was on summer vacation from school, home alone with the TV on. A pre-teen, I didn’t know I was watching one of the most celebrated movies of all time, nor did I know the controversy it had caused.1 Nevertheless, I was riveted by the structure of the story – how it jumps around in time, how it is told from multiple points of view. I’ve seen Citizen Kane many times since that Saturday afternoon; it became one of my favorite movies, one I can watch over and over again. I can also put on the DVD while busy with something else and be guaranteed that for the next two hours, I can look up at any time and find what I see and hear to be engaging in any number of ways.

Citizen Kane is a cautionary tale of the potential dangers of power and the ultimate consequences of megalomania. The screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles is superlative, full of great lines and scenes; Mr. Bernstein’s account of seeing the young woman on the ferry – “… A white dress she had on. She carried a white parasol. I only saw her for one second…” – is perhaps my favorite sixty seconds of movie dialogue, ever.

However, what I like most about the film is the look of it, its striking atmospheric quality. I don’t know much about film history, but from what I understand, American movies changed visually in the wake of Citizen Kane. Some of the highlights are showy – the camera going through the neon sign and into the skylight of the El Rancho nightclub; Susan Alexander Kane’s opera debut during which the camera is on her, then follows the shadow of the curtain going up and continues rising until it reaches two stagehands on a catwalk high above the stage. Although shots such as these are some of the most immediately arresting of the film, most of my favorite moments are much more subtle.

  • In the opening sequence, one sees the grounds of Xanadu, Kane’s San Simeon-like estate. From the front gate, through several shots as the camera gets closer and closer to the mansion, Kane’s lit bedroom window, no matter from what distance or from what angle it is viewed, always occupies the same location in the upper right of the screen.
  • In the News on the March newsreel segment, Charles Foster Kane, Emily Monroe Norton Kane, and Charles Jr. are shown in a newspaper photograph while the voice-over tells of the latter two’s deaths in an automobile accident. Much later in the film, after Kane’s speech at the political rally at Madison Square Garden, one sees this photo being taken.
  • In the picnic scene, Kane and Susan are arguing in the tent, and he slaps her. She looks up, her face hardened, and says, “Don’t tell me you’re sorry.” His reply is a deadpan “I’m not sorry,” and as the shot dissolves into the next scene, her left eye turns into an eye in the design of a stained-glass window at Xanadu.2

I’d probably watched the film at least half a dozen times before I noticed these details, but have relished them each time I’ve seen it since.

The screen-filling screeching cockatoo is a decidedly unsubtle moment, one which is both aurally and visually jarring. In This is Orson Welles,3 the book of interviews conducted by Peter Bogdanovich, Welles claimed it was simply a startling, dramatic effect placed late in the picture to wake up any dozing audience members. I’m certainly not a dedicated cinephile – I would barely describe myself as even a casual moviegoer, but I do have a theory about this particular shot. In Jed Leland’s flashback, he tells of the first time Kane and Susan met. That evening Charles entertained her by, among other activities, making a hand shadow puppet, which she guessed to be a giraffe or an elephant. In response, he chuckled, “It’s supposed to be a rooster” – it’s a lighthearted moment, one of the very few in the film where Kane seems happy. The cockatoo appears in the butler Raymond’s remembrance of the day Susan flew the coop, so the birds bookend the relationship, the ending of which left Kane a completely broken man.

I don’t know that Citizen Kane has directly influenced my painting, although, looking at the three stills above, one does wonder. The story itself is not inspiring at all – Charles Foster Kane quickly lost any artistic vision or creative impulse he may have possibly once possessed – but the manner in which it’s told certainly is. Like other notable works to which I was exposed at a young age, I think in Citizen Kane I recognized perhaps the most important concepts a prospective artist can contemplate – ambition and possibility.

 

1 Before the 1941 release of Citizen Kane, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper told William Randolph Hearst it was about him. Hearst contacted Louella Parsons, his own Hollywood gossip columnist, and ordered her to screen the film. After doing so, Parsons told Hearst that Kane was a thinly-veiled hatchet job on him. An infuriated Hearst banned any mention of the movie by his media empire, and publicly attacked director Orson Welles. In an attempt to avoid Hearst’s wrath from coming down on the entire industry, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer, on behalf of the top Hollywood movie moguls, offered RKO Radio Pictures more than the full production cost of the film so they could burn it. When that failed, the major studios refused to let Kane play in their theaters, so it couldn’t be widely seen – it lost money and was exiled to RKO’s vault until the mid-’50s. I’m sure that as I sat in front of the television that day, I was only aware of the name William Randolph Hearst because I had heard it on the news in 1974, when his granddaughter Patty was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army.

