Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
James Stewart (L. B. Jeffries), Grace Kelly (Lisa Fremont). Screenplay by John Michael Hayes. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Rating: PG. Running time: 112 minutes.
Rear Window is the simplest yet most magnificent of films; in fact, it’s magnificent partly because it’s so simple. Only once letting the camera leave its base in L. B. Jeffries’ living room here, Hitchcock treats us to the life and perspective of a broken-legged recovering photographer stuck in a wheelchair, destined to peer out of his window for a week rather than explore the Middle East. His witty old woman nurse pops in daily to rub his back, and at night Lisa Fremont arrives, which means he, and we, are treated to the visual delight of the impeccably charming Grace Kelly, playing the high class darling that she has to.
These two trade the most magnificent of lines, quarrelling over their love and conflicting lifestyles, sharing wine, food and the odd smooch. All until the drama outside begins to rival their own petty bourgeois differences. Miss Lonelyheart’s candle-lit dinners for one are intriguing enough, and the couple sleeping outside on their balcony (at least until it rains) provide sufficient amusement. But then one man’s wife vanishes before he proceeds to take briefcases out at 4am, cleaning knives and acquiring ropes and looking worried that a dog in the garden will dig something up. Murder! Or so we and our Jeff and Lisa presume.
The voyeurism becomes an obsession. We want to know more, and when a detective arrives and seems to refute our thesis, we, like Jeff, react with an emphatic ’damn!’ Lisa’s self-conscious response is magical: “Jeff, you know if someone came in here, they wouldn’t believe what they’d see? You and me with long faces plunged into despair because we find out a man didn’t kill his wife. We’re two of the most frightening ghouls I’ve ever known.” And she’s right: we can comfortably observe and enjoy evils in films resting safe in the knowledge that it’s not reality. But for her Rear Window is real, and yet she watches through the window like fictional cinema is unfolding! It’s a striking observation when you become aware of it, and it adds sophistication to an already delightful, perfectly styled 50s film.
That the analogy with cinema itself is what Hitchcock intends here is obvious: Lisa talks of her delicate nightgown as a ‘forthcoming attraction’ as if she’s preparing to provide an alternative source of entertainment to what’s unfolding outside. And then when screams are heard and they’re compelled to revisit their view, she lifts the curtains for us to peer through the window again almost as if a film is about to begin. The twist – and it’s a daring one for her as a person, but also for Hitch as the shaper of our reactions – is for the murder mystery to become so engrossing that Lisa leaves the safety of the audience and enters the outside world we’re merely supposed to observe. That this devilishly breaks a wall that we expected to stand firm is evidenced in the inevitable shock felt as we, still stuck in the living room, witness her daring mission. The tension and thrills here are quite remarkable, for a film that not once manipulates us with music or camera shots ripe for jumps, nor the prospect of blood being spilt openly on screen. If anyone ever asks for that oh-so vacuous saying, ‘they don’t make ‘em like this anymore,’ to be substantiated, explain that you mean films are no longer as charming or clever as Rear Window. It’s a romance, but also a ’thriller,’ in exactly the sense that that latter word should be used.
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Tags: grace kelly, james stewart, rear window