An Appreciation – Rear Window
If someone who has never seen a Hitchcock film asked me to recommend the one they should see first, I would pick Rear Window (1954). Not only is it highly entertaining and full of well-developed suspense, but it also incorporates everything that made Alfred Hitchcock great. We have romance, witty comedy, and sparkling dialogue, mixed with moments of terror, shock, and surprise, all clicking together in the best way possible. It is also headlined by arguably two of the biggest stars in the history of the movies. It takes its time, feeling its way through the hints and clues, gathering all of the information for us, so that when the climax does happen, we know exactly how we arrived there and what is at stake, as we clench our fists, eagerly anticipating the reveal of how it all ends up.
What I admire about Hitchcock is how he was able to perfectly balance his artistic sensibilities within the confines of a mainstream production. Yes, he did work within the studio system, with all the big names and big budgets that came along with that. But rarely did he ever veer away from making the kind of movies he wanted to. Each of his projects had his own personal touch injected in—whether it be in the story, the themes, or the technical elements. If you were to follow the path his career had gone, you could clearly see patterns surfacing over and over again. This is why he is considered an auteur, in the way he put his own fingerprints on a project, even though they were financed by big studios. This is a very difficult thing to do, and there are very few filmmakers who have done it, which is why I appreciate his work so much. He was tremendously sound and inventive as a director, able to create material like that of an artist, but he also had consideration and respect for the audiences he made films for.
The fascinating thing is how the premise of Rear Window, when broken down, represents the very idea of watching movies. Hitchcock turns the camera towards the audience, and examines the reasons why people have a strange curiosity toward others. The center figure, the photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart), throughout the plot is constantly peering and spying on others. With his binoculars and high-zoom camera, he can see just about anybody in his sights in perfect detail. This voyeurism, at its base level, is creepy and wrong, but how different is it compared to someone watching a movie? When we watch a film, we are seeing complete strangers during a certain timeframe of their own lives. What is it that makes us interested in seeing these stories, and why (in certain instances) do we become so attached to particular ones that they become major factors in our own personalities? When Jeff is questioned by his love interest, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), about whether it is right or wrong to watch a person who is completely unaware of the watcher’s presence, Hitchcock also questions us (the audience) about the nature of filmgoing.
It was a stroke of brilliance by Hitchcock, John Michael Hayes (screenplay), and Cornell Woolrich (short story) to limit the film to within the parameters of an apartment. With Jeff stuck in a wheelchair, his leg in a cast due to an accident while on the job, he is put into the same position we are. We see what Jeff sees from the perspective inside his room. With nothing to do and his windows wide open because of the hot summer weather, the only way Jeff can pass the time is to see into all the other apartment buildings adjacent to his (in one of the most impressive indoor sets ever constructed). It’s important that Hitchcock’s camera stays in the room. Because Jeff is partially handicapped and relegated to a small space, it heightens the potential for suspense. There is clearly a claustrophobic feeling involved, especially since Jeff is physically unable to protect himself if trouble were to somehow find him. As the story develops and Jeff’s situation begins to close in on him, his escalating feeling of helplessness resonates effectively from the screen. This is one of Hitchcock’s best exercises in thrill-making, by limiting his main character’s freedom and having the danger come straight for him.
Film, as it is so often described, is a “show me” medium. Filmmakers can make a much bigger impact if they can show a story unfold rather than have a character describe it in exposition. This film is a master class in that very concept. Hitchcock doesn’t only tell one story, he tells multiple stories, each with its own arc. Notice when Jeff looks around to the other apartment windows and sees everyone else, the characters presented are just as fleshed out as those in the main plot thread. We have the dancing Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy) and her hope that her lover will soon return home, or the piano man (Ross Bagdasarian) who struggles with writing his next piece. The older couple (Sara Berner/Frank Cady) that sleeps on the fire escape also makes an impression, especially their dog that will eventually play a pivotal role, as well as the newlyweds (Rand Harper/Havis Davenport) who handle their “business” behind closed shades. Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn) has the saddest story, stuck home alone with a desire to find her one true love. And of course Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), the suspicious-looking man whose invalid wife mysteriously disappears. These are all presented visually and with little dialogue, and yet by the end we clearly understand how each of the stories are resolved, a credit to the superior editing and direction.
Hitchcock could not have gotten a better cast even if he tried. Each of the players fills their respective roles to the brim, leaving an impression even while having limited screen time. Two supporting actors stand out from the rest. The first is Wendell Corey, who plays police detective Doyle, Jeff’s close friend. Detective Doyle is the type of police officer we will see many times over in other movies, the kind that questions the main character’s beliefs and theories. But Corey gives Doyle a more believable touch. In a lesser movie, Doyle’s character would be angry and unpersuasive for no reason. Here, he doesn’t simply disregard Jeff’s assertions that Thorwald murdered his wife, but handles them logically and understandably. He does his own small investigation into the matter, and even though in the end he is proven wrong, he never feels like someone we would be against. In fact, Doyle may very well be the most believable character in the film; his actions and thoughts would arguably be the ones we would have if we were in the same situation.