Saturday, November 6, 2021
Hitchcock Friday #2 Rear Window (1954)
The plot is simple and since there are very few people who haven’t seen this movie it can be disposed of quickly. L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) is a news photographer recuperating from a broken leg. He’s basically immobile and he’s bored and grumpy. His only amusement is watching the neighbours in the apartment building opposite. He thinks he sees a murder and the question then is what to do about it and how to convince the police that there really has been a murder. His girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) gets caught up in the drama that then unfolds.
That this is a movie about voyeurism is of course perfectly obvious, and it’s equally obvious that not only is Jeff a voyeur, we in the audience become voyeurs as well. As does Hitchcock. But then movie-making and movie-viewing are essentially voyeuristic. This movie does go a bit beyond that - what matters is that voyeurs often misunderstand what they see.
The 50s was the decade in which Jimmy Stewart shed his wholesome homespun image and started taking darker rôles for directors such as Hitchcock and Anthony Mann. Often very dark rôles. This change of image started badly with Stewart being horribly miscast in Hitchcock’s Rope and making a complete hash of his performance. By 1954 Stewart had however discovered how to really burrow into the darkest recesses of the souls of his characters.
Let’s be honest. Jeff is not a nice guy. Given his frustration at his immobility we can perhaps excuse his being bad-tempered but he is frequently cruel to Lisa. She is a woman whose feelings are easily hurt and Jeff seems to delight in hurting her. OK, we get it that he is worried about being trapped into marriage (he hates the idea of giving up his globe-trotting lifestyle as a roving press photographer) but he’s obviously keen to continue the relationship without marrying her. This was 1954, when married couples in Hollywood movies still slept in separate beds, so we can’t be given any indication that Jeff and Lisa might be sleeping together. Even if we forgive him for stringing her along it’s hard to forgive him for being rather nasty about it.
Hitchcock teases us about their relationship. Lisa decides to stay the night in Jeff’s apartment and we’re obviously meant to doubt whether they’re going to be able to keep their hands off each other. Hitchcock wasn’t allowed to be overt about sex but he sure knew how to tease.
Rear Window resembles Suspicion in being a movie about the obsessive nature of suspicion and the way it grows, often based on very thin evidence. If we could all see glimpses into other people’s private lives we would probably misinterpret everything we saw and construct wild fantasies about those people’s lives. Jumping to conclusions is human nature.
Rear Window is also about relationships and the difficulty of finding a relationship that satisfies both parties. In those apartment that Jeff watches there are failed marriages, stormy marriages, lonely people who wish they were married and happy marriages. Jeff’s conclusions about the lives of the people he watches are usually wrong. He likes watching people but he doesn’t understand them too well. He certainly doesn’t understand women. He will have to learn to understand Lisa.
Rear Window is of course a technical triumph. That huge amazing set was built was knocking out the floor of a sound stage - they needed the basement as well to accommodate the set. What really matters is the way Hitchcock uses that set. He uses it to give us information but the information is sometimes deliberately misleading. Like Jeff we can watch these people but we’re likely to misinterpret what we see.
One of the things that I find really intriguing is that at the end of the movie we don’t know much more about Jeff’s neighbours than we knew at the beginning. We’re still only seeing them through Jeff’s eyes and he’s been wrong before. We get what appears to be a resolution of Miss Torso’s story but it’s actually very very ambiguous. We never hear Thorvald’s side of the story. And most crucially we don’t even know if Jeff and Lisa are going to get married or whether their relationship has a future. We don’t get a neat Hollywood resolution for anything.
This is a movie about murder, sex and love. Three things that Hitchcock was extremely interested in (and of course he knew that audiences shared these interests). And it’s just about perfect.