by Ken Bakely
NOTE: I run an Oscar predictions contest every year, and the winner gets to select one film for me to review. This year, Rear Window was suggested. While writing, this piece started out as a traditional review, with a star rating and all, but slowly transformed into a more specific, contextualized essay. As a result, I’ve excised many aspects of my reviews, such as a detailed plot synopsis. This piece assumes that you’ve seen the movie, or are at least familiar with it. However, there are no spoilers.
If someone was going to remake Rear Window, I could only see one “in” – one reason to approach this content and try to rebuild it. Perhaps the one angle which Alfred Hitchcock did not take, but could prove intriguing, is to go deeper into the restrictions of its setting. The film takes place entirely within the line of sight of L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart), a photographer who finds himself strung up in a wheelchair. He’s spent the past several weeks confined to his apartment, staring out the window into the courtyard, where four other buildings meet. It’s a hot summer, and everyone has their windows wide open. You can see right in. He becomes convinced that one of his neighbors has committed a murder. Soon his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) and nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) have been roped into his suspicions, and poke and prod on his behalf, as paranoid whims give way into increasingly precarious situations.
There is no major shot within the film that couldn’t be reasonably seen by Jeffries or the view from his window. He spies using binoculars and a long-range lens. So, if a filmmaker were to give their own spin on it, one way to capitalize of Hitchcock’s masterful restrainment of space is to present the film from a first-person perspective. Not only would you only see what the protagonist can see, you would be him.
Of course, what’s so great about Rear Window is that the film doesn’t need any of that. Cinematographer Robert Burks makes a convincing argument against my advice, filling the frame with accentuated and necessary illusions of light, shadow, and space. Consider Jeffries, staring down at a pivotal moment in the film, his apartment darkened. An intruder approaches. Anything could happen. Moonlight streams in through the window, and we can see the outline of Jeffries’ wheelchair, but not his face. His words are heard, but his face not seen. Tension is built astronomically here, as Stewart acts solely through his voice. We do not know what is character is doing. Is he grimacing in fear? Grinning in expectation? Neutral in exacerbation?
Rear Window takes its thesis from that scene. It is a movie which pulls at the strings of presumptions, a voyeuristic quality to human nature, and the delicate intertwining of suspicion and intuition. One’s natural presumption, especially now in 2017, as fears of surveillance reach all-time highs, is for a nonexistent shoe to drop. A sense of anticlimax is almost anticipated. Surely nothing good can come from a character who spends the entire movie spying on people, we think.
But this film cares not for our predispositions, whether then or now. It operates, with cleanliness and clockwork efficiency, regardless of when you are viewing it. The story works in any contextualization, because it is built on core structural suspense. Its focus is, as Hitchcock said of all his movies, on playing us like a piano. Wordplay and plot twists are absent. Such gimmicks are rarely satisfying, anyway. Truly, Rear Window manifests its visual standpoint as a fundamental one too – we only know what Jeffries knows, when he knows it. We are not viewers standing from above, deities waiting for the mortals onscreen to figure things out. We are where the best movies take us – in the room, with the characters, observing. We are on their level. Like I said.
Hitchcock famously shot Rear Window on one set: the entire apartment complex depicted on the film is one concurrent piece. It was built on a single soundstage on the Paramount lot. The painstaking and exorbitant nature of this idea pays off in its own ways. Sweeping pans, following scenes from each window that Jeffries can see from his own, bookend the film. It is immediately established and reaffirmed that this is a movie of perspective and constructed analysis. In this way, the set design resembles a stage play, but differs from any theatrical production in how our understanding of the events depends on details taken through zooms and tight angles. In this respect, the film is exclusively cinematic, but also demonstrates that a project made for the medium needn’t be explicitly elaborate or dynamic.
What’s most interesting from this approach is that Hitchcock ends up uninterested in playing the claustrophobia card. This would be an otherwise easy way to strum up negative feelings and ratchet up the tension. Instead, he and screenwriter John Michael Hayes go for the long game: the psychological nature of Jeffries being closed in, but through the confines of his own mind. It doesn’t matter when someone, namely police detective Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey), attempts to dismiss his assured claims that his courtyard neighbor is a killer. He wasn’t there. He wasn’t in the room, seeing what Jeffries saw.
And that idea is what precisely does it for a movie like Rear Window. Our limited visual perspective is a perfect mirroring of the unspacious nature of the plot. A filmmaker could take that extra step and fully immerse us from Jeffries’ perspective, but it wouldn’t need to be done. In a way, it already has been. We, as viewers, make ourselves the same voyeurs that our protagonist is. He looks without question. We look without question. Hitchcock is able to convey, through this intimate setup, why we should have sympathy for this character: he isn’t doing anything we aren’t.