2 My old friend Chris B. studied film and was much more knowledgeable than I on the subject of Citizen Kane. He was the projectionist for a college film class, and each semester would provide me with a schedule so I could sit in on any of the screenings. I would always make time on the day Kane was shown – although VCRs were then becoming popular, I wouldn’t have one until well over a decade later, so I didn’t have many other opportunities to see it. He once asked me about my favorite parts in Kane and was surprised I had noticed the stained-glass eye; it was one of his favorite images in the movie, as well. Sadly, Chris passed away in 2001, shortly before his thirty-seventh birthday. We’d known each other for over twenty years. 

3 Jonathan Rosenbaum, editor; HarperCollins (1992). My copy is the revised Da Capo Press edition (1998). The collection is a fascinating look at Welles’ life, art, and insights into a multitude of other subjects. If nothing else, it proves that he was much more than the man behind the War of the Worlds radio broadcast and Citizen Kane, which he didn’t even consider his best film. I haven’t seen a lot of them, but think in addition to Kane, The Stranger and Touch of Evil are especially notable.

In 1990 I showed my drawings for the first time, at Dito Gallery in Sacramento CA. A few days after the reception, my mother told me about a conversation she had had with a gentleman there regarding one of the pieces, one which depicted an attractive young woman. She also asked if I was familiar with the film Laura; I was not. She told me it was about a police detective who falls in love with a painting of the titular murder victim, and that the way the man spoke about my drawing had reminded her of it.

It wasn’t until several years later, after I was given a used VCR, that I was finally able to see Laura. I’m not really a movie guy; I can be in possession of a DVD I want to watch, and it can sit around for months before I put it in the player. However, there are some movies I like very much and can watch over and over again. Laura, directed by Otto Preminger and based on the novel by Vera Caspary, is one of those.

The conventional but attractive portrait, which is an integral plot device, is actually not a painting at all – a photograph of Gene Tierney was retouched to appear as one. There was a painting done, by original director Rouben Mamoulian’s wife-to-be Azadia Newman, but when Preminger took over the directorial role, he decided it didn’t possess the mystery and allure required, and had Tierney sit for studio photographer Frank Polony. Although I haven’t seen Newman’s Laura painting, I have seen her portraits of Bette Davis and Carole Lombard, which are a bit stilted – it’s obvious why Preminger made the decision he did. In the film, the portrait is the work of Jacoby, one of Laura’s would-be suitors. According to Waldo Lydecker, Laura’s mentor/benefactor, Jacoby is a second-rate artist at best, one who “never captured her vibrance, her warmth.” The painting itself belies this assessment, and calls into question Lydecker’s reliability as a narrator.

Although considered a film noir classic, Laura doesn’t employ many of the genre’s usual trappings – there is a lot of cigarette smoking and some nighttime rain, but very little in the way of skewed camera angles or stark shadows. Most of the scenes take place in lavish, well-lit apartments, not seedy residential hotels; the detective isn’t crooked or cynical, he’s amiable and often plays with a children’s puzzle; Laura wasn’t a femme fatale, at least not in any traditional sense – she was, as Bessie, her domestic, describes her, “a real fine lady.” Her charm and kindness engendered an obsessive dedication in the people who knew her, and her portrait has a similar effect on Detective McPherson.

Some portraits do seem to hold this power: based on Ingres’s stunning 1845 painting of her, I have no doubt that Comtesse Louise Albertine d’Haussonville was a woman I would have wanted to know. It’s one of my favorite portraits – one of my favorite paintings – ever done. I’m not sure exactly what effect my drawing had on the gentleman with whom my mother spoke, but according to her, he was overcome by a certain ardor regarding the woman in the piece. While I don’t think of the drawing as a portrait, per se, it is of a specific person, a captivating young woman with whom I was quite smitten. It was a good likeness, but more importantly, it felt like her; it captured some of “her vibrance, her warmth.” I haven’t seen her in well over twenty-five years, but nobody was rubbed out with a shotgun loaded with buckshot, so I’m one up on Jacoby.