Written by John Michael Hayes / Directed by Alfred Hitchcock / Starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly
Stella: What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.
Voyeurism and Alfred Hitchcock seem to go hand in hand; there is hardly a film where one character isn’t looking at another in some way, or following them to flush out some detail. As in the opening shot of PSYCHO the camera pans across the cityscape and directly into the room as the main character is having post-coital conversation with her lover, or when Anthony Perkins stares through a peephole and we the audience also get to look through that hole as Janet Leigh begins to undress. Hitchcock’s use of the audience as the voyeur is unsettling, yet throughout many of his films, it is an important component of the narrative. REAR WINDOW is his ultimate “Peeping Tom” film, and of course it is also one of his best.
Hitchcock’s use of confined spaces like in ROPE or DIAL M FOR MURDER creates tension because what we see is so narrow in scope. We are forced, as the characters are, into a room to watch these single set plays work themselves out. REAR WINDOW uses this same approach; a photographer, L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart), has broken his leg while on assignment at a car race. Confined to seven weeks in a wheel chair and subsequently, his apartment, we enter the scene with one week left to go before his cast is to be removed. In the time leading up to this moment, Jeffries has found that his neighbours provide all the entertainment he needs. While there is action happening inside his apartment, it is what Jeffries watches outside and through the windows of neighbouring apartments that drive the story.
The camera moves slowly across the courtyard, stopping to focus on each window for a short time and these are the most beautiful parts of REAR WINDOW. The only music we hear is from the bachelor pianist working on a composition, or the whistling of a song. We never really quite hear the full dialogue from the adjacent apartments, but we can easily guess because that is Hitchcock’s ultimate technique: having us understand the story without having to know the dialogue. As these scenes continue throughout the film, breaking to continue the story inside our main character’s apartment, we begin to learn more about all the neighbours, including of course the man across the courtyard who murdered his wife.
Jeffries is dating Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly), a Manhattan socialite and fashionista, and while they are romantically involved, Jeffries cannot see himself settling down with one woman. While it is clear that Lisa is in love, Jeffries intentions are not so clear, but he hints at them as he talks about the constant on-the-go nature of his job, and never settling down in one place for very long. Through each window in the apartment complex, we are given variations of human relationships; the oversexed newlyweds, the flirtatious dancer with a husband on active duty, the happily married older couple and their small dog, etc. Jeffries seems to be watching these relationships and making his mind up about his own, until Lisa surprises him and joins him on his voyeuristic journey, for what is one of the most brilliant moments in REAR WINDOW. After her disagreeing with his time-passing activities and trying to dissuade him from his current obsession of trying to solve a murder, Lisa says “Let’s start from the beginning again, Jeff. Tell me everything you saw. And what you think it means”. This pivotal scene is not only surprising because her character shifts so greatly, but it works as a way to get the audience to feel a shift as well. Hitchcock announces that this is the way the story is going, and that now it’s time to get invested. There has been a murder, and this is Hitchcock after all.
Confined to his wheelchair and unable to explore the scene of the crime, he employs the help of his now on board girlfriend to do some reconnaissance. As Jeffries and his insurance nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) watch as Lisa enters the apartment, we watch, just as helplessly as the killer returns home. With no musical score during these scenes, Hitchcock creates an almost unparalleled tension unlike anything seen in any of his other films up until that point. The scene is quiet, yet frantic. Jeffries squirms in his chair and Stella phones the police, but what can they do? What can we the audience do but feel uncomfortable that we watched as the main character allowed his girlfriend into the line of danger, and the man they are accusing of murder is coming after her?
What is most fascinating about REAR WINDOW is the perspective it keeps, and the distance it maintains despite the voyeuristic nature of the story. The camera never enters these apartments we are watching alongside our protagonist; instead these vignettes are a simple look into the lives happening around Jeffries, so as never to get too involved in Jeffries’ actual life. The camera keeps its distance just as a voyeur would to remain unnoticed. But also what continues to be so clever here is the fact that despite this happening in the very backyards of these New York residents, it appears than not a single one had noticed the disappearance of this man’s wife, other than Jeffries. Either they are too wrapped up in their own lives and the “you never really get to know your neighbours” statement is true, or no other neighbour was willing to admit their voyeuristic tendencies. I am going with the latter, because as Stella states “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms” and in Hitchcock’s world, this is more than true. It’s just that Jeffries is willing to admit to his supposedly bad behaviour.
REAR WINDOW is one of those films that can be watched over and over again; with each viewing its subtle and not so subtle elements come clear, and its tension remains. Hitchcock is the master of creating and sustaining tension in his films. When he eventually got to PSYCHO, arguably his most famous film, six years later, the elements were already in place and the techniques perfected. REAR WINDOW is an entertaining insight into relationships and the taboos of voyeurism, but how Hitchcock exposes the shared curiosity we all innately have is what truly makes it great.
REAR WINDOW screens on July 25th, as part of the new TIFF film series, Dreaming in Technicolor, at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. The series runs through August 13 and features over 25 classics like CHARADE, ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS and BONNIE & CLYDE. It launched on Friday, June 19, with the Gene Kelly masterpiece, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. For more information and for tickets, please visit tiff.net.