Rear Window (1954, Alfred Hitchcock)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
No artistic medium is better capable than cinema of expressing one of the basic emotional facts of 20th and 21st century life: obsession. That’s the handiest word for the moment when lower and higher needs are both overrun in the quest to know or fixate upon something, like for instance when Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) is in your lap attempting to interest you in sex but all you can think about is what’s going on across the way in those apartment windows. Of course, if you’re L.B. Jeffries, you have a legitimate enough excuse: your leg in a cast for six weeks, the dementia of long-term confinement at home is setting in and who knows whether you’re coming or going. But as the same actor, James Stewart, said in another film by the same director, Alfred Hitchcock, there’s something inside that allows or doesn’t allow for our behaviors, regardless of circumstance. If this were just the product of a lot of delusion and boredom, if your paranoia were simply your own, how could you so easily infect the minds of two perfectly intelligent and stable women in your life? How could you do the same to not just a legion of moviegoers in 1954 but to generations of moviegoers? You couldn’t if your conundrum didn’t speak to something universal about human nature, something heretofore untapped that to date has never been tapped quite so elegantly and accurately.
Rear Window, you see, is it. This is the movie that might well be considered the thesis statement of all narrative film, the apex of the craft, because it’s about the act of watching, and it’s about the morally dubious nature of what we’re really doing when we sit down to view a film. It does not chastise us for this, it gives us all the room we need to indulge our need to gawk and stare and wonder furiously. It even rewards us by confirming all of our worst suspicions about what we’re seeing, but it allows us to think about what’s actually going on with that outward gaze of ours, something no one but Hitchcock would ever feel comfortable doing because it’s a challenge to the very fabric of his life’s work. There’s no question that this is the peak and the defining moment of Hitchcock’s first fifteen years in Hollywood; it marks the point when he achieved everything he had ever set out to do with film up to this point. From here, it would be time for a well-deserved vacation (To Catch a Thief) and then wholly new ideas.
In order to properly appreciate its context in Hitchcock’s career, it’s handy to trace Rear Window to its sources, both external (Dali’s “The Voyeur,” the threadbare Cornell Woolrich short story on which it’s directly based, and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman,” filmed by Powell & Pressburger just a few years before this in Tales of Hoffmann) and internal: for years, Hitchcock had become gradually more fixated upon the confinement of a picture’s action into small spaces. Start with the train in The Lady Vanishes, a tightly-controlled and (by its excruciating climax) an ultimately fearsome environment. Continue to Lifeboat, the titular space the smallest of all and the perfect site for a formal experiment; and two films wholly operating from small apartments: the more intense Rope, combining its separation from the outside world with the nearly unbearable tension of its ten-minute takes; and of course, Dial M for Murder, which springboards from its stage origins to explore the unique division of its sympathies. But Rear Window eclipses these fine films wholly; its central conceit is as pure and ingenious as cinematic storytelling gets.
The notion is to create a situation in which our hero, Jeffries, is trapped, wheelchair-bound, but the world outside his big bay window is all too visible to him, and therefore to us. To achieve this, Hitchcock built an intimidatingly massive set on the Paramount lot approximating an entire Greenwich Village courtyard, with Jeffries’ apartment positioned cleverly opposite a series of miniature motion pictures starring the neighbors. The director composed all but a handful of shots from within the Jeffries apartment, looking outward, making this a triumph in theories of subjective filmmaking, but only adding to the sense of audience participation — and implication. Early in the film, Jeff’s rehabilitation nurse Stella (the ever-perfect Thelma Ritter), chiding her patient’s Peeping Tom behavior, remarks “What people oughta do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.” It’s meant as a sarcastic jab, but it also levels the playing field for us — it’s just as easy for us to be seen gazing outward through our large open panes as it is to do so in the first place. Much of Rear Window is concerned with the absence of protection that comes from immersing ourselves in a true obsession, the violation of a carefully cultivated privacy that itself is never truly private.
Jeff has plenty of people to look at, of course, and he even has pet names for them. The inevitable main attraction is initially “Miss Torso” (Georgine Darcy), a ballet dancer whose comically exaggerated in-home workout is dinner theater for Jeffries. He’ll in time become sucked into the drama of a frustrated songwriter, a sorrowfully heavy-drinking “Miss Lonelyhearts” (Judith Evelyn in a small but stunning performance), a couple of constantly fucking young marrieds, an older couple who regularly sleep on their porch and send their dog downstairs for neighborhood walks, and that’s just the beginning. Quickly, however, we focus upon Raymond Burr’s sinister Thorwold, sinister precisely because of the appearance of bland normalcy, something all too easy for us to read a hundred circumstantial and crazy ideas into — which of course is precisely what Jeff quickly does when he notices the sudden absence of Thorwold’s typically outspoken wife. But Jeff himself has his own cruel fate to ponder, that being the impotence wrought upon him by his broken leg, attained while getting a particularly great shot at a racetrack. He’s a photojournalist, a feature that — like everything else in Hitchcock’s tightest thrillers — will eventually have a utility all its own.
As tension mounts, all action observed from afar, Jeff manages to convince and entice both Lisa and Stella into not at all minor involvement in his small private eye operation, and it’s useful to consider how beautifully the director, as well as writer John Michael Hayes, avoid every possible blockade between audience and central character. He isn’t an all-knowing professional detective, even if he has a skill set we don’t necessarily share; he’s one of us in a true sense, which makes the film all the more engrossing and, as it builds, terrifying. Of course, Hayes and Hitchcock hardly achieve this alone — disregarding the technical contributions of Hitchcock’s stable cinematographer Bob Burks and editor George Tomasini for just a moment, this much like Notorious is an instance of a film that soars on a sort of miracle-casting perfection Hitchcock likely wished he could’ve enjoyed far more. Nearly all of his major films feature some compromised role or another — even Vertigo was designed for Vera Miles rather than Kim Novak — and the minor ones often feature entire major parts that are poorly filled by necessity and can’t live up to the story and direction (Saboteur and Torn Curtain being two legendary examples).
Rear Window is not such a moment; this is Hitchcock the all-powerful, doing precisely what he wanted with the people he’d chosen. It’s a sign of the director’s respect for his collaborators that their creative input appears to have been considerable. James Stewart and Grace Kelly’s interplay, well-written by Hayes though it is, is a work of unforced magic. Kelly was routinely cast in schoolmarmish roles until Hitchcock got hold of her for Dial M for Murder, and even then he discovered a sense of humor and wicked comic timing that couldn’t be used in that film and asked Hayes to perform a rewrite of this script after spending time with her. The character of Lisa was essentially created around Kelly the performer, one reason why she explodes here with confidence, humor, and sensuality like never before and only once after (To Catch a Thief), so many leagues away from the mousy bride of High Noon or the tragic waif of The Country Girl. Thus, much as the veiled dirty-talk between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Notorious was born out of unmistakably real improvisations between them, Rear Window as we know it exists as a monument to the person Grace Kelly was as a human being — and it was this specific conceit that led James Stewart to sign on. The story goes that he was never particularly happy with his first Hitchcock film, Rope, which didn’t truly become the celebrated legend it now is until the ’90s; this changed everything, on and off the screen. The injection of real life therefore wrought by Lisa, who enters the stage repeatedly from a larger world we never glimpse, adds to the unnerving sense that in this film, the lines between the real and the fabricated don’t bisect the screening room in the familiar fashion.
John Michael Hayes is commonly cited as an ideal collaborator of Hitchcock in his peak decade, but in fact it’s handy to read Bill Krohn’s Hitchcock at Work to discover how much “writing in the camera” the director was still doing by this point. All the same, in speaking to Ken Mogg in the ’70s, Hayes would cite his much-needed injection here, particularly in comparison to the director’s prior two films, I Confess and Dial M for Murder (and to a lesser extent, the arid romantic scenes of Strangers on a Train), as warmth, chiefly of characterization. There’s no mistaking that these people are more important to writer and director both than the deliberately vague murder plot itself, which is largely concerned with a victim we never come to know even second-hand, and thus the crux of the picture is how the suspense and thriller elements, which are galvanizing and intense when they rhythmically assert themselves, alter the attitudes and shared emotions of the three lead characters and then the audience, whose identification is so absolute with these full-bodied and beautifully crafted people that this could easily be cited as the “warmest” of all Hitchcock’s films.
Ritter, meanwhile, is finally here given a role plum enough to provide her with her finest hour; so memorable in All About Eve and a host of other films as a wisecracking foil (usually a maid or similar), she’s here made a developed character and a vital figure to an unusual and adventurous story. The three-way team Stella, Lisa and Jeff finally comprise is the perfect funhouse mirror of a popular audience struggling to make sense of the facts they’re uncovered about Thorwold while they manage to continue to bicker and chide one another about their own interpersonal relations, an up-in-the-air facet of one of Hayes’ chief fixations in the ’50s, the career-marriage conflict. Lisa’s in love with the ornery, sometimes nasty Jeff but wants him to consider either settling down or acquiring her as a partner in his globetrotting adventures taking photographs. Jeff’s obsessed with his freedom and solitude and sees Lisa’s uncommon fanciness (in code, her individuality) as something new, obtuse and threatening. To return now to subjectivity, herein is the grand genius of the context outside of Rear Window‘s central mystery, which really takes up just a small proportion of its screen time. What the film is really about is the embrace of compromise required to experience a stable long-term relationship, and in turn the attendant uncertainty of said compromise.
In other words, another person might look out Jeff’s window and just see people: a bathing beauty, young lovers, an abstract sculptor, a peppy dog, a vivacious single lady, a burly man who carries lots of luggage around. Jeff looks out and sees everything that supports his own thesis about the impossibility of a future with a woman like Lisa; he sees in bumbling oafs and their yapping dog the bleak emptiness of domesticity, he sees a woman who signifies the constant temptation of the outside, he sees the male half of the ribald honeymooners trying to catch a breath of fresh air before being called back for continued boffing, he sees a woman whose loneliness mirrors both the darkest angles of his own solitude (he secretly raises a glass to her early on in one of the film’s most telling moments) and a physical manifestation of the threat of being tied down to a force of emotional need. And of course, he sees a man who — in his perception — has been incited by a nagging wife to go over the edge and kill her. To his credit, he sees little gallows humor in this and is driven immediately by a desire to match him to justice, but he also fears Thorwold because Thorwold is his worst-case scenario of his own future. His paranoia is exaggerated and not a little insensitive, stated and restated to Stella and Lisa with curiously defensive fervor, but the preponderance of evidence he sees in his own neighborhood is telling. It’s the three-dimensional realization of what Hitchcock would routinely cite later as the Eisensteinian visual conceit of the film, i.e., that Stewart’s is a reactive performance, an exercise in “negative acting,” and that what’s around him alters him.
Hayes doesn’t overdo Jeff’s sexism, just gently prods us about it. Our hearts go out to Lisa when she tries her best and is repeatedly rebuffed, but Jeff remains our vessel because his buried compassion is so obvious, yet so is his insatiable curiosity. Through the course of the film, these two characters will surround one another and envelop the actions of these nights and change, bend, embrace a new side of themselves. By the end of the film, in a foreshadowing of The Trouble with Harry, all of the neighborhood characters save the now-carted off Thorwold will be paired off and rediscovering happiness on a bright sunny morning. Life goes on, more things begin, and although there’s little reason to assume that all of the relationships now beginning or reaching new heights will succeed permanently, it’s a fair bet that some of them will.
It’s not just visually that Hitchcock subsumes us, incidentally, in the environment of his apartment and courtyard. The music by Franz Waxman is among the most unusual and innovative Hollywood scores of the classic period, though to even call this a classic-era studio picture seems laughably reductive. Waxman doesn’t write a conventional background score, instead crafting with brilliant recordists John Cope and Harry Lindgren an absorbing sound design that completely and resourcefully steeps the audience into the summer days and nights here exhibited — the bustling of activity is detailed and impressionistic and as much a brilliant piece of subjective stylization as the set itself. And all the while, Waxman finds incidental sources for musical intervention, adding to the nearly tangible atmosphere, chief among them the gradual progress of a composer in Jeff’s neighborhood at work on a song. Lisa comments at one point that it sounds as if it’s being written just for her romantic evening with Jeff. “No wonder he’s having so much trouble with it,” Jeff quips before looking away resigned.
Hitchcock also finds a rare cinematic coup here with the passage of time; with fades in and out and the lighting of the studio ceiling he emphasizes the goings-on in the neighborhood through a progression of hours and days, and we get a sense of a full-bodied chronology in the way we shift from a tender kiss to a bitter argument, from hours asleep to the realization with a glimpse of the wrist that something has missed Jeff’s watchful eyes. The sense of confinement is absolute, the only direct connections with anything beyond Jeff’s own apartment being phone calls, Stella’s appointments, Lisa’s errands, and periodic visits from an old impatient, nosy policeman friend. So by the climax, as much as he’s now heroically discovered and put together, his helplessness is absolute. Hitchcock knew the limitation of scope would involve us all the more and that the emotional content of the film, from fear and suspense to anger and sorrow, would be like pushing buttons given that he here had a courtyard full of little movies to show us… but we’re involved in all this largely because Stewart’s Jeff is doing what we would like to do. We’d like to spy and see what’s happening behind those curtains; we’d like to discover a murder in progress or fresh, a strange impulse Lisa captures beautifully in her classic line: “You and me with long faces, plunged into despair because we find out a man didn’t kill his wife. We’re two of the most frightening ghouls I’ve ever known.” The frightening ghouls are all of us, too, because at that moment we’re just as disappointed.
Hitchcock and Hayes make time amidst all the witty, deadpan dialogue (as much of it delivered by Kelly as by Ritter; the former’s “I’ve always wanted to meet Mrs. Thorwold” is possibly the funniest moment in any Hitchcock film) for serious conversations about the ethics of what Jeff and Lisa are doing. But the more salient question is why they’re doing it. That’s the lingering matter we’re left to wonder about — why they are obsessing over this and why we’re right there with them. Jeff’s disease is initially regarded with stern condescension by his female cohorts but soon spreads to them unfettered to the point that Lisa’s digging holes and breaking into apartments for him and he’s loving every second of it (of course underlining as much about their relationship as the story, which is a crucial point to the way this particular film works). As deservedly happy and pleasurable as the finale is, the lingering questions Rear Window leaves us about a particular nastiness of human nature are inescapable long after the literal curtain is lowered.
That curtain, the one that lifts during the opening credits to reveal the strange vastness of Jeff’s singular world, points up to the greatness of Rear Window handily, for it makes the most succinct point of all about how this reality has here become a play for Jeff and us. We spend the entire film eagerly gazing out along with him, ecstatically engaging in the very same things that all movies really expect us to do, spying and taking mental notes and wondering what’s really going on in each room invisible to us. The film presents the world as stage to us, and expects us to own up directly to its pleasures and responsibilities. After the slow encroaching of a kind of doom we neglect to even notice, there is that moment for which no words seem adequate. Lisa has anxiously climbed up to Thorwold’s apartment. We watch in mild terror as she hunts for evidence with Thorwold ascending the staircase. Hitchcock lets her get caught, and lets it get wrenching and terrible, and mercifully the police arrive quickly, and as we observe the proceeding action with a sigh of relief, we note that Lisa did find something. We can see her pointing and waving emphatically at Mrs. Thorwold’s wedding ring as she’s being detained. But someone else notices as well — Thorwold himself, who gazes cockeyed at this strange gesture then follows it to the window. And he looks up, out into the night, and toward our window, and directly at us. Not merely at L.B. Jeffries, but at us. We’ve been seen. movies will never be the same again. The audience in the dark is noticed, has been caught. The exhilaration and terror of this will never be duplicated. Rear Window is a perfect film, one of the half-dozen or so ever made, and it can lay claim to so much, but at the tip of the iceberg there’s this — in all its threat and prescience and beauty, the defining moment of all cinema.