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Rear Window (1954)
Written by John Michael Hayes
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
I first saw Rear Window when I was a child on our local unaffiliated network that aired whatever they could get their hands on. I was probably 10 or 11, but I remember being absolutely caught up in the way Hitchcock told the neighbors’ stories without much dialogue and even illuminated our protagonist in the way the images cut between these other people. This is a genuinely tense & thrilling murder mystery that uses its setting to its fullest. I think Rear Window is an excellent example for filmmakers with limited budgets and filming spaces to take advantage of every facet of that room or building to create a truly suspenseful story.
L.B. Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart) is a professional photographer known for getting in the middle of the action. It’s this profession that led to his leg getting broken and Jefferies being confined to a wheelchair in his Greenwich Village apartment for over a month. His only entertainment source is the window that looks out on a shared courtyard and into his neighbors’ flats. He playful nicknames these people with a dancer becoming Miss Torso and a single woman looking for love is Miss Lonelyhearts. His evening dates with Lisa (Grace Kelly), his model girlfriend, are soundtracked by the pianist who lives in a neighboring loft.
Things take a dark turn when Jefferies begins to suspect one neighbor, a salesman named Lars Thorvald (Raymond Burr), has murdered his wife. The couple seemed to be on thin ice, and Lars made phone calls to someone that upset his wife. Then one night, a scream pierces the night, and the next morning, Lars’s wife is nowhere to be seen. However, Lars is cleaning off a knife and handsaw while tying an old trunk with rope to be hauled away. Jefferies’s in-home nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and Lisa are incredulous at first, but once they witness some strange behavior across the way, they realize they will have to be Jefferies’s legs and get closer to the situation.
The first aspect of Rear Window that still wows me to this day is the Greenwich Village courtyard set constructed on Paramount’s sound stage. This is one of the all-time most incredible set designs in film history, each window or series of them like comic book panels that guide us through the individual’s lives and stories of Jefferies neighbors. John Michael Hayes’s screenplay does a fantastic job of slowly meting out information from all these people without immediately drawing our eye to the Thorvald household explicitly at first.
There are long sections, almost silent movie-like, where Jefferies observes others, and their body language and gestures reveal what is going on with them. Additionally, Hitchcock uses cuts to imply things about them and Jefferies himself. When Jefferies is having conversations with Stella about his future with Lisa, especially if he should propose or not, we follow his perspective as he observes the newlywed couple who have pulled the shade for days as they consummate things but then to the Thorvald house where the marriage has devolved into something distant and lukewarm. These elements could not be carried out in stage play or in written form, a fantastic example of what type of narratives work exclusively in the genre of film.
In this cramped setting, there is irony pointed out when tragedy strikes in the courtyard near the end of the second act. Jefferies is trapped in his apartment due to his injury, but it becomes apparent no one in this community really communicates with each other. We can assume that this is just a place our protagonist sleeps and keeps his things due to his work, and he doesn’t really know these people well at all. There are three artists among the residents we observe, and while they are great at their respective crafts, they all struggle with human connection, reflective of Jefferies’s apprehensions about settling down with Lisa. Hitchcock displays how lonely a crowded apartment compound can be, much less an entire city.
The viewer feels a thrilling rush being placed in Jefferies as he sits in the shadows and watches his neighbors with his camera. Voyeurism is a continually recurring element in Hitchock’s work; I can think of Norman Bates and the peephole into the shower. Being in a theater and watching movies is also an act of voyeurism; we do what Jefferies does every time we sit down in that darkened room to watch a picture. While he probably didn’t foresee it, the internet has allowed voyeurism to reach heights never before imagined. Some of this is consenting, with sex workers faking the ability to peer into their private lives, but we can also “stalk” people on social media to extrapolate their “stories.” We should also think of how easily conspiracy theorists get caught up in believing they have stumbled across some criminal act, and they have imagined themselves as the protagonists in a Rear Window-like scenario.
Rear Window is about as perfect as they come, but it would be just one of many pictures that hit that mark to come from Alfred Hitchcock. True to his eclectic form, Hitch switched gears quite drastically for his next picture. That would be a romantic mystery set in the French Riveria titled To Catch a Thief.