Sometimes the best films are the ones that seem like they’re not even trying.
Alfred Hitchcock was quite possibly the best at doing this. Most of his great suspense work is seemless, you don’t even notice that your nerves are tense or that your breathing has increased. Hitchcock baited the audience in with someone we could trust, showed us his fears and insecurities and then plays with them, like a puppet master manipulating the audience instead of the puppet. We care about these characters because Hitchcock made us care.
This brings us to Hitchcock’s shining achievement in filmmaking, as debatable as that sounds. His 1954 thriller, “Rear Window,” feels different from his other films yet right at home at the same time. Hitchcock loved to play with perspective, with films like “Lifeboat” and “Rope,” the former of which being set entirely in a small lifeboat stranded at sea, and the latter being shot like a stage play taking place in one large apartment. “Rear Window” falls into the same category, but with a clever set up that leads to a point of view that I’ve never seen before.
L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart, last time you’ll see him on this countdown, I promise) has been laid-up in a New York apartment for six weeks with a heavy cast on his broken leg, after taking a daring photograph in the middle of a busy raceway. Jefferies has little to do while trapped here other than stare out his window and spy on his neighbors, even going to the point of nicknaming each of them, including Ms. Torso, the ballet dancer who has different men over every night, Ms. Lonely-Hearts, the aging woman who drinks herself to sleep and the nagging couple who can’t stand the sight of each other.
Jeff also has a girlfriend who is obsessed with him, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly). But Jeff sees the two of them going nowhere, since she is absorbed into the New York lifestyle of fashion, gossip and looks, while Jeff wants to see the world through a lens.
As Jeff is falling asleep one night, he begins to hear and see things that he shouldn’t have – like a woman’s scream, several trips in and out of an apartment in the middle of the night, and saws, knives and rope. Jeff puts the pieces that he knows together, as suspects that a murder has taken place.
The first point to note is “Rear Window” takes place entirely from Jeff’s apartment. Nearly every camera angle is from the perspective of his window, as we rarely zoom in on the faces of those Jeff is watching. Like Jeff, we are restricted and forced to see everything from one point of view, confined to what we can see from a large window. We only see what Jeff sees, which makes piecing together a murder quite difficult.
This is what makes “Rear Window” so unique. Everything we see is shown in plain view and without telling us anything. Instead, we’re shown the images and piece together the puzzle along with Jeff. Of course, the puzzle is incomplete, as we only see fragments of the what goes on in the Thorvald house. But where would the fun be if we saw everything that happened in their house?
Jeff is incapable of interacting with what he sees through that window. He can only make snide comments about Ms. Torso being so friendly with every man who walks through her door or the song writer that can’t finish his newest number. While he puts everything together and realizes that it equals murder, we watch only his eyes dart around. He is powerless to stop anything from outside his window from happening, including Lisa going into the Thorvald’s apartment to find clues.
Which brings me to the biggest reason I love “Rear Window.” Because of Jeff’s inability to interact with anything he sees, his tendency to spy on people who don’t know they’re being spied on and the limited point of view, “Rear Window” takes a strange stance on movie watching. After all, when we are watching movies, are we not spying on private lives?
Think of Jeff’s window as the movie screen, which the opening of the film shows the curtains opening up like a theater curtain. We don’t know these people, but they’re going about their daily lives, unaware that we are watching them. In a sense, watching a movie is voyeurism. It is wrong to spy on others, but we do it every time we go to the theater.
“That’s a secret private world your looking into out there,” says the detective Jeff hires to investigate this incident. “People do a lot of things in private that they couldn’t possibly explain in public.”
“Rear Window” is one of the rare films that puts the protagonist in the same position as the audience – bound, limited to a restricted point of view, quick to make assumptions about everything he sees through his screen, taking a passive role throughout the film and keeps everything out of arms reach, including the people who care about him.
Perhaps that is the reason Jeff doesn’t want to be Lisa. Not because the two of them are from very different worlds and both of them are unwilling to accommodate the other, but because Jeff is only interested in what we can see through his lens. Jeff loves photography and spying on his neighbors, looking at others from a far distance.
Lisa is more than willing to indulge Jeff in his obsessions to spy, and offer him fancy dinners with champagne, give him free publicity in the New York photography scene. All in the hopes that Jeff will settle down and marry her. Yet Jeff keeps his distance, as Lisa even points out one night while they’re making out, his body might be here, but his mind is on the other side of the room.
It isn’t until Lisa becomes apart of his little spy game and actively searches for answers to the murder that Jeff begins to notice her. He sees the adventurous side of her that gets him excited.
The strange part of all this is that each room Jeff spys on has a relationship to him and Lisa. The Thorvald’s and their constant nagging show exactly what Jeff wants to avoid with Lisa, while Ms. Lonely-Hearts is what Jeff is doing to Lisa – leaving her sad and feeling unwanted. The composer is searching for something to love, and ends up creating a beautiful melody which becomes Jeff and Lisa’s song. While a newlywed couple who have recently moved across the way spend the entire film with the shades down, only to bicker about money by the end of the movie.
I’m not sure if that was intentional or not, but that is part of the charm of “Rear Window.” Every moment adds up in this film, even though it never feels like it should. Most of the time, the images feel random and only add to the slice of life that Jeff is now stuck in. But as the clues to murder pile up and we watch these families and loners change over time, everything falls into place. It takes multiple viewings, but each time this film gets better.
“Rear Window” manages to do all of this without even trying. This all feels so laid-back and non-chelant, a film that takes place entirely from one room with a massive view. It walks a tight rope between entertainment and believability, but in this case that rope is so tiny that it is practically invisible. Which makes the film look as though it is walking on air.