Disclaimer: These essays presume you’ve seen the film in question. If you want to avoid spoilers, watch the movie first!
It’s 1986, maybe 1987. I’m standing in line at Disneyland to take the raft to Tom Sawyer’s Island. I love Disneyland but like any ten or eleven year old, I don’t love waiting in line. My parents are with me, and I can’t imagine what made my dad think of this, but he starts to tell me the plot of Rear Window. I know, it seems crazy, but my memory (even if it’s wrong) is crystal clear: standing by the lake, in line, listening to my dad talk about Jimmy Stewart in a wheelchair.
Maybe my mom tried to shush him; I can’t remember. In retrospect it hardly seems appropriate, talking to a pre-teen about a movie where a man witnesses a murder through his apartment window.
Yet the memory is there, vivid and sharp. Even at ten (or eleven) years old, the dramatic potential of the situation is obvious. It’s a perfect setup, inspired by Cornell Woolrich’s short short “It Had to be Murder,” with immediately recognizable possibilities. This, perhaps more than any other, is the greatest defining feature of some of Hitchcock’s best works: they’re easy to describe, easy to see a myriad of possibilities and angles, but impossible to predict:
- A man confined to a wheelchair sees what he thinks is a murder, but he can’t get anyone else to believe him.
- A woman spends the first part of a train ride talking to a friendly elderly woman, but suddenly the woman disappears and no one else remembers her.
- A man is mistaken for someone else, kidnapped, and forced to fight for his life.
- All the birds in the world suddenly start to attack humans, for no reason.
Probably this tendency can be traced to a classically British style of murder mysteries, the lineage of Agatha Christie. And in my opinion, Rear Window is not only the best example of this relatable tendency, it’s also his best film (note: not my favorite Hitchcock film, which we’ll get to). Do you disagree? Well, what other film could be considered his masterpiece? Psycho, his most well-known film, is in many ways his most atypical (and it’s a strange, brilliant, beast of a movie itself). Vertigo is a brilliant, beautiful film, North by Northwest is his most effortless, Notorious a brilliant genre exercise, and on and on.
But Rear Window combines Hitchcock’s obsession with voyeurism and exercises in pure cinema and editing, with just the right dose of murder, mystery, and the ultimate Hitchcock Blonde (Grace Kelly). It’s also the culmination of thirty years of filmmaking knowhow and Hollywood technology. Rear Window is Hitchcock’s masterpiece (in my humble opinion).
And it’s also the movie my dad chose to tell me about when I was young. Strange, but it left a mark. Enough that even more vividly, a few years later I remember watching Rear Window for the first time. I was home by myself, no one else was in the house. I was probably thirteen or fourteen years old.
The movie was on TV, because I remember that I couldn’t pause or stop it. I was watching in the living room, feeling like a grown-up. Here I was, watching “cinema” by myself. Little did I know that by the end of the film I’d be crawling all over my dad’s recliner, squirming with the combination of fear and excitement that we look for when we watch a movie like this. I still remember the movie finishing and I was afraid to go to the window and look out, for fear that Raymond Burr would be across the street, looking back at me. This is when I fell in love with Hitchcock, when I fell in love with movies themselves.
But my dad contributed to that love too. We had a VCR almost as soon as they were available, and my dad loved watching movies and sharing them with me (he still does). We’d watch a lot of old black and white sci-fi movies, classic Hollywood, and tons of live-action movies on the Disney channel (someday, I’ll write a book about the insanity and brilliance of some of these films, but that’s for another time). My dad still sees a ton of movies, and so do I. To be honest, it’s probably the main thing we still have in common. Writing this project is tough because I don’t know if my family will be reading this or not; do I censor my thoughts, or try to write honestly? I love my dad, and I always will, but on a day-to-day basis it’s hard to find anything to talk to him about except movies. We’re just very different people now, and I’m the one who left.
I moved away from home in 1994 when I was eighteen, to attend college in New York. And while I came back for summers during college, and now for holidays and vacations, I never moved back home. My life in New York and now in Pittsburgh is immeasurably different from his. He’s worked for the same school district for decades, repairing electronic equipment. I can barely fix anything, and I run my own art business from home after years of working for a non-profit and then bouncing around the freelance world. It’s impossible not to get set in your ways as you age; my dad has his routine and I have mine. That can make communication difficult, as we don’t have many common frames of reference. Still, we both love movies, and whether we agree on them or not (which seems to happen less and less), I do have to thank for my lifelong love of cinema.
That’s something I love about movies: when you see one you love, you want to talk about it. You want to share it and discuss it and get mad if someone doesn’t like it and try to convince them. Social media & twitter can devolve into shitting on people and name-calling if they don’t like what you like, but at the center of art is a desire to share and converse. When you exit the theater after seeing something you love, it’s like walking on air. It’s the thrill of film.
Hitchcock himself called Rear Window an exercise in pure cinema, and he’s certainly right. Jimmy Stewart, as the wheelchair-bound L.B. Jefferies is both the hero and kind of a creep, a voyeur who uses binoculars and a telephoto lens to spy on his neighbors. The film is full of criticisms of this behavior and, implicitly, the nature of the male gaze. Echoing the Russian filmmaker and theorist Kuleshov, in one sequence Stewart gazes adoringly at a small dog being loaded into a basket. In the next shot, with almost the same gaze, he’s a loathsome pervert caught watching his nearly-nude dancer neighbor (aka “Miss Torso” in the film). Hitchcock would never come close to being called a feminist, and at times he’s the polar opposite, but this implicit criticism of voyeurism and male objectification of women is as cutting today as it was in 1954.
