Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Friday, April 25, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Rear Window (1954)


Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter

Rear Window is a film that doesn’t let the viewer off the hook. It’s all about looking and the pleasure, anxiety and danger that can surround it. Like many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, its brilliance lies not in what it shows us, but what it suggests to us and the places it inspires our imaginations to go. The protagonist is always a substitute/surrogate for the audience, but it’s especially true with this film where everything is seen through the eyes (and camera lens) of Jeff (James Stewart) and what we see is limited by his own immobility.

Jeff is a photographer who is stuck in a wheelchair while recovering from an accident. Out of boredom he begins using his camera to look in on his neighbours across the courtyard. He has nicknames for many of them, including Miss Torso, a beautiful dancer, and Miss Lonelyhearts, an older woman whose nickname pretty much says it all. He has a girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly) and a nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter) who keep him company, but from the moment he begins looking at his neighbours, an obsession begins. He sees things that he feels badly about seeing, such as what happens when Miss Lonelyhearts finally has someone to bring home, and he sees things which make him ask questions. For example, where is Mrs. Thornwald and where is her husband (Raymond Burr) going every night with that suitcase?

Jeff thinks Thornwald has killed his wife – and so do we, having seen the same things that he has, which importantly doesn’t include the actual act of murder. But Jeff doesn’t have to see what happened to know that something is amiss, and soon he’s convinced Lisa and Stella, though not Detective Doyle (Wendell Corey). “People do a lot of things in private they couldn’t possibly explain in public,” Doyle says in the face of Jeff’s suspicions. He has a point, of course. Jeff has seen plenty of strange behaviour from other neighbours since he started watching, and given that there’s no hard evidence that Mrs. Thornwald is dead rather than out of town as her husband claims, there’s reason for Doyle to dismiss the suspicions. But Jeff can’t let it go and he, Lisa and Stella continuing putting pieces together, culminating finally with Lisa inside the Thornwalds' apartment as Jeff (and the audience) sees Thornwald coming up the stairs on his way home. Jeff is helpless to save her – at this moment he’s just another viewer, like the rest of us.

I’ve heard a lot of people muse over the fact that none of the neighbours have curtains, and refer to this as a flaw in the film. However, if you view this as a metaphor for the act of watching a film, it makes sense. Jeff is us, the audience, and his neighbours and their lives are the film, and the curtains, or lack thereof, are simply the assumed fourth wall. It isn’t that they aren’t “there,” it’s just that we can’t see them. However, even if you don’t think of the film as a metaphor, and view the lack of curtains as just a device to move the plot forward, it still won’t prevent you from enjoying the film. Hitchcock was a director of great detail and great ambition in terms of how he shot his films. When the camera looks into the windows across the courtyard, it’s looking at small but fully realized worlds, each defined by the people who have created them. We get to know these characters, albeit from a distance, and we get a sense of the individual arcs they go through during the course of the narrative. None of the miniature stories that we see through the windows are left unresolved: Thornwald gets what’s coming to him, Miss Lonelyhearts finds someone, the musician finds someone to appreciate his music, etc.

Like most masterpieces, this is a film that can be enjoyed as pure entertainment and for it’s deeper meanings. Jeff likes to watch, but consider what he’s watching in connection to what he’s ignoring – namely, his relationship with Lisa. There is a struggle in their relationship because she wants to move forward and he’s afraid to make too much of a commitment to her. When he looks across the courtyard, he escapes into other people’s relationships – the newlywed couple who can’t get out of bed until the end of the film, when the spark has begun to fade and the wife begins to nag the husband; the couple who lead a quiet life with their dog; and, most importantly the Thornwalds. Jeff is seeing various mirrors of his own relationship, each one of which, to greater and lesser extents, serves to unnerve him… but he can’t stop looking. Jeff escapes into these worlds in order to avoid having to deal with his relationship with Lisa, which begs the question of what we, the audience are avoiding when we escape into this, or any other film.

1 comment:

Rick Olson said...

Good review. I'm not sure about the no curtain thing or not ... Hitchcock wasn't above using something patently ridiculous to ratchet up the suspense, or move the plot forward. My favorite example is the runaway merry-go-round at the end of "Strangers on a Train" The motors on those things are barely strong enough to turn them at their normal speed, much less the killer speed in the flick. But it makes for an exciting ending, nevertheless. Another example: just how did Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint get off Mt. Rushmore, anyway?