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Monday, November 5, 2007

There Goes the Neighborhood (originally published 8/99)

In the realm of interpersonal relationships, neighbors represent an odd combination of elements. Like family, you can't choose them, and you're more or less stuck with them unless you or they decide to move. On the other hand, they have no reason to feel the sorts of obligations and vested interest in your welfare that come with family ties. You don't have to become friendly with your neighbors, not even to the point of introducing yourself, and yet there is a limit to how aloof you can remain from them. Even if you choose to remain strangers, you and your neighbors are, to a certain inevitable extent, privy to one another's personal business by sheer geographic proximity.

For all of these reasons, relationships between neighbors can make for good drama. "Arlington Road," which is currently in wide theatrical release, takes full advantage of the dramatic possiblities inherent in the artificially close relationship enforced by living side by side. The college professor played by Jeff Bridges in that film is not, however, the first movie character to have problems with a potentially sinister neighbor. For a representative sampling of cinematic neighbors from hell, look for these titles on home video.

"Rear Window" (1956). In one of his most highly regarded suspense classics, director Alfred Hitchcock set himself the challenge of playing out an entire film from the limited perspective of a man confined to his own apartment. L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart), a photographer whose job takes him all over the world, is not at all happy about being trapped in a wheelchair by a broken leg. To pass the time, he watches his neighbors through binoculars, looking through his rear window across a courtyard and into their rear windows. One neighbor in particular draws his attention - a burly, menacing fellow, played by Raymond Burr, who is clearly not getting along with his wife. When the poor woman subsequently disappears from view, Jeffries concludes that her husband has murdered her. As he continues to watch through the window, more and more circumstantial evidence arises to confirm his suspicion. But what can he do about it?

"Neighbors" (1981). When this quirky little picture came out, nobody quite knew what to make of it. With John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd heading the cast, moviegoers quite naturally expected a light comedy. What they got was a rather dark comedy that became increasingly nightmarish in tone. Belushi and Kathryn Harrold are Earl and Enid Keese, an average, socially conservative middle class couple living in the suburbs. Their humdrum existence is shaken up in a big way when the new neighbors, Vic (Aykroyd) and Ramona (Cathy Moriarty) move in next door. They turn out to be a madcap couple with little regard for social conventions. At first the Keeses are willing to put up with their outlandish ways, even finding them a bit refreshing. It seems, however, that life in general begins to turn weird from the moment of Vic and Ramona's arrival, until finally Earl feels as if he's trapped in a bad dream from which he can't wake up.

"The 'burbs" (1989). Tom Hanks stars as a suburbanite who is taking a vacation week to spend some quiet time at home. Instead he finds himself involved with a group of neighbors who are suspicious of the new family in the neighborhood. It seems that the Klopeks, a family of Eastern European origin, are suspected of conducting satanic rituals in their home. When the xenophobic neighbors agree to organize a ragtag vigilante group to investigate, the comic misadventures begin.

"Manhattan Murder Mystery" (1993). Woody Allen melded his own distinctive style with the familiar sinister neighbor premise in this entertaining comedy. Allen and Diane Keaton play Larry and Carol Lipton, a New York couple whose routine lives are enlivened when Carol becomes convinced that one of their neighbors has murdered his wife. Larry is skeptical, but eventually agrees to help her do some ill-advised snooping.

Lately, with shooting sprees in the news almost daily, we may well be more receptive than ever to movies about neighbors who are up to no good. Luckily, most of us are able to purge our mistrust of the neighbors through the catharsis of drama. A movie ticket, after all, is cheaper than a handgun, and you don't have to go to federal prison after you use it.

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