Written by Sean Rogers
USA, 1954. 115 min. Paramount. Cast: Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter with Raymond Burr; Music: Franz Waxman; Cinematography: Robert Burks; Produced by: Alfred Hitchcock; Based on a Story by: Cornell Woolrich; Written by: John Michael Hayes; Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Rear Window was Alfred Hitchcockâ€™s first film at Paramount following a stint at Warner Brothers that had ended only months prior with the 3-D chamber piece Dial M for Murder. For this new project, the director returned not only to Dialâ€™s confined setting and control over its viewersâ€™ vision, but also to its female lead, Grace Kelly. Some few years removed from both her careerâ€™s commencement and its premature end, and scant months away from an Oscar win, the future princess would share the screen with Hollywoodâ€™s favorite everyman, Jimmy Stewart. While Kellyâ€™s star was about to go supernova, Stewartâ€™s had been shining more darkly since his return from the war. We remember him now, of course, for his role as the thwarted, suicidal George Bailey, but he further complicated his onscreen persona in those years through collaborations with Anthony Mann â€“ in whose westerns he played troubled, vulnerable, and sometimes quite bitter heroes â€“ and Hitchcock. In Rope, Hitchcockâ€™s first picture with both Stewart and Warners, and another chamber drama concerned with visual tricks (the film seems to be one continuous take), the actor portrays an intellectual who espouses the righteousness of murder. Few other Hollywood stars could depict such moral confusion so convincingly and so genially.
In Rear Window, Stewart would reprise the same morbid fascination with murder he dealt with in Rope. His second teaming with the director sees Stewart playing L.B. Jefferies, a photographer whose latest professional misadventure has rendered him housebound, confined to a wheelchair with his leg in a cast. With little better to do, Jeff has taken to positioning himself at his window, which overlooks the courtyard of his Greenwich Village apartment complex, watching his neighborsâ€™ daily activities. His insurance company nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter), and fashion model flame, Lisa Fremont (Kelly), disapprove of his peeping â€“ until Jeff persuades them that the husband from the unhappy Thorwalds across the way has murdered his invalid wife. For a film that operates within such constraints â€“ it for the most part situates itself within that single flat, and occurs over a mere handful of days â€“ Rear Window opens nevertheless onto broad fields of inquiry, where auteurists and feminists, classicists and Freudians, have all felt comfortable cultivating their arguments.
The film is first of all, of course, an exemplary piece of classical Hollywood entertainment, a near perfect accomplishment of that system and style, an attractive spectacle that ticks towards its conclusion like clockwork. The stars skilfully set each other off, Kellyâ€™s crystalline grace playing off Stewartâ€™s gangly charm, while the cast of distinctive bit players provide commentary on this odd coupleâ€™s shaky romance through involving miniature dramas of their own. As impressive as the cast is, their paychecks amounted to only half what it cost to construct the set. Occupying an entire Paramount soundstage â€“ a site that was no stranger to epic productions, though surely none this intimate â€“ the fabricated courtyard reportedly consumed a quarter of the filmâ€™s budget. The money is on the screen, not only in the set but also in Kellyâ€™s sumptuous Edith Head costumes, â€œthe latest from the Paris runways.â€ Such material pleasures complement the enjoyment that, on a more abstract level, the suspenseful narrative and efficient storytelling provide. Exemplary of Hollywood dramaturgy, the filmâ€™s murder mystery and romance storylines run parallel, then begin to intersect and inform one another â€“ Lisa finding greater purchase in Jeffâ€™s life by believing in his amateur sleuthing, and Jeff feeling his convictions borne out by Lisaâ€™s very belief â€“ before each helps bring the other to its conclusion. As these stories unfold, the film maintains and piques our interest through skilful manipulation of point of view, compelling us most often to see what Jeff sees. We do so not only when it is merely intriguing â€“ when heâ€™s looking for evidence of the murder, say â€“ but even when it is uncomfortable â€“ when, from our previously aloof vantage point, we see Lisa exposed and endangered.
Perhaps, this being a Hitchcock film, we see what Jeff sees especially when it proves uncomfortable. The director, after all, delights not only in allowing us to partake of a voyeurism particular to cinema, but also in pointing up how ethically unsound our enjoyment of this privilege can be. If we are to derive pleasure from watching the stories of othersâ€™ lives â€“ how agreeably the romance storyline resolves, how lavish the sets and costumes are â€“ we must also experience a kind of punitive displeasure as a consequence. So we feel helpless when Lisa cannot escape the Thorwald apartment, and we undergo great and visible discomfort â€“ those red flashes â€“ when our point of view aligns with that of the murderer, when our voyeuristic identification reaches its immoral extreme. We go through, in other words, a Catholic and characteristically Hitchcockian transference of guilt not just from character to character â€“ Jeff is in anguish over Lisaâ€™s assault, even though Thorwald is the assailant â€“ but from character to spectator, as well, since we feel just as impotent as Jeff in this situation. Again, we might note that Jeff here embodies another typical Hitchcock motif, namely the hapless, struggling hero. But we begin to run the danger of turning the movie into nothing more than a checklist for the eager auteurist: we have the inaccessible blond, the narration thatâ€™s all arched-eyebrows and elbows in the side, the mordant and morbid wit.
For the psychoanalytically inclined, thereâ€™s also the filmmakerâ€™s famous MacGuffin â€“ in this case, the disappearance of Mrs. Thorwald. The MacGuffin, good Lacanians would say, comprises a Hitchcock filmâ€™s constitutive lack, the absence around which a picture like Rear Window bases its meaning. The event itself, the murder, is never seen â€“ only its repercussions. It is here that we most obviously see the traumatic real from which Jeff seems to flee in his relationship with Lisa. That is, he allows himself access to the real only through mediation, by seeing it play out in the realm of the imaginary. Just as we watch his story progress â€œout thereâ€ onscreen, Jeff observes â€œout there,â€ in the courtyard, the numerous potential outcomes of his romantic entanglement. There he sees that the various other â€œtypesâ€ his and Lisaâ€™s future selves could cycle through include the desperate spinster, the browbeaten newlywed, the promiscuous butterfly, the frustrated bachelor, and the childless couple, risibly devoted to their dog. Jeff, however, fixates upon the nagging homebody done away with by her exasperated husband â€“ the outcome of his situation that Jeff would most confront, expose, and disavow. This externalization of Jeffâ€™s anxiety, his disavowal of the traumatic, is made physically manifest, too: phallus- spotting has become an almost tiresome pastime for Hitchcockians, but it is difficult to avoid calling attention to Jeffâ€™s body cast, a source of symbolic castration and quite literal impotence. Having been thus emasculated, Jeff must attempt to reassert his dominance through his gaze, using his phallic (and ever-elongating!) camera as an indicator of control, all the while bringing the gazes of others under his sway as well. So the power of the male gaze not only grows, but spreads, too, imposing meaning on, and effecting change in, what it sees and thus controls.
But thatâ€™s for the psychoanalytics. As the curtain quite literally rises on this, the first peak in a series of late career summits which will include The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho, the richness of Rear Window â€“ as an entertainment, as a formal wonder, as a statement of authorial worldview, as a theoristâ€™s hunting-ground â€“ will become as self-evident, and as mysterious, as what goes on in that apartment across the way.