Rear Window

Rear Window is a 1954 American suspense film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, written by John Michael Hayes and based on Cornell Woolrich’s 1942 short story ‘It Had to Be Murder.’ Originally released by Paramount Pictures, the film stars Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly. The film is considered by many filmgoers, critics and scholars to be one of Hitchcock’s best.

After breaking his leg photographing a racetrack accident, professional photographer L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies (James Stewart) is confined in his Greenwich Village apartment, using a wheelchair while he recuperates. His rear window looks out onto a small courtyard and several other apartments. During a summer heat wave, he passes the time by watching his neighbors, who keep their windows open to stay cool.

The film was shot entirely at Paramount studios, including an enormous set on one of the soundstages. There was also careful use of sound, including natural sounds and music drifting across the apartment building courtyard to James Stewart’s apartment. At one point, the voice of Bing Crosby can be heard singing ‘To See You Is to Love You,’ originally from the 1952 Paramount film ‘Road to Bali.’ Also heard on the soundtrack are versions of songs popularized earlier in the decade by Nat King Cole (‘Mona Lisa,’ 1950) and Dean Martin (‘That’s Amore,’ 1952), along with segments from Leonard Bernstein’s score for Jerome Robbins’s ballet ‘Fancy Free’ (1944), Richard Rodgers’s song ‘Lover’ (1932), and ‘M’appari tutt’amor’ from Friedrich von Flotow’s opera ‘Martha’ (1844).

Hitchcock uses sound to convey the thematic elements behind Jeff’s behavior and the audience’s relationship to his subjective point of view. The music in ‘Rear Window’ is entirely diegetic (in the film’s ‘world,’ so-to-speak), and therefore every character in the courtyard hears the sound and acts based on what they hear. Hitchcock is less interested in reality than in how reality is perceived. Thus his use of entirely diegetic sound illustrates the idea that what we see as the audience is real.

The film received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics; the overall consensus being that ‘Hitchcock exerted full potential of suspense in this masterpiece.’ Critic Bosley Crowther of ‘The New York Times’ attended that premiere, and in his review called the film a ‘tense and exciting exercise’ and Hitchcock a director whose work has a ‘maximum of build-up to the punch, a maximum of carefully tricked deception and incidents to divert and amuse.’ Crowther also notes: ‘Mr. Hitchcock’s film is not ‘significant.’ What it has to say about people and human nature is superficial and glib. But it does expose many facets of the loneliness of city life and it tacitly demonstrates the impulse of morbid curiosity. The purpose of it is sensation, and that it generally provides in the colorfulness of its detail and in the flood of menace toward the end.’

Time called it ‘just possibly the second most entertaining picture (after ‘The 39 Steps’) ever made by Alfred Hitchcock’ and a film in which there is ‘never an instant … when Director Hitchcock is not in minute and masterly control of his material.’ The same review did note ‘occasional studied lapses of taste and, more important, the eerie sense a Hitchcock audience has of reacting in a manner so carefully foreseen as to seem practically foreordained.’ ‘Variety’ called the film ‘one of Alfred Hitchcock’s better thrillers’ which ‘combines technical and artistic skills in a manner that makes this an unusually good piece of murder mystery entertainment.’

Nearly 30 years after the film’s initial release, Roger Ebert reviewed the Universal re-release in October 1983, after Hitchcock’s estate was settled. He said the film ‘develops such a clean, uncluttered line from beginning to end that we’re drawn through it (and into it) effortlessly. The experience is not so much like watching a movie, as like … well, like spying on your neighbors. Hitchcock traps us right from the first … And because Hitchcock makes us accomplices in Stewart’s voyeurism, we’re along for the ride. When an enraged man comes bursting through the door to kill Stewart, we can’t detach ourselves, because we looked too, and so we share the guilt and in a way we deserve what’s coming to him.’

Hitchcock’s fans and film scholars have taken particular interest in the way the relationship between Jeff and Lisa can be compared to the lives of the neighbors they are spying upon. The film invites speculation as to which of these paths Jeff and Lisa will follow. Many of these points are considered in Tania Modleski’s feminist theory book, ‘The Women Who Knew Too Much’: Thorwald and his wife are a reversal of Jeff and Lisa — Thorwald looks after his invalid wife just as Lisa looks after the invalid Jeff. Also, Thorwald’s hatred of his nagging wife mirrors Jeff’s arguments with Lisa. Additionally, the newlywed couple initially seem perfect for each other (they spend nearly the entire movie in their bedroom with the blinds drawn), but at the end we see their marriage deteriorate as the wife begins to nag the husband. Similarly, Jeff is afraid of being ‘tied down’ by marriage to Lisa.

The middle-aged couple with the dog seem content living at home. They have the kind of uneventful lifestyle that horrifies Jeff. The Songwriter, a music composer, and Miss Lonelyhearts, a depressed spinster, lead frustrated lives, and at the end of the movie find comfort in each other: The composer’s new tune draws Miss Lonelyhearts away from suicide, and the composer thus finds value in his work. There is a subtle hint in this tale that Lisa and Jeff are meant for each other, despite his stubbornness. The piece the composer creates is called ‘Lisa’s Theme’ in the credits. Lastly, Miss Torso, a beautiful dancer, initially seems to live a carefree bohemian lifestyle and often has various men over at her apartment. In the end, however, it is revealed that she has been waiting for her sweetheart, a slight-framed and boyish soldier, to return. The characters themselves verbally point out a similarity between Lisa and Miss Torso (played by Georgine Darcy).

Other analyses, including that of director François Truffaut in ‘Cahiers du cinéma’ (an influential French film magazine) in 1954, center on the relationship between Jeff and the other side of the apartment block, seeing it as a symbolic relationship between spectator and screen. Film theorist Mary Ann Doane has made the argument that Jeff, representing the audience, becomes obsessed with the screen, where a collection of storylines are played out. This line of analysis has often followed a feminist approach to interpreting the film. Doane, who used Freudian analysis to claim women spectators of a film become ‘masculinized,’ pays close attention to how Jeff’s rather passive attitude to romance with the elegant Lisa changes when she metaphorically crosses over from the spectator side to the screen: it is only when Lisa seeks out the wedding ring of Thorwald’s murdered wife that Jeff shows real passion for her. In the climax, when he is pushed through the window (the screen), he has been forced to become part of the show.

In his book, Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window,’ film theorist John Belton addresses the underlying issues of voyeurism, patriarchy and feminism that are evident in the film. He quotes ‘Rear Window’s story is ‘about’ spectacle; it explores the fascination with looking and the attraction of that which is being looked at.’ Generally, Belton’s book asserts that there is more to Hitchcock’s thriller than what initially meets the eye. These issues that society faces today are all more than just present in the film, they are emphasized and strengthened.


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