Film Study: Rear Window (1954)
The hero of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” is trapped in a wheelchair, and we’re trapped, too–trapped inside his point of view, inside his lack of freedom and his limited options. When he passes his long days and nights by shamelessly maintaining a secret watch on his neighbors, we share his obsession. It’s wrong, we know, to spy on others, but after all, aren’t we always voyeurs when we go to the movies? Here’s a film about a man who does on the screen what we do in the audience–look through a lens at the private lives of strangers.
The atmosphere Hitchcock builds throughout this film is genius. We hear music coming from other apartments, rain falling at night, street noise, dogs barking; we see each neighbor’s activities through their windows as well as sunsets, stormy clouds, and even Hitchock himself; we can almost taste and smell that lobster dinner Lisa brings for Jefferies, the brandy swirling in their snifters as they entertain guests, the smoke from the cigar Thorwald puffs upon while he sits in the dark of his apartment; we can feel the itch Jefferies cannot scratch while in his cast, the vertigo (oh, James Stewart and his vertigo problems) he feels when dangling from his window, the stinging, blinding light Jefferies flashes to ward off a murderous Thorwald. Every sense and emotion is engaged in this film, creating a brilliant symphony of real life.
Rear Window is a four layer cake! It greets you as a straightforward murder mystery, but it’s also a tenderly hopeful love story, an exercise in acknowledging our collective voyeurism, and a lingering more thoughtful approach the next time you look through somebody else’s window. What immediately stands out, however, is how completely we, the audience, see things from Jeff’s point of view. In Rear Window, Jeff’s window and lens are simply extensions of Hitchcock’s camera. We are Jeff, unable to move or look away, forced to fill in the blanks. Each neighbors’ window is a a movie screen, unfolding pleasures for the voyeur in all of us. But it’s not all pleasure when the loneliness and frustrations of the various characters shine through. We soon realize that this one-sided interplay in watching the lives of others has no choice but to morph into an inverted reflection of the viewer’s own fears and desires. Jeff doesn’t want the fate of his neighbors. Their lives underline whatever preconceptions we have of modern life. For better or worse, we see a version of ourselves on the other side.