Saturday, November 14, 2009

Some lobby-cards for Rear Window

Image found here.

This week I showed Rear Window to my Comp II classes as a sort of entree into our short foray into literary analysis--the act of reading literature is, after all, a kind of surveillance of and speculation about language, which activities--surveillance and speculation--are central to Hitchcock's film. Anyway, as a further self-indulgence disguised as something entirely relevant to our class's larger focus on rhetoric, I showed one of my classes some examples of lobby cards for the film from the '50s and from the film's later re-releases, and a couple of contemporary examples by graphic artists done as exercises to show to potential clients. What I told my students is that lobby-cards at their best are implicit arguments about how best to think about the film they promote; thus, they are interpretations of that film. While I genuinely believe that, it's equally true that I became intrigued by the lobby-cards that I ran across while looking for an image to accompany this long-ago post. In particular, I was drawn to their simultaneous constant returning to certain themes and motifs and their subtle but significant variations on them. So, I rounded up a few examples and put them into a Powerpoint program; what follows here are some of the more interesting ones, along with some comments from me and my students.

Regarding the first image, I noted that the images of Miss Torso and Thorwald in the binocular lenses make no sense from the standpoint of physics (though their respective apartments are right across the hall from each other), but they perfectly introduce the film's initial distracted feel--its attention follows Jeff's until he gradually becomes more intent on the goings-on in the Thorwalds' apartment. One of my students mentioned what he called Jeff's "odd" expression; he said that Jeff looks "mean." I don't want to push this idea too hard--it is a drawing, after all--but despite the pleasant-enough smile, it's true that Jeff's overall expression has a tension to it that almost suggests that he's the one up to no good and thus needs watching . . . which, of course, is true in the abstract, given how he whiles away the hours. It's the look of someone enjoying himself while engaged in a dark act--and, as I told the class tonight, I think it's pretty clear that Jeff derives pleasure from his voyeurism and the narratives he constructs from it. Intentionally or not, it's a reminder that at Rear Window's heart is the inescapable fact that, divorced from the particulars of the plot, its central character is engaged in an activity that's awkward (at best) to excuse as harmless.

This poster (image found here) also uses the impossible physics of the differing images in the binocular lenses. Its most striking difference, though, is that instead of an image of Thorwald in the lens, we see his empty, dark apartment window. I like the absence-is-presence feel of that emptiness; we're just as drawn to the fact that we can't see anything as we are by Miss Torso's unself-conscious dancing about in full view of anyone who might happen to look in. Also, as viewers of the film know, there are moments when Jeff is as intrigued by the fact that he can't see anything in that window, as when he can. The blank emptiness of the lobby-card's window also evokes, for me, a blank slate upon which we can write our speculations: exactly what Jeff and Lisa do as they discuss Thorwald.

As with the first poster, my students made note of Jeff's and Lisa's facial expressions. Here, both appear to show concern or even worry (though, because Jeff's mouth is hidden behind the binoculars, his expression is more ambiguous).

Of these first two images, my students preferred this second one more: in addition to not liking Jeff's "mean" expression in the first one, they felt it was visually garish and, strangely, they were put off as well by the fact that it depicts Lisa and Miss Torso as brunettes.

Two more below the fold.

I had not seen this one (found here) before this week, and of the lobby-cards in this post, it may be my favorite because it runs so explicitly against the grain of the film's point of view; indeed, it serves as a commentary, perhaps unfavorable, on Jeff and Lisa's adventures in what Lisa calls "rear-window ethics." It not only places us physically outside Jeff's apartment looking in (the two images above either depict no interior space at all (the first card) or, oddly, place Jeff and Lisa against an exterior wall), it places us so that we're looking at his apartment from the perspective of the Thorwalds' bedroom. The space (and the person occupying that space) they gaze upon becomes, in this image, the perspective from which they now become the object of Thorwald's gaze, via us as his surrogates. Vertigo, indeed.

I feel I've done little if any justice to this fascinating image.

And finally, this image by Mark Malazarte, found here, that he apparently worked up as an example of his work as a graphic designer. It has a '50s jazzy feel to it that I like, in keeping with Franz Waxman's soundtrack, but I also like how the viewer's perspective is pulled back from the window so that we're sitting in darkness. One of my students noticed the one red window in the building across the way and said, "That's Thorwald's apartment."

I don't have any big wind-up for this post. After all, it's a pretty obvious point that because lobby-cards promote the film, they need to convey some sense of the film's characters and/or themes. What's intriguing is how these particular images go about doing that work and, in the case of the third, go far beyond the work of promotion to (I would argue) actively seek to unnerve us just a bit about what this film's central characters are doing.


Ashley said...

But, did you see the rear-window sketch on SNL the same day you posted this!?!? Ironic.

here's the link:

John B. said...

Thanks for sending that on. I'd seen it linked to somewhere else today but never went back to it.