30 Days, 30 Classics – Day 1. Rear Window (1954)
Posted on October 2, 2012
30 Days, 30 Classics
With so many new releases at cinemas each week it can be hard to find time to watch the old classics. 30 Days, 30 Classics documents my effort to watch 30 classic films in as many days.
WATCH: Trailers and clips from my featured classic movies on my YouTube channel here.
Day 1. Rear Window (1954)
With the Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece collection released on blu-ray next month, where better to start my classics marathon than with Hitchcock’s 1954 masterwork Rear Window?
Based on a short story from Cornell Woolrich, ‘It Had To Be Murder’, Rear Window was nominated for four Academy Awards in 1955 – direction, cinematography, writing and sound.
Photographer L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart) nurses a broken leg. Confined to a wheelchair in his New York Apartment during the hot summer months, he occupies his long days looking out of his apartment window. When he hears a scream during the night, he becomes convinced that one of his neighbours, Mr. Thorwald, has murdered his wife.
As Rear Window opens, the scene pans out from Jefferies’ apartment window. The camera moves smoothly from apartment to apartment allowing us to watch a beautiful ballet dancer casually making her breakfast, a newlywed couple, a pianist and a old couple sleeping on the balcony avoiding the summer heat. The camera mimics Jefferies’ observations as it searches for a story in classic Hitchcock style.
Rear Window is an intensely voyeuristic film that can be watched on many different levels and scholars have hotly debated Rear Window’s hidden meanings.
On the first viewing of Rear Window the most striking aspect is the suspense it creates. The tension builds slowly. As Jefferies watches Thorwald come and go during the night, each time leaving and returning with his suitcase, Hitchcock builds our fear by making a number of important suggestions. It’s raining heavily and he shows us Jefferies’ watch. The audience are left to think, as Jefferies does, why would a salesman make repeated trips out during the rainy night? While Jefferies falls asleep, Hitchcock lets his audience in on information that remains unknown to Jefferies, deepening the suspense.
In later scenes, Jefferies uses his long lense camera to gaze into Thorwalds apartment. Hitchcock darkens the edges of the screen so his audience too are gazing through the lense, reminding them that Jefferies is powerless to intervene in the events they are watching.
The plot moves forward and Hitchcock uses silhouettes, shadows and windows to make suggestions about what is taking place, further building tension and suspense. As Rear Window draws to a close the suspense reaches its ultimate crescendo for a satisfying finale that offers both relief and humour.
Voyeurism & the Cinema Audience
Jefferies becomes so familiar with the people he is watching that he names them according to what he sees – from Miss Torso, the ballet dancer, to Miss Lonely Heart, who cannot find a husband. That Jefferies’ neighbours have no dialogue but have their own, very distinct, narratives is a testament to Hitchcock’s prowess at visual storytelling. These stories are often amusing but at times are poignant and sad – as Miss Lonely Heart talks to herself and pours a drink for her imaginary companion, Jefferies raises a secret glass to her from the confines of his own room.
Rear Window has been interpreted by many critics as a comment on the cinema experