“Rear Window” - Alfred Hitchcock (1954)

Alfred Hitchcock was not only the “Master of Suspense”, he was also, more generally, a master of cinematic landscapes and storytelling.  He famously could tell a spell-binding story with the action or camera confined to a single room, as he demonstrated with Lifeboat (1944), Rope (1948), Dial M for Murder” (1954), and Rear Window (1954).  Probably the finest of these four films is Rear Window, which Hitchcock, himself, considered to be his “most cinematic” work [1].  The film, whose story is based on Cornell Woolrich's 1942 short story "It Had to Be Murder", received four Oscar nominations (Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Sound), and it is now considered to be a classic [2].  It was ranked 53rd on the British Film Institute’s 2012 Critics’ Poll [3] concerning the all-time greatest films and 48th on the BFI’s 2012 Directors’ Poll [4] concerning the all-time greatest films.

In Rear Window, the camera is confined to the Greenwich Village apartment of a laid-up photojournalist, L.B. "Jeff" Jefferies (played by James Stewart), who, himself, is confined to his quarters by a broken leg he suffered several weeks earlier.  Bored by his immobility, Jeff has nothing to do all day but gaze out of his room’s rear window, which looks out over the back ends of other apartment buildings surrounding a back courtyard.  There is a summer heat wave going on, and since apartment buildings didn’t have air conditioners in those days, most apartment dwellers have their windows and blinds open.  And so Jeff can look out and peer into these peoples’ activities and imagine what their lives are like. 

In the process of Jeff’s relentless surveilling, he appears to uncover a violent murder that one of his back-viewed neighbors seems to have committed, and Jeff’s remote-perspective detective work constitutes the core of this Hitchcock thriller.  But actually, as Claude Chabrol astutely pointed out in an early Cahiers du Cinema review [5], there are three significant and interrelated (because of their common connection to voyeurism) thematic planes to this film:
  • The Thriller – uncovering and dealing with the apparent murder
     
  • The Romantic Relationship.  Jeff has a beautiful girlfriend, Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly), but his preference of vicarious observation over intimacy, blocks the further development of their relationship.
     
  • The Narrative Construction of Our Social Worlds.  We all fabricate our understandings of the people with whom we interact based on imagined narratives that we construct.  And our point-of-view in these matters is often quite restricted.  To what extent do these constructed mini-narratives constitute objective reality?
The film begins with a shot from Jeff’s apartment’s rear window that pans around the backs of the various apartments and then pans back into Jeff’s apartment to show Jeff asleep in his wheelchair.  So we can see that the camera’s perspective is not exclusively just Jeff’s point-of-view, but is instead that of the narrative’s “silent witness”, who is like Jeff’s sympathetic companion.  In short order we learn about Jeff’‘s condition and meet the only two people who come to visit him – Stella (played by six-time Oscar nominee Thelma Ritter), who is a garrulous insurance-company-funded nurse, and Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), who is a wealthy-set high fashion model and is Jeff’s adoring girlfriend. 

Jeff (and we with him) spends his time watching his rear-window-viewed neighbors, with whom he is unacquainted and imagining what they are like.  There are several of them, all separately located, who attract his attention and to some of whom he gives his own monikers:
  • “Miss Torso", a showoff dancer,
  • "Miss Lonelyhearts", a single and lonely middle-aged woman who stages pretend private dinners in response to her loneliness,
  • a middle-aged bachelor and sometimes struggling composer-pianist,
  • a newly married couple,
  • a childless couple who dote on their little dog,
  • a sculptress,
  • a traveling jewelry salesman with a nagging, bedridden wife.
Stella criticizes Jeff for being a Peeping Tom, and she also scolds him for not having the determination to marry and settle down with Lisa.  But Jeff defends himself and says that his free lifestyle as an itinerant photojournalist is unsuited to a settled life with Lisa.  Despite Lisa’s undeniable glamor, he insists he is looking for a woman with whom he can share his adventures and who can be his companion on the road. 

Late one evening at 2am, Jeff is awakened from his snoozing by the sound of broken glass and a woman’s scream.  Jeff looks out his window and sees the jewelry salesman, who we will soon learn is named Lars Thorwald (played by Raymond Burr), leaving his apartment and carrying a suitcase.  Thorwald returns a half-hour later and soon departs again with his suitcase.  All told, Thorwald that night makes three trips out somewhere with his suitcase. 

This is all very suspicious for Jeff, and the next day he begins spying on Thorwald’s window using his binoculars and his telephoto camera lens, with which he observes (a) Thorwald packing up his butcher’s knife and handsaw in newspaper and (b) that Thorwald’s wife is now nowhere to be seen.  Jeff now constructs in his mind truly sinister mini-narratives for Thorwald – that the man has killed his wife and cut up her body into pieces.  He expresses his suspicions to Lisa, but she scolds him for letting his imagination get the best of him and for being a Peeping Tom.  Later, though, when they observe Thorwald packing up a trunk, Lisa starts to get suspicious, too. 

Worried that Thorwald will soon depart the scene and disappear, Jeff contacts his old military service buddy, Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey), who is now a New York City police detective, and  he tells him to go after Thorwald.  But Doyle dismisses Jeff’s evidence as too circumstantial to warrant serious suspicions about Thorwald.

Meanwhile Jeff observes Thorwald shooing away the childless couple’s little dog from digging in the courtyard’s flowerbed, and he suspects something incriminating is buried there.  Soon the dog is discovered dead in the courtyard with a broken neck, and Jeff naturally assumes Thorwald is the culprit.  The little dog in this tale could here be considered to be a Hitchcockian MacGuffin – a recurring iconic object that focuses the viewer’s attention and perhaps symbolizes a matter of importance.  In this case, it is never revealed what may have really been buried in that flowerbed, and critics and viewers have been left ever since to speculate what might have been there. 

With more suspicious evidence about Thorwald piling up – this time showing Thorwald packing up his wife’s jewelry – both Lisa and Stella come around to supporting Jeff’s suspicions, and they offer him their feminine-intuition-oriented help.  With Jeff’s assistance in distracting Thorwald by getting him to leave his apartment for a fictitious meetup with a mysterious accuser, Lisa and Stella then go out to dig up the flowerbed where the dog had been digging.  When they find nothing there, though, Lisa then boldly climbs the outside fire escape ladder and acrobatically enters Thorwald’s 2nd-floor apartment through an open window in order to search for further incriminating evidence that will validate Jeff’s proposed narrative about Thorwald.  Seeing Lisa’s resourcefulness and intrepidity in the face of danger, Jeff can’t help but recognize that Lisa is in fact the true life co-adventurer that he has always been looking for.  But will this realization have come too late?  With Thorwald now knowing that he is being spied upon by a neighbor and with the prospect of him returning to his apartment at any moment, we are now in pure thriller mode, as Jeff watches anxiously and helplessly from his window.  The voyeur is about to become entangled in real, life-threatening events.

As things transpire, Thorwald does return to confront and attack Lisa.  The police arrive in the  nick of time to save her from any further mayhem, but she is arrested for vandalizing Thorwald’s apartment.  This leaves Thorwald free to come after Jeff, who is alone and helpless in his apartment.  And this sets up the nail-biting denouement, which you will have to see for yourself.


Viewers who watch this classic film today are sure to reflect on issues raised here that have developed into critical concerns that now threaten our way of life:
  • Voyeurism – today with the omnipresence of Internet-connected social media, many young people are lapsing into voyeuristic passivity, wallowing vicariously in their self-constructed mini-narratives of others and missing out on authentic face-to-face interactions and engagement.
     
  • Surveillance – the prospect of our being subjected to ubiquitous and continuous surveillance is no longer a futuristic nightmare; it is now about to happen to all of us [6].  This means that our own personal narratives involving our authentic selves engaging with significant others – the complexity and delicacy of which usually require a limited scope (i.e. some privacy) – would become severely, if not fatally, restricted.
In Rear Window these issues were presented in an intriguing and insightful manner that was far ahead of its time.

I might add in passing a comment about Grace Kelly.  Hitchcock was famous for presenting beautiful blondes, not as instances of passionate femininity, but as almost frozen statues of feminine perfection, and these included Kim Novak, Eva Marie Saint, Grace Kelly, and Tippi Hedren.  Of these, I would say Grace Kelly was, at the same time, the most womanly and the most beautiful.  And her performance here in Rear Window was probably her best.


Notes:    
  1. J. Hoberman, “Out of Sight”, The Village Voice, (18 January 2000).    
  2. Roger Ebert, “Rear Window”, Great Movie, RogerEbert.com, (20 February 2000).   
  3. “Critics’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).      
  4. “Directors’ Top 100", Analysis: The Greatest Films of All Time 2012, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (2012).     
  5. Claude Chabrol, “Les Choses Sérieuses (Rear Window)”, Cahiers du Cinéma,vol. 8, issue 46, (1 April 1955).  
  6. Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Spiegel & Grau, (2018).   

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