Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Classic Films: "Rear Window" (1954)


"Window-shopping" or suspecting? Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock's classic Rear Window.
It’s always amazing when you’re watching a great movie. And not just a great film, but a great film that makes you think and leaves you with so much and more. It’s especially amazing when you see such a film again and find something new the second or third or however-many time around, even if it’s a small thing. Citizen Kane is an example of such a film, as are any of the Disney classics from the 30s and 40s, or even The Wizard of Oz. Watching Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window this past spring, I was just as fascinated, as timidly startled, as enlightened (I’m a sucker for nostalgia!), and as entertained by so many of its technical and performance aspects as when I first saw it four years prior. (For the record, I first saw this movie in two non-consecutive film classes in college. I have, at the time, studied the breakdown of its visual techniques, characterizations and representations, and the spellbinding effects of its suspense. I still have my notes from both classes.)

Rear Window is a classic example of voyeurism—a subjective point of view where the audience sees exactly what the main character, as well as the camera (or, in this case, binoculars or photo lenses), is seeing. Every window in the neighborhood illustrates a possible lifestyle or attitude that photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (a perfect Jimmy Stewart) could either have, fears, or is uncertain about. There’s the life of the stage ballerina in the second floor building (Miss Torso) across from Jeffries’ window. To the right on the lower level is the lonesome woman who longs for a companion (Miss Lonely Hearts). Next door to the right is the musician, struggling to find and write a hit song. And to the left, next door, is the newlywed couple.

(l-r) Thelma Ritter, Grace Kelly, and Jimmy Stewart
This is especially contemplative when it comes to Jeffries’ relationship with his girlfriend Lisa Freemont (the stunningly elegant Grace Kelly), and their choices regarding the kind of life they could have. For one thing, Jeff considers the kind of life for each of them individually. Because his job involves risks, he does not see Lisa involved in anyway, nor does he foresee any type of commitment in their relationship, other than keeping things “status quo.” Lisa, on the other hand, considers both for herself and for Jeff (possibly, a married life together). Jeff's maid, Stella (Thelma Ritter) agrees. Therefore, it could be stated that there are two stories going on simultaneously: 1) the story of what is going on inside Jeff’s personal life (e.g., his own relationships), and 2) what is going on outside of his life (e.g., the other windows, or examples of other relationships). Half of what happens in the film represents the latter, as Jeff begins to suspect one of his neighbors of possibly killing his wife and why.

This and all the rest is pure cinema. Hitchcock’s direction and John Michael Hayes’ script (based on Cornell Woolrich’s short story, “It Had To Be Murder”) superbly blend darkness, intensity, suspense and humor simultaneously, all within the setting of Jeff’s apartment (a similar technique Hitchcock used in his 1948 film Rope, which Stewart starred in as well). It reminds us just what a master Hitchcock was at the power of silence and going beyond anticipation, which he would pull off to great effect in the 1960 classic Psycho. Rear Window will remain a classic that film courses, critics, and audiences will continue to talk about and be entertained and perplexed by for years to come.

Other themes and ideas to consider when watching Rear Window:
-          Object of desire (the male gaze) – Position of power
-          Solving mysteries
-          Illustrations in windows (e.g., musician, newlywed couple, Miss Torso, Miss Lonely Hearts, sculptor, Thorwall)
-          Points where Jeff is not present (shifting perspective)
-          Notion of confinement/imprisonment
-          Power of music

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