Alfred Hitchcock Retrospective: Rear Window
By Patrick Kavanagh-Sproull.
The French film publication, Cahiers du Cinéma once characterized Alfred Hitchcock as an auteur, a filmmaker whose creative influence is distinct and recognizable. Hitchcock is a prestigious director, known throughout the movie industry as the best of his kind and twenty-three years after his death we have grown to identify his style. Psycho is his magnum opus, a movie famous for helping define the horror genre. Whilst Psycho is magnificent, I chose to cover one of Hitchcock’s lesser-known pieces: Rear Window. One of the core reasons why I find Rear Window to be an enthralling and permanently tense movie is the suspense Hitchcock builds up. I find it an unbearable, (quite literally) nail-biting cinematic experience that can’t be replicated.
Voyeurism plays a key role in the film. Our principal character, photographer L.B. Jeffries is confined to his glass-fronted apartment (after breaking his leg attempting to photograph a racetrack collision) where he has a view of the courtyard of his residential block. Being naturally inquisitive, he begins to pry on his neighbours’ lives through his telescopic lens and their windows. Joined by his endearing partner, Lisa (the late Grace Kelly) and hired nurse, Stella (a very funny Thelma Ritter) Jeffries discovers that one of the persons he is watching may just be a murderer. From that point onwards the tension starts to gradually build up before reaching a gripping crescendo when the killer reveals themself.
What interests me most about the direction of Rear Window is that Hitchcock shoots it like he is operating figures in a dollhouse. The man Jeffries suspects of homicide, Lars Thorwald is seen three quarters of the time through his windows. It is an interesting set-up and Hitchcock conducts the voyeuristic camerawork seamlessly. In Jeffries’ apartment the action doesn’t move away from his living-room and I think this really adds to the tension as Jeffries’ lounge is the only room the audience are ‘in’.
James Stewart is at his best as the snoopy lensman whose Achilles heel is his curiosity; it’s a near fatal flaw in his character. Grace Kelly lights up every scene [as Jeffries’ glamorous girlfriend] with a succession of elegant frocks and soft focus shots. Whilst Thelma Ritter is hilarious as L.B. Jeffries’ cynical but warmhearted caregiver. For this article I have given Rear Window multiple views and I have still not grown tired of watching the three protagonists interact onscreen. In contrast to the heroes of Psycho (Marion Crane, an innocuous secretary who embezzles money from her employer) or The Birds (Melanie Daniels, a fashionable socialite who pursues a handsome acquaintance to his home where she waltzes in on his life) Jeffries (and Lisa to an extent) are innocent but curious and by far Hitchcock’s most likeable lead(s). Raymond Burr is everything you could possibly want in a guilt-ridden but aggressive white-collar villain as he sweats and paces around his apartment pondering his next move. And he isn’t Jeffries’ only neighbour, oh no, there are others and I’ve selected some of my favourites:
- Judith Evelyn as ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’. Quite a few of us will have nicknames for our local residents and here Lisa and “Jeff” coin poor Judith Evelyn’s character Miss Lonelyhearts. My heart goes out to her when she sets up her dinner table for two and later attempts to take her own life. Thankfully she is wooed by the harmony of ‘the Songwriter’s’ music.
- Ross Bagdasarian as ‘the Songwriter’. The title says it all and this pianist spends much of his time surrounded by company, disparate to ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’ lonesome evenings. The sound of his jazz draws her away from suicide and the pair get together. It’s a lovely subplot to have siding with the murder drama and it softens the latter considerably.
- Georgine Darcy as ‘Miss Torso’. Throughout Rear Window we are convinced that Miss Torso is a seducer who draws men to her home to impress them without actually hooking up for a serious relationship. At the end we discover that she has been, in fact, waiting for her lanky marine boyfriend. It’s an example of the way Hitchcock misleads his audience, we first have bad impressions of Miss Torso but it is revealed that she is just eager for company in her lover’s absence.
- Frank Cady and Sara Berner as ‘the middle-aged couple’. The routine life of the pair living above Thorwald is something that Jeffries finds alarming. He likes to have such an adventurous time (which is why he has very itchy feet – literally at times – when he was forced to stay in his flat) in his life, the prospect of not doing anything shocks him to the core. ‘The middle-aged couple’s dog is killed when Thorwald notices it sniffing around his flowerbed and the twosome are devastated. I really felt tremendously sorry for their loss.
Rear Window is an understated gem; one that I think deserves more recognition, as it is a tour-de-force and builds up the suspense superbly. Some sensational principal characters and a realistic villain make the film thoroughly enjoyable. Rear Window is Hitchcock on top form; it is his brushed-aside masterpiece.