“We’ve become a nation of Peeping Toms” says Thelma Ritter’s character. And yet in the supreme irony of the film, Stewart and Grace Kelly’s spying on their neighbor results in not only the conviction of the murderer, but in happy endings for almost everyone in the film: A lonely woman ends up with a composer who finally finishes the song he’s been working on. A middle-aged couple gets a new dog. Miss Torso’s boyfriend (husband?) comes home from overseas. And Stewart & Kelly have reconciled.
And then there’s the filmmaking itself. Hitchcock has made films that are equally impressive, but never more technically accomplished. Confining the action and all but a handful of shots to the perspective of Stewart’s apartment liberated Hitchcock to make the most overtly cinematic movie of his career (Lifeboat (1944)and Rope (1948) also take place in one environment but neither approaches the heights of Rear Window). As Hitch told François Truffaut in their remarkable “Hitchcock/Truffaut” series of interviews, “I was feeling very creative at the time, the batteries were well charged.”
Well-charged doesn’t begin to describe it. In a wordless prologue (it’s four minutes before anyone speaks onscreen), Hitchcock’s camera shows the courtyard and the various people who populate it. It then pans over to Stewart in his wheelchair, asleep and sweating in the heat, one leg in a cast. The camera continues to show us a series of action-packed photographs, culminating in a photo of a race car disintegrating with a tire flying at the camera. Next in this continuous shot we see a broken camera, then a framed photo negative of a beautiful woman. And finally we see the same picture, of Grace Kelly, on the cover of Life Magazine. In that wordless shot, Hitchcock’s camera communicates that this is a professional photographer with a model girlfriend who was injured taking dangerous photos and is now stuck in a wheelchair while his leg heals.
This level of dramatic exposition through visual means is truly a lost art. Hitchcock had the added benefit of having started work during the silent era, designing intertitles (those cards in a silent film that contained bits of dialogue or explanation) for silent films and later directing himself, when directors & writers considered it a point of pride to use as few titles as possible to tell a story. Even so, it’s an exceptional example, and a bravura use of filmmaking technique. “Fully charged” indeed.
The script, by John Michael Hayes (his first and best of four films with Hitchcock), builds on the central premise behind Cornell Woolrich’s short story and expands it to include the love story and exploration of the apartment. He also wisely eliminates the whodunit aspect of the wife’s body, leaving the central question of the story not to be “where is the body” but “did he do it,” with characters in the film pivoting between yes and no for the duration.
Hitchcock used a simple analogy to describe how suspense works in a film: imagine two men sitting in an office, having a conversation, when suddenly a bomb goes off. That will surprise the audience, but that’s it. Now imagine the same scene, but we see a third man come in before the other two arrive, place a time bomb under the desk, and set the timer for two minutes. He leaves and the two men enter…but now the audience knows the bomb is there.
Rear Window has not one, but TWO excruciating setpieces that leave any viewer on the edge of their seat: the scene where Grace Kelly sneaks into the murderer’s apartment and is caught, with Stewart and Thelma Ritter watching but unable to help. The “bomb” moment here is when we see Raymond Burr in the hallway, about to enter the apartment, with still inside an unaware. The second scene comes directly after, when Kelly has been arrested and Ritter leaves to post her bail. Stewart is in his apartment alone, and the phone rings. Expecting it to be his policeman friend, Stewart answers, only to realize there is silence on the line. We know that Burr is downstairs. The film is now an agonizing sequence where we hear Burr climb the stairs to the apartment and turn off the hallway light, as Stewart waits, unable to get out of his wheelchair or leave his apartment. It’s the bomb example extrapolated to the worst, most relatable degree.
As much as Hitchcock is a brilliant director, he’s only as good as the script he’s working with (which he usually developed and co-wrote, with no credit). In lesser films, he can summon all of his skill to elevate specific sequences, but the movie won’t hang together. But in his best films there’s a sly confidence, a knowledge that the script and his ability are good enough to let him walk on water, that shines through. Rear Window feels effortless when it’s anything but — it’s one of the most carefully planned and choreographed films he’s ever made.
This is what you fall in love with, that sense of absolute creative confidence and bravery in the face of the unknown. Remember, Hitchcock had tried the Movie-Set-In-One-Place trick twice already and by his own estimation, had failed. This was one of the largest indoor sets ever constructed for a feature film, and no one but Hitchcock had any idea if it would work. But this is what I love most about Hitchcock is that he was never satisfied (just like Prince’s mother). He continued to push and try new things for his entire career. Maybe he was bored and making things interesting for himself. Maybe. But I think it was a search to improve himself, a chance to try harder and do better, to know that even though he was one of the best in the world, that’s not enough. To strive is to be an artist, and that’s what Hitchcock was.
One last personal note: in the film, Stewart’s character calls the police when Grace Kelly is sneaking into the apartment and gets caught. He gives “125 West 9th St” as the address across the courtyard (it’s a fictional address, as West 9th street ends before it gets to 125). But we can tell from that fabulous Technicolor sunset that Stewart is calling from an apartment on 10th street.
In 1994, I left my home in Tucson to go to New York University film school, having only been to New York City once for a few hours. I didn’t even visit the campus beforehand. I just knew that I wanted to go to film school, fueled by a love of film that started from my dad telling me about Hitchcock and old monster movies and Mystery Science Theater 3000. So we packed up all my VHS tapes and clothes and Macintosh computer, and my dad drove across the country to deposit me at NYU. I arrived at a dorm where I would meet my best friend and start a new life in New York City, a life that would lead me to jobs in television and repertory film, a life that would inform my entire existence, and lead me to become who I am today.
That dorm was on E. 10th street. Just down the street from where Jimmy Stewart would have lived.
Watch It: Rear Window is not available to stream for free on any of the major services (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO). It is available to rent or buy on iTunes or Amazon Prime, and can be found at almost any existing rental store or library collection.
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