"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

January 3, 2012

"Rear Window" (1954) by Hitchcock (Film review)

We all like to watch others. We look out of the window and note almost unconsciously what the neighbors are doing. Are they going out? Are they already back? Have they been shopping? Have they got visitors? And we watch all the more when we are forced to sit at home behind the potted plants, by illness or otherwise.

That is also the fate that befalls professional photographer L.B. "Jeff" Jeffries (James Stewart) in Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954). On one of his dangerous assignments he has broken hs leg and now he sits in a wheelchair in his New York apartment waiting for the plaster cast to be removed. He is unmarried but wisecracking insurance nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) visits every day to look with a sturdy hand after his household cores. Another visitor is girlfriend Lisa Carol Fremont (a luminous Grace Kelly), an elegant Park Avenue lady, fashion consultant and a walking fashion advertisement, although we wonder what she is doing in this Greenwich Village apartment and in the company of this rough and ready adventurer who stinks of mud. It must have something to do with the different poles of the magnet. But let it be said that the pre-marriage scuffles between Jeff and Lisa are just as interesting as the suspense. She wants him to settle down in New York as fashion photographer, he wants to keep traveling and claims he can't take her along on his assignments, for what is she going to do in the jungle with her high heels? Jeffries on purpose tries to sound off-putting, although he loves her very much, and their dialogues are one of the highlights of the film.

Jeffries is lucky: instead of only one or two neighbors, he has dozens - from his sitting-room window at the back of the building, he has a splendid view of the rear of another apartment complex, separated by a small garden. It is in the height of summer and with temperatures in the nineties (and no air-conditioning), people have their windows wide open, so Jeff's view is unimpeded: a sexy dancer in a skimpy outfit ("Miss Torso"), a not very successful songwriter who is often partying with friends, a lonely woman who entertains imaginary guests ("Miss Lonelyhearts"), a pair of newlyweds engaged in marathon lovemaking, and a wholesale jewelry salesman (played by a sinister Raymond Burr) who often quarrels with his bedridden wife, an alcoholic harpy. There are even people who sleep on their balcony. A lady living on the top floor every morning lets her little dog down in a basket, so that he can play in the garden, to hoist him up again in the evening.

Peeping Tom out of boredom, even with the help of a pair of binoculars and the long lens of his camera - as photographer he is used to watching other people - , all day long Jeffries sits staring at these neighbors and he has gotten the knack of their routines. So he immediately notices when there is something out of the ordinary: he doesn't see the salesman's wife anymore, but the salesman is cleaning large carving knives in his sink and going out several times in the middle of the night with his sample case. Later he packs a large crate... When Jeffries tells both nurse and girlfriend about his discoveries, partly to justify his peeping, they mock him - he is just daydreaming, he has an overactive imagination, etc. Jeffries calls in Doyle (Wendell Corey), an old army buddy who is now a police detective, but Doyle's perfunctory search doesn't bring up any wrongdoing. 

But Jeffries doesn't give up, and when he sees the salesman holding the handbag of his wife, he gets Lisa on his side, for she realizes a woman would never leave her handbag behind. She is even prepared to break into the apartment of the salesman via the fire escape, after Jeffries has called him away with a fake phone call. Of course, right then the salesman returns and he also notices that Jeffries has been watching him, although mostly remaining in the dark. Finally he comes to the apartment where Jeffries sits all alone, defenseless in his wheelchair...

Well, Jeffries was right in suspecting the salesman, and it doesn't cost him his life (thanks to his camera flash which he uses to blind the attacker), but only another leg in plaster. And while he is recuperating Lisa keeps him company, busily studying books about adventurous travels, so things seem to be alright there too...

Like Powell's Peeping Tom, Rear Window equates film making and watching with voyeurism. Sitting in front of the big screen in the dark (or our smaller present-day flat screens), we are the ones enjoying the guilty pleasure of watching others. Sitting still in our homes we allow ourselves to be passively entertained. And also as in Peeping Tom, we watch the people in the film through the eyes or even lens of Jeffries, making us accomplices to his voyeurism. We even hope that a murder has taken place, because that makes the film more interesting!

Rear Window is film-making of the highest order, to many (including yours faithfully) this is Hitchcock's best, as everything from script to performances, from cinematography to decors is simply perfect - not to mention the use of mainly diegetic sound! Hitchcock's mastery is demonstrated by the fact that the whole two-hour long film is confined to Jeffries' sitting room - we never move outside of it, except for what Jeffries can see himself by peeping out of the window.

P.S. By the way, Rear Window was not filmed in New York, but on a large set in the Paramount Studios.

Spot Hitchcock's cameo: the teacher of the songwriter.