Rear Window is just one of those movies: it has left an indelible imprint on the cultural landscape. And it will forever remain not only one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films, but one of the most recognized and respected filmmaking achievements of all time.
In my couple of prior viewing experiences, the film had been presented to me as a thriller. One of the best thrillers of all time, in fact. In those other viewings, I think I was taken with the thrilling aspects, though perhaps only slightly given their comparative lightness to modern-day examples of the genre. The narrative is straight forward, the bad guy is the bad guy, and save for the climactic finale (which makes such excellent use of the protagonist and antagonist’s sensory experience) there is very little in the way of fear or anxiety. This is thriller-lite by Hitchcock’s standards.
At a recent screening—the first of those Fathom Events I’ve ever been to, though not for lack of interest—I was struck instead by the film’s singularness, by the limits and advantages of its restricted shooting style, and, most delightfully, by its humor.
So, rather than think of Rear Window as a straight thriller, I’d like to sit with its oddness, its off-kilter delight in the horror of its conceit, and its perfectly executed claustrophobia. In fact, I’d instead like to think of Rear Window as Hitchcock’s unique brand of homebound relationship dramedy-turned-horror. Let’s explore what makes this film so strange!
Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly are the marquee names in Rear Window, but it would be unwise to expect the usual from these great performers. Hitchcock eschews their “types,” affable and cold respectively, and pushes these Hollywood staples to a different form of characterization entirely.
For me, this evolution in acting is one of the film’s many pleasures. Watching Stewart transform into the crotchety, love-phobic L.B. Jeffries, a man whose cool stare and icy diffidence could not be further from George Bailey of It’s A Wonderful Life or Macauley Connor of The Philadelphia Story, is at once enthralling and disturbing. Where’s the looseness? Where’s the joy? Where’s the awkward romantic?
His banter opposite Kelly’s far more limber Lisa Fremont draws the archetypical chasm even wider. Though she physically matches Hitchcock’s preferred form of leading lady—his icy blonde “girl”—Kelly brings a sappy romanticism and sense of humor to her role. No longer is she unattainable royalty; rather, she throws herself at L.B., a woman knowingly playing fast and loose with her heart (and her body) to get what she wants.
These against-type roles may suggest a larger commentary made by the film, one of male castration via immobilization. Lisa’s relative freedom is matched by her exuberant personality, and L.B.’s static position, so different from his typical world-traveling, is a physical representation of his anxious reservations. Is there a feminist suggestion here, of a different time and different gendered expectation? Perhaps, and it certainly is a joy to watch Kelly try and woo Stewart when we might usually see her turn up her nose.
Hitchcock’s clever bit of casting not only stretches his actors’ “types,” then, but forces the audience to adjust (or not) to a wildly different social dynamic via the confused roles. This is but one element of a film whose goal, it seems, is to evoke through immersion the strains and stressors of this particularly strange, surreal circumstance.
Of course Rear Window is most notable for its insanely claustrophobic, masterfully designed set. Built on a Hollywood backlot, L.B.’s apartment complex, intended to be somewhere in the midst of Manhattan’s West Village—at an address which fellow film-lover and friend Chris Bram noted does not exist (he’s looked)—is filled with characteristic charm and a palpable heat. From the gardens below to the glass-encased loft of the pianist, every inch of Hitchcock’s film is visually splendid and evocative of a particular place.
The static and limited nature of the film’s perspective turns the idyllic, or at least nostalgic, setting into a frustrating, tedious, and suddenly nightmarish environ.
All of the renters, L.B. included, live separately, involved in their own lives and rarely interloping with others’. On the occasion that they do, however, the wider perspective suggests that even when these individuals get outside their apartments, they are contained: within the courtyard, the city, and even a planet where people are held responsible for their actions.
For example, the moment when one couple’s dog is found murdered. L.B. and Lisa are inside the apartment, curtains drawn, when a shocking shriek rings through the courtyard and the owner, unsure of who to blame, suggests that everyone is at fault: “Which one of you did it? Which one of you killed my dog?” she asks, in tears. “You don’t know the meaning of the word neighbor!” Perhaps these individuals really don’t know the meaning, not until now, when neighbor suddenly becomes “accessory to a crime,” and each person’s life becomes caught up in others’.
