One of the most flawless embodiments of Alfred Hitchcock’s “pure cinema” is the masterful Rear Window. This 1954 motion picture is based on a Cornell Woolrich and once again returns the filmmaker to enticing technical challenges. “It was a possibility of doing a purely cinematic film,” Hitch told François Truffaut.
The director certainly makes the most of the opportunity, unfolding a compelling thriller that relies on essentially three parts: “You have an immobilized man looking out. That’s one part of the film. The second part shows what he sees and the third part shows how he reacts.”
James Stewart is Hitchcock’s “immobilized man,” a professional photographer named L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies. Jeff is confined to his apartment because he broke his leg snapping photos of a racetrack accident. His relationship with his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) is in trouble, but he still gets advice from his nurse (Thelma Ritter).
In his solitude, Jeff takes to observing the neighbours. He looks out on to a courtyard and starts to develop names and back-stories for the people he’s barely seen. When one neighbour in particular (Raymond Burr) begins to exhibit particularly strange behaviour and his bedridden wife goes missing, Jeff and Lisa think the worst.
It could be argued that Rear Window operates in the same universe of confinement as pictures like Rope, but this film is much broader. The set, all of which was built on the Paramount lot, is a massive work of architecture and an exhibition of normal life. The characters in the various apartments “lived” as normal within their four walls, delivering an organic feel to the movie.
There is indeed always something going on from Jeff’s vantage point. From Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy) and Miss Lonelyheart (Judith Evelyn) to a songwriter (Ross Bagdasarian) who unwittingly provides the musical score, the denizens of this Greenwich Village complex are fascinating – especially in the heat.
Rear Window does exactly what the movies do in general: it makes voyeurs of the audience. When Jeff and his nurse are distracted from the danger about to set upon Lisa as she roots through an apartment, it’s because their eyes have fallen on new drama. Hitchcock deliberately flicks the camera around from window to window, shifting the audience’s views and dividing loyalties.
With so much to look at in the courtyard and through the windows – “a real index of individual behaviour” as Hitchcock would say – it might be considered easy to get distracted from the general murderous thrust. But the real unifying concept is not necessarily what happened to the neighbour’s wife but why it happened.
Looking around through the various frames, it becomes apparent that love is everywhere in this hot environment. Jeff and Jill stay up late discussing where their relationship is going, for instance, while a pair of newlyweds make great use of their time with the shades drawn. And Miss Torso, as is only natural, finds herself at the centre of erotic attention.
Where that, for lack of better terminology, “love energy” goes forms the construct of Rear Window. The childless couple sleeping outside (until it rains, of course) places their affections at the furry feet of their dog, which is why the histrionics over its death match the reaction, as Truffaut would have it, “as if the death of a child were involved.”
The audience doesn’t know why a murder is suspected in the apartment of Burr’s character, but there are some clues placed in the surrounding area. The ill wife chews him out something fierce over his cooking and tosses his romantic overture (presented in the form of a flower with her meal) quite dismissively aside.
This study of motivations takes its course right to the inevitable conclusion, which doesn’t so much traffic in the various representations of human relationships between lovers as it does mine the idea of justification. Should Stewart’s character have been watching and constructing his own story? Do the neighbours have an expectation of privacy in the throes of fondness or is voyeurism useful to some extent?
In these days of “see something, say something” paranoia, the actions of Jeff and Lisa may well be lauded. After all, the news media often lionizes the actions of adroit observers spotting a fishy person going to the bathroom too much on a plane or a stranger “acting weird” in a shopping centre, even if those incidents result in little more than misunderstandings.
Rear Window could’ve really gone either way with its conclusion. There is an argument to be made that things are rushed toward the end, but Hitch seems aware of this and literally presses fast-forward as the characters fly out of their cubbyholes to see what’s going on. It’s not the conclusion that matters, then, or even the veracity of one’s suspicion. The ecstasy is all in the watching.