Thursday, March 8, 2012

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Rear Window (1954)

Alfred Hitchcock was always forward thinking in his films, taking familiar themes and displaying them in unique ways.  Sometimes his experiments didn't quite work, as was the case with Rope, a film shot in one single take.  But more often than not Hitchcock's creativity and ingenuity paid off in the form of a masterwork.  That is the case with Rear Window, one of Hitchcock's most revered works, is an experimental picture that is typically regarded as one of his masterpieces.  Existing on one set (which Hitchcock built specifically for the film), Rear Window explores the moral issues of voyeurism while simultaneously approaching it with undeniable fascination.  It juxtaposes what we think we might see and what we actually do see when we become absorbed in the lives of others.

Jimmy Stewart, one of Hitchcock's most treasured and reliable partners on the screen, plays L.B. "Jeff" Jefferies, a talented who, after an accident on a photo shoot, finds himself stuck in a wheelchair in his apartment with a cast running up the entirety of his left leg.  Jeff spends the majority of his days watching his neighbors through a window facing a courtyard.  Across the courtyard there is a cheery young lady who enjoys dancing in her underwear, Miss Lonely Hearts who throws parties for men who never arrive, a couple who lower their little dog into the courtyard in a basket, and a salesman and his bed-ridden wife.  Jeff has only two regular visitors, both women.  One of them is Stella (Thelma Ritter), his caretaker from the insurance company.  The other is Lisa (Grace Kelly), a beautiful model who desperately seeks a lasting relationship with Jeff.  But Jeff, like many of the men in Hitchcock's films, keeps an emotional distance from Lisa.

Jeff is convinced, over the course of a few days, that the salesman has murdered his bed-ridden wife.  The salesman's name is Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr).  Jeff spots Thorwald leaving his apartment at odd times of the night with his merchandise case.  His wife's bedroom window has been closed despite the humidity which keeps everyone else's windows wide open.  Using his telephoto lens, Jeff spots Thorwald wrapping up a saw and a butcher knife in newspaper.  The flowers in Thorwald's garden in the courtyard have been switched out.  Jeff calls his old war buddy, a policeman named Doyle (Wendell Corey), to lay out the sketchy evidence he's accumulated through his voyeurism.  Doyle isn't buying Jeff's theory, and neither is Stella or Lisa at first.  But before long Lisa and Stella are convinced there is something fishy going on and they find themselves absorbed in the life and movements of Thorwald.

The experimental aspect of Rear Window is in the way the information is given to the audience.  We only see what Jeff sees.  We are trapped in the apartment as well, sitting right next to Jeff watching the events across the courtyard unfold.  The suspense is built through Jeff's spying and his telephoto lens.  As Jeff, Stella, and Lisa begin their amateur detective work, they uncover more and more clues pointing to a murder.  Eventually, the police come around to the truth, but it might be too late as Thorwald is apprised to Jeff's suspicions.  This leads to a climactic confrontation between Thorwald and Jeff, where Jeff's only defense is his flashbulb.

Rear Window is like a calling card of Hitchcock themes.  He often dealt with the fear of impotence in his male heroes, never truly understanding the women in their lives.  Women are seen as a sexual threat to Hitchcock protagonists.  In Vertigo, the fear of heights was a manifestation of the impotence.  Here, the full leg cast is an obvious metaphor.  Hitchcock also had a strong understanding of the power of voyeurism.  Think of Norman Bates, or of Jimmy Stewart's character in Vertigo, each spending a great deal of time spying on people who had no idea they were being watched.  Rear Window is an entire film devoted to spying.  The suspense works to perfection, and the sense of dread is palpable as Jeff works tirelessly to absorb himself in the lives of those around him.