Rear Window (1954)
Dir. Alfred Hitchcock; James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Raymond Burr
[4 / 4 stars]
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) is a film about watching. The protagonist, L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart), is a photographer for a newspaper who recently broke his leg and is trapped in his Manhattan apartment with nothing to do but observe the back courtyard and spy on his neighbors. After noting the disappearance of one of his neighbors, Jeffries decides that the man across the courtyard, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), has murdered his sick wife. Jeffries’ fiancée, Lisa (Grace Kelly) does not, share his opinion at first, but she is won over when she watches Thorwald’s behavior in his apartment across the courtyard. The audience watches too, with bated breath, as Jeffries reveals clues through the lens of his camera.
The audience’s gaze creates a magnificent, theatrical piece out of Rear Window. The entire film is shot on one constructed set, the sound is diegetic, and the plot could conceivably be acted out on stage in front of the watching audience. The dull reality evoked by long shots of an empty courtyard forces the viewer into the set itself, looking around for something he or she is missing. At the same time, the film is fundamentally un-theatrical; Hitchcock himself called it “a purely cinematic film”. What he means is that the suspense, and therefore the whole plot, relies on the camera — Hitchcock’s film following Jeffries’ photo — in order to show only what he intended us, and Jeffries, to see. Curious observation borders on scopophilia as we see Stewart guiltily watch “Miss Torso” dance through her apartment. We are right to be slightly uncomfortable with Hitchcock’s use of the male gaze — C.A. Lejeune of the London Observer complained that Jeffries is no more than a “Peeping Tom” — but it should be remembered that in addition to underlining Hitchcock’s obsession with voyeurism, Rear Window is a commentary on the audience’s role as well. When pressed in an interview, Hitchcock explained that Stewart merely represents the human instinct to watch: “Sure, he’s a snooper, but aren’t we all?”
Rear Window is one of my favorite Hitchcock films and, therefore one of my favorite films of all time. What draws me back to it is the ease with which Hitchcock creates suspense. This is not a sudden film like Psycho (1960); there is but a single scene of action toward the end when Burr’s character encounters Stewart’s. The film’s build-up is slow, full of long shots of a deserted courtyard with soft street music in the background, and for the first third of the film, we aren’t even certain that it is a suspense. The choice of James Stewart, known primarily for the “everyman” role in films like Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) demonstrates Hitchcock’s desire for an everyday suspense. Stewart brilliantly carries out the role of the average man, unsure of himself, and this allows us to identify ourselves with him. What’s terrifying about Rear Window, then, is its commonness; we recognize that Jeffries just stumbled upon a murder because he was looking out his own window, and we begin to question what would happen if we took the time to observe the people who surround us.