Rear Window

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(1954) ★★★★★

Like William Shakespeare, Alfred Hitchcock understood the human condition. Rear Window is perhaps the clearest example of this. Although here – as James Stewart peers through binoculars across the courtyard at the windows opposiste his own – the players on the world’s stage are now figures seen from a distance in a glorified dollhouse. This is a Greenwich Village apartment block in the early-50s, the windows wide open during a heatwave, TV and air-conditioning units not yet a staple for such buildings. The residents act out their stories for the bored and curious Stewart, a photographer laid up in a wheelchair after breaking his leg on a racetrack assignment. Miss Lonelyhearts entertains phantom suitors, the songwriter throws parties while struggling to complete his latest composition, Miss Torso is a ballet dancer practising new moves with wild abandon, the honeymoon couple keep the shades down… But it’s Raymond Burr’s bulky salesman who most intrigues Stewart. His bedridden wife, constantly berating Burr, disappears from view while Stewart’s napping in his chair. He awakes in the middle of the night to see Burr scurrying down the alley with a suitcase. Not once, but three times. In the pouring rain. And why does Burr now wrap a knife and a saw in the kitchen? Cornell Woolrich’s source story is called It Had to be Murder, and Hitchcock – who worked on the script with John Michael Hayes – keeps the growing sense of unease simmering with brilliant use of ‘natural’ and ambient sound, music wafting around the courtyard, the noise of traffic audible from the main street in view at the end of the alley. The subjective use of sound is as specific and modulated as the cameras and cutting. This was always the case for the meticulous craftsman Hitchcock, even on the first British sound picture, Blackmail. There, dialogue volume was not only manipulated but also dislocated to heighten the sense of mental anguish. Similarly, in Rear Window the mood of the music doesn’t always match the mood of what we’re seeing. It’s a novel way of subtly increasing tension and Hitchcock was ever the innovator in this regard. And he had previously experimented with story-telling in confined spaces (with Stewart in Rope, most audaciously in Lifeboat), but Rear Window is on another plane. The studio set is a wondrous construct of courtyard and windows, each providing Stewart with a ‘screen’ displaying a succession of mini-stories, some sinister, some sad, some fun. The over-riding tone is, in fact, disconcertingly facetious and it is absolutely typical of Hitchcock that he should make a movie about a voyeur. Assembled with stunning dexterity, it’s the most expressive example of Hitchcock’s greatest gift to cinematic grammar: the subjective point of view shot. The cutting between the character, what he or she is looking at, and back again. It’s a technique that makes Vera Miles’ scramble up the slope to the Bates house in Psycho so unnerving, and Tippi Hedren’s stealthy approach to Rod Taylor’s island home in The Birds so full of foreboding. It makes us feel the fear and apprehension of the character on screen. In Rear Window, this subjective point of view is constant, making us complicit in Stewart’s curiosity. Even if we don’t always like him (and this is Jimmy Stewart we’re talking about). Not just because he’s tuned into ‘a secret, private world’ that we’re a little ashamed at sharing. But also because he’s both immune to the charms of Park Avenue princess Grace Kelly and impotent when she’s in danger. Draping herself over Stewart, the seductive Kelly’s delightfully skittish in the best of her three films with Hitch. Grace Kelly made only 11 films and she won her Oscar, of course, for one of the most boring, George Seaton’s The Country Girl, opposite Bing Crosby. It was made the same year as Dial M for Murder and Rear Window. The latter-day critics who castigate Hitchcock for misogyny either have no inkling of the subtleties at play in his films, or paid no attention to the wonderful closing shot in Rear Window. Not only did Hitch give Grace Kelly the most memorable close-up in her career when introducing her character here. He also presented her with the final word. Typically, it’s unspoken. Yet speaks volumes in Hitchcock’s understanding of the way humanity works. It’s why his films still resonate, remaining popular and influential in another century. There is always a reason for Hitchcock’s camera placement, so too the edits. He knew precisely what he was doing. It’s his characters who are uncertain and his psychologically astute films ring with compromise and ambivalence. Hitchcock’s constant signature is “Show, don’t tell.” It’s the mark of his genius. Like God, he allows us to make up our own minds.

Certificate: PG

Duration: 114min