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05.28.08

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Phaedra

The Thin Man

Jimmy Stewart's centennial celebrated

By Richard von Busack


E ach Wednesday and Sunday at 7pm until June 22, the Smith Rafael Film Center honors Jimmy Stewart's 100th birthday by screening some of the best of his classics. Here are two short reminders of what you don't want to miss .

'The Shop Around the Corner' (June 1)

Ernst Lubitsch's 1940 classic with Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, The Shop Around the Corner , is a romantic comedy in the finest classic style—light, sophisticated and glowing with William Daniels' creamy lighting. Alfred Kralik (Stewart), dyspeptic from some inferior goose-liver pâté, is the best salesclerk at Matuschek and Company, a small notions store. On this day, a woman he thought was a customer, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), turns out to be just another job seeker. To Alfred's disgust, Klara is hired on as a saleswoman.

The rivalry between the two clerks is the backbone of the story, yet the film is actually a heavenly romance. Both Klara and Alfred are conducting affairs through letters with strangers; neither ever realizes that his/her soul mate is actually the colleague he/she is spatting with all the live-long day. (Shop was remade by Nora Ephron as the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan vehicle You've Got Mail .)

Lubitsch was bold to make a Christmas movie about retail work, a reminder of how love and generosity have to fight for a place amid pestering customers, sagging sales and mandatory overtime. Speaking of work, Nora Ephron certainly had her work cut out for her.

'Rear Window' (June 15)

When Alfred Hitchcock's devastating classic Rear Window was released in 1954, it was greeted as the perfect trifle. As was said of Max Ophuls' films, it's superficially superficial. Rear Window , since re-released in a beautifully restored print, tells the story of an affable voyeur, a news photographer named L. B. Jefferies (James Stewart).

Laid up in a wheelchair in his studio apartment, recovering from a broken leg, Jefferies spies on his Manhattan neighbors across a courtyard. The action, confined entirely to that courtyard, takes place during a heat wave, when the neighbors' windows are open and their lives are revealed to him. One day, he sees evidence in a neighboring apartment that a husband has murdered his wife.

Rear Window 's boundlessly clever techniques mirror the same mystery that a good film provides, and it comes to a terrifically simple point. In an instant, Jefferies is transformed from a watcher to the watched, the focus of all eyes in his courtyard. And the moral, according to Jefferies' nurse, Stella, played by the all-wise Thelma Ritter, is "Someday, you'll see something out the window that'll get you into trouble." It's a caution every moviegoer ought to heed.

Sure, it's all a trifle—or it would be in the hands of any director less troubling than Hitchcock. This gorgeous thriller boasts a strong subplot about a man who has had one leg in a trap for weeks and is anxious not to get the other one caught. Jefferies is under pressure to marry his affluent girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly). Wordlessly, Hitchcock relates the backstory of how Jefferies broke his leg by casting his lens over a few framed photographs. We see that Jefferies is a man who has photographed wars and auto races; we see that he's being urged into marrying Lisa and starting a new career as a society photographer.

As a sort of joke, Jefferies has framed the negative of a glamour photo of Lisa. She has white pupils and black teeth—it's a portrait as romantic as a jack-o'-lantern. As he tries to hold the insistent Lisa back, Jefferies watches a pageant of men and women through the windows of the other apartments. ("Everything [Jefferies] sees across the way has a bearing on love and marriage," Hitchcock once explained to his interviewer François Truffaut.)

John Michael Hayes' screenplay, from a story by pulp genius Cornell Woolrich, never got the praise it deserves. ("I thought the rain would cool things down—all it did was make the heat wet.")

And the older you get, the better Hitchcock's films look. What dignity Hitchcock gives middle-aged angst here—as in Vertigo , which begins where Rear Window ends, with Stewart dangling over the abyss.

In addition to the above screenings, the Rafael tribute schedule includes 'Winchester '73' (May 28), 'Anatomy of a Murder' (June 4), 'Harvey' (June 8), 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' (June 11), 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance' (June 18) and 'Two Rode Together' (June 22). 1118 Fourth St. San Rafael. 415.454.1222 .


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