The Master Of Suspense: A Retro-review of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window
Alfred Hitchcock is without a doubt my favorite film Director of all time. He is the epitome of an auteur: his visual style, story structure, color palette, musical scoring, pacing, and tone are immediately identifiable. Hitchcock is known in the pantheon of film history as the “Master of Suspense,” and for good reason. He is best known for horror classics like Psycho and The Birds, but for me the films that delve into darker psychological themes are his best work. His go-to story was usually about a wrongly accused man struggling to clear his name (The Wrong Man, North By Northwest, and Frenzy among others), but I always gravitated to his tales dealing with the not so nice parts of the human mind: jealousy, obsession, greed, murderous impulses, and in the case of Rear Window, voyeurism.
The Universal, Insatiable Desire of The Voyeur
The quintessential everyman actor James Stewart is cast here as L.B. Jeffries, an award winning photojournalist who is more comfortable in a war zone than his Greenwich Village apartment in New York City. He is laid up with a broken leg, saddled with a cast from his foot all the way to his hip, courtesy of his obsessive desire to get the perfect shot during an accident at a car race.
It all started out as a result of sheer boredom, but his primary daily activity consists of looking through his telephoto lens at his neighbors just across the courtyard. A fascinating aside here: Hitchcock got his inspiration for the setting from a real location in New York City, but actually had a massive set constructed on the Paramount studio backlot. Here is the original inspiration:
And here is the final, Hollywood version:
It is hard to believe, but Paramount constructed a realistic courtyard composed of 32 apartments (12 completely furnished!) to serve as the non-existent address of 125 West 8th Street in Manhattan. It gives the film an unparalleled sense of realism.
Jeffries sees all the archetypes of modern life playing out before his prying eyes: Miss Lonely Hearts, a sad and alcoholic spinster who cooks a meal every night for a gentleman caller who never comes; Miss Torso - the converse: a voluptuous dancer who has her pick of the many men eagerly knocking on her door; and a composer experiencing a creative crisis, unable to finish the song that bedevils him. There is a middle aged couple with an adorable dog, a newlywed duo in the middle of a very erotic honeymoon phase, and a travelling salesman Lars Thorwald, a man who seems to be in the last stages of a failing marriage.
Jeffries only has two real human interactions daily: the insurance company nurse Stella (played with sass and humor by the amazing Thelma Ritter), and the luminous Grace Kelly as Jeffries’ fiance Lisa Fremont. Stella dispenses a daily massage, along with sage advice about the downside of snooping on your neighbors: “we've become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change. Yes sir. How's that for a bit of homespun philosophy?”
Jeffries discounts this, as he is not the introspective type. He lives like a vagabond, travelling the world with nothing more than his camera, and the clothes on his back. His life revolves around looking at the world through his camera lens, totally detached, and as a result he does not really know himself. He is his job -- completely defined by it.
Lisa, on the other hand, is a high fashion model, designer, and all around social gadfly. They are the prototypical example of oil and water. She is hopelessly in love with “Jeff,” continually trying to get him to commit to her. His response is to push her away, bringing up their fundamental lifestyle differences. Lisa is adamant that they could find common ground, but Jeffries will not budge. His life is one of solitary voyeurism, and his inability to look inside himself, to confront his feelings for Lisa, is his primary character flaw. He loves Lisa, but he is too much in his own head to realize she is good for him.
Rather than deal with this emotional conundrum, he looks outward, tapping into his inherent curiosity about the human race, and not in a healthy way. The deep seated need to snoop, and the inevitable guilty feelings that follow, are the engines that drive him. Lisa and Stella are initially repulsed by this side of Jeffries, but when he sees what he thinks, suspicious activity across the way in the Thorwald apartment, they become an active part of his voyeuristic obsession.
What follows is a rumination on whether we have the right to spy on and judge our neighbors, and the consequences of that course of action when we get in too deep. Lisa and Stella act as surrogates for Jeffries, venturing out into the courtyard and even into Thorwald’s apartment, looking for evidence to prove Thorwald chopped up his wife into little pieces. Make no mistake: the danger is very real. The cute dog from earlier tried to dig up Thorwald’s flower garden, and wound up dead by mysterious means.
It seems like old hat now, but Hitchcock’s visual style back then was truly groundbreaking. He would construct a scene by showing us the actor, and then cut to what the actor was seeing. It essentially turns the viewer into the character: a true visceral technique. We see what the actor sees. To take this to another level, we as movie watchers are also voyeurs: we are looking at the actions of the characters on the screen the same way Jeffries is looking at life play out before his eyes. So when Hitchcock cuts to what Jeffries sees, it might as well be the audience sitting in that wheelchair: we ARE Jeffries. We are voyeurs watching a voyeur.
Nowadays modern horror uses the “jump scare” to achieve a reaction from the audience. Hitchcock used suspense. A famous story Hitchcock often told about the difference involves a bomb exploding at a table where our hero is sitting. If the audience knows nothing about the bomb previously, the only scare is the explosion itself, which is a fleeting experience. But if the audience KNOWS the bomb is there, and is supposed to go off in say, 15 minutes, the whole scene plays out in an excruciatingly different way. The audience is on the edge of their seats, yelling at the screen, trying to warn the hero about the bomb. See the difference?
Hitchcock uses this idea to perfection in the scene where Lisa climbs into Thorwald’s apartment. She finds the wife’s wedding ring, proving that Thorwald did something nasty to the wife. Unknown to her, Thorwald is on the street, making his way back to his apartment. Jeffries sees all of this unfold, but is powerless to stop it, or even warn his lady love. He strains to get out of the wheelchair but cannot, and the sheer terror on his face makes the scene almost unbearable to endure. Jeffries’ fear is transferred directly to the psyche of the audience: we are feeling what Jeffries is feeling. Brilliant technique! Jeffries calls his policeman friend to get Lisa out of there, while Lisa gives Jeffries a signal that she has the ring. Thorwald sees her giving Jeffries the signal, and now the bad guy knows where he lives.
Thorwald goes to Jeffries’ apartment, and what follows is another masterful use of “point of view.” Jeffries, unable to defend himself against the hulking murderer bearing down on him, uses the only thing he has available: flashbulbs, in an attempt to blind Thorwald enough to save himself.
First, we see Thorwald from Jeffries’ point of view:
Then we see Jeffries from Thorwald’s POV, just before Jeffries uses the flashbulb:
Then Hitchcock uses a blinding red flash to simulate what Thorwald sees:
We have Jeffries’ POV again, showing Thorwald’s reaction to the flash:
This repeats again and again, with Thorwald slowly getting closer and closer to Jeffries. The build up of suspense is palpable. Eventually Thorwald grabs Jeffries, and tries to throw him out the window. The police arrive in the nick of time to save Jeffries’ life, but he still falls to the courtyard, breaking his other leg.
The movie ends with Jeffries and Lisa together again in his apartment, happy ever after. His brush with death shakes him out of his myopic stupor, and he finally sees the loving, beautiful woman that has been right before his eyes all along.
One of the seminal works in the history of filmmaking, Hitchcock’s Rear Window is a master class in how to construct a world that relentlessly draws the audience in and never lets go. A must watch.
Photo Credit: Cover via, first photo via Paramount Pictures, second photo via Zandy Mangold, and from third to ninth photo via Paramount Pictures.