What I mean to suggest is that Rear Window, through its physical representation of solitude, containment, and defined space, strongly evokes a sense of claustrophobia; that even by getting outside of the individual, as L.B. does through his snooping, we are implicated in everyone’s lives and cannot escape. The possible gimmick of one contained setting winds up becoming an evocative reminder instead, of that sometimes sinister and often frustrating intertwining.
The Sex Comedy:
Who knew Hitchcock had such a sense of humor? Well, of course he did; he takes devilish delight in putting actresses through the ringer, and he creates dastardly scenarios that one can’t help but imagine him giggling about. The better question: who knew Hitchcock could so astutely direct a sex comedy-within-a-thriller?
Take first the pairing of L.B. and Lisa, which I already described above. He is an emotionally impotent, wheel-chair/bed-ridden explorer and photographer with no time for love (read: very little capacity or interest in sex) while she is a bored, frustrated, and determined woman whose everyday thoughts revolve around sleeping with her true love, perhaps even before they get married. They are a couple for the ages, and they push boundaries—through suggestion, of course—that the Hollywood production code likely did not want pushed.
The best moment? When Lisa brings a (shockingly tiny) bag for a sleepover and surprises not only L.B. but also his police detective friend, Lieutenant Doyle. Later, when getting ready for bed, she pulls out a silk nightgown, a garment that will leave little to the imagination by 1954’s standards. It’s a great seduction scene, interrupted unfortunately by the dead dog I talked about before, and it once against suggests a real shift in the sexual mores that could be produced on-screen. It’s as though Hitchcock is pointing and wagging his middle finger at a restrictive Hollywood, and I can’t help but laugh.
While the claustrophobic setting of the film lends it a great deal of its tension and drama, it also provides hilarious peeping-tom fodder. Take the newlyweds, who move into the apartment building a little way into the film and hole up for its duration, the husband periodically coming to the window, exhausted, before his wife calls him back into the bedroom for more. Or Miss Torso, the dancer across the way who we, and L.B., assume is somewhat of a good-time gal; she has many men over to her apartment, hosts parties, and constantly bares her titular body part as she spins about her studio. No matter that her apparent boyfriend returns at the end of the film, a shrimpy, nerdy-looking G.I. come home from Korea, perhaps!
I could go on and on about Rear Window‘s delightful sense of humor, and particularly Thelma Ritter’s riotous home-nurse, Stella, and her morbid fascination with the suspected murder across the courtyard. But I will just say that for a film marketed as a thriller, the majority of this movie plays rather light and revels more in giggles than screams. That is until the end…
The Suddenness Of Life and Death:
As I sat in the theater, I was somewhat dismayed by Rear Window‘s preoccupation with L.B. and Lisa, and its comedy, while fun, felt like a distraction from the mystery at hand. Then I realized, or remembered rather, that there really is no mystery. L.B. is right the entire time: Lars Thorwald killed his wife and is planning to move out of the city to take up with his unknown mistress.
There’s a genius to Hitchcock’s method here, and while I was initially disappointed in my big screen viewing, its effectiveness has only grown in my mind. There is a sudden and explosive energy to Rear Window‘s final act, when Lisa makes her way to Thorwald’s apartment, Miss Lonely Hearts attempts suicide, and L.B. comes face to face with the killer himself.
Like the other characters in the film, we cannot help but feel that L.B.’s constant snooping, while entertaining, is somehow wrong or, at the very least, lacking in accuracy. So, we wait for a twist to come, only to realize it never will. As each of the characters comes to that same realization, the tension builds considerably and the stakes are suddenly raised: the easy snooping, the claustrophobia, and the relative mindlessness of the entire enterprise are disrupted by the very real possibility of death for several major characters.
Rear Window may be the slow burn to end all slow burns, then. By escaping easy classification as a thriller for much of its runtime, its quite-thrilling finale takes the viewer by surprise. And, having gotten to know both our main and peripheral characters to the degree we have, the ending is all the more sweetly satisfying.
I may have left the theater feeling like Rear Window occupies some lesser space in Hitchcock’s most famous filmography—lacking the sheer horror of Psycho, the bizarre mystery of Vertigo, or the unrelenting tension of North by Northwest—but I have since changed my tune. By subtly up-ending our traditional “thriller” expectations and reveling in comedy, sexuality, and intriguing casting, Rear Window serves as a truly strange and engaging film. A simultaneously cautionary and celebratory ode to voyeurism, it may somehow be Hitchcock’s most humane film.