Retrospective: Rear Window (1954)


Harry Riedl is a film enthusiast from West London and this continues a series of reviews on his favourite cult classics.
Alfred Hitchcock is always a name-dropped as having the most magnificent ability at using the camera to reveal something the audience would rather not know about the various deeply unpleasant secrets regarding the common man. Rear Window premiered in 1954 so many more illustrious personage have already deeply analysed the symbolism of various aspects of this movie but I’ll nevertheless attempt to add something fresh.

I chose this movie from the huge and impressive Hitchcock filmography for a few reasons. Firstly, I love the very clever idea: a photographer stuck in a New York apartment and people watching, when he sees something suspicious and involves everyone he comes into contact with to try and find out the truth. Secondly, it has the most interesting film style of deliberately limiting the viewer as to what exactly is happening. Lastly, the stories it creates for the characters in a New York block is fascinating as it’s a movie that expresses what we all do, even subconsciously when out: create stories for complete strangers who we overhear or see.

Let’s get cracking. The movie is in its crudest sense what happens when you spend a long time performing the guilty action of snooping. We are first introduced to L.B Jeffries (James Stewart, one of the best and most varied actors of his generation) as an injured photographer in a long panning shot. He is in a relatively small New York apartment on a hot summers day. This is done very cleverly by just indicating to the viewer the important aspects of his life one after another which makes us feel we already have an idea of what kind of a person he is. This efficiency in film-making could teach many a modern director the maxim that less is more. The shot settles on an uncomfortable Jeffries sweating away in a wheel chair. We are then introduced to the second character in a movie that’s effectively a three hander, an old grouchy nurse who comes from the insurance company called Stella (the similarly fantastic Thelma Ritter who was memorable in All About Eve, a solid character actress). She makes snide comments about Jeffries’s snooping but also comments hereself on the various figures he can see out of his window and their various nicknames.

After the visit of the nurse he starts using a long lens camera and distinctive binoculars because he feels that one of the residents is acting suspiciously after his sick wife dissapears. After we see him watch this man for a while, the final figure of the this three-hander arrives. Lisa Freemont (Grace Kelly) is a woman Jeffries has been complaining about for being too perfect, when Stella was asking why he didn’t marry her, prompting him to make various excuses for why they were unsuitable. When you first see her you wonder if he is mad as she wafts in wearing a blue silk dress and embraces him, starts caring for him and bringing him a Michelin star meal to order. He seems distracted and she picks up on it. He mentions what he saw with the suspicious figure over the square as she continues to argue both about how he is being unreasonable to try and push her away by constantly mentioning his war work (China, Europe and various unpleasant hell holes are mentioned to dissuade her of his suitability) and she disappears off upset as she was caring for him and he was rejecting her attentions.

She comes over the next day and it’s increasingly clear to the audience that the wife across the road has been killed. They both argue whether her disappearance is suspicious when one of the most iconic shots of the whole movie occurs and you see her expression change to horror and she quietly asks to start again about this mysterious figure. Tension is ratcheted up by the increasing evidence. Shortly after Sheila arrives and they fill her in on this person she then proceeds to give the audience a chilling idea of what might have happened that creates audience guilt by saying ‘that’s what you were all thinking’.

The first and most natural response you would expect would be to inform the police, but this is wonderfully subverted and ruled out very neatly by introducing the need for them to act as detectives. It is neatly explained that what they have is conjecture and not much else, so the first root is closed but Jeffries calls an old police buddy who rubbishes his idea. A dog dies across the road and these small things along with the various sub plots (too numerous to mention) all fill in this limited view out of a window and panning round a room.

This is the intelligence of the movie right there. At the cinema you are at a fixed angle to the screen and the action all happens relative to the screen at a distance and this is exploited by having Jeffries at a similar station. He is no real hero as he can’t even walk and is utterly dependent on two women, a nice subversion of the genre. He is also reliant on them to discover the truth of the matter, which makes for some of the most exciting scenes I can recall, when the two women discover the truth of the mysterious man.

The end scene of the movie is one of the cleverest in film history. You see a few very small clues develop as you see the ideas of Jeffries played out by the two women but with the fixed perspective, so if they get into trouble you feel as helpless as he does which is incredibly clever by restricting the viewing angle. By not being able to get close or cut away you feel a much closer link to them and care far more as you feel like you can’t affect their actions in the same as if it’s an over the shoulder shot.

When Jeffries eventually discovers what happened the final resolution has such an incredible sense of suspense. To say what happens would ruin it as how it happens is  expected but the result is unexpected. It’s all very nicely shot and serves as an attack on the voyeuristic nature of the cinema.

This is clearly one of my all-time favourite movies and it also features on many top 100 movie lists and I hope this retrospective has explained some of the reasons why. It feels sinister with a sheer ordinariness which becomes potent. The fact I love 50s American movies and culture form the time perhaps gives me a bittersweet feeling. Such movies were made, but we will never see their likes again as they were born of the unique factors of want, censorship, technical limitations, risk taking, war, and monopolistic tendency. All of these have disappeared in one respect or another and movies haven’t ever scaled these heights since. I will return to the ‘golden age’ again with other favourites and do my best to have a little more objectivity!

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