Thursday, October 27, 2016

Rear Window

For a few years, I considered Rear Window (1954) my favorite movie by Alfred Hitchcock. In college, for a film course, I composed a shot-by-shot analysis of a key scene (Grace Kelly's introduction in case you were wondering. Oh, I got an A.).

Today, I'm not sure if I'd still call it my favorite, but it ranks pretty high, definitely in my top five of Hitchcock's filmography. Besides, the Simpsons did an episode as a parody/homage. That's got to count for something, right?

Crack photographer L.B. "Jeff" Jeffries (James Stewart) is beginning his final week in a leg cast that has kept him confined to his apartment for almost two months. Bored out of his mind, he's taken to watching his neighbors. Meanwhile, his high-society girlfriend Lisa Freemont (Kelly) is anxious to get married, encouraged by Jeff's nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter). Across the way, Jeff sees some strange going-ons, and soon, he's convinced one of his neighbors (Raymond Burr) has murdered his wife.

It has been said that form follows function, and if anyone believed that mantra, it was Alfred Hitchcock. Just as Psycho, the story of a killer with multiple personalities, was told from a number of different perspectives, so too does Rear Window's visual strategy match its story. The entire movie takes place inside Jeff's apartment, and looking out the window, we only see what he sees, except for one scene in which Thornwald, the suspected murderer, leaves the building while Jeff is asleep.

This is a bold decision on Hitchcock's part, and it pays off magnificently. One setting, only a handful of characters with speaking lines, it's easy to imagine Rear Window turning into a dull affair, but Hitchcock knows how to make it dynamic and visual. His camera, often representing Jeff's point of view, tracks and follows all the little dramas going outside the apartment. Even though Jeff is immobile, there's all this movement going on around him. We can feel his frustration, his impotence, and his curiosity/obsession about those around him.

Voyeurism is a theme Hitchcock has touched on elsewhere, including in Psycho, but with Rear Window, he constructs a whole movie about the creepy thrill of being able to observe someone else's life without being seen yourself. It's amazing how people behave when they don't realize they're being watched. The voyeur can learn almost everything possible about the people they observe, but to the observed, the voyeur remains a total stranger they don't know is there.

That's quite a tantalizing prospect: to know the intimate details of someone's private life without having to be a part of it. No wonder Jeff likes voyeurism; it's removes so many personal complications. Lisa wants him to either settle down or to join him on his travels as a photographer. Jeff insists they both live in separate worlds, it wouldn't work out, can't they keep their relationship "status quo" etc. This is a man who tries to keep the woman who loves at arms length.

Rear Window is also very funny. The dialogue is whip smart, and Hitchcock packs a droll touch. Early on, Lisa accuses Jeff of letting his imagination run wild and points out a murderer would not parade his crime in front of an open window. She points to a window with the blinds down and says there's probably something worse going on in that apartment. Jeff, knowing that's where some newlyweds have moved in, chuckles and says, "No comment."

Performances are wonderful, and the movie builds to a great climax as Jeff watches helplessly as Lisa walks into danger, and then a voyeur's worst nightmare occurs: the person he's watching discovers him. When the villain looks at Jeff, he's looking right at us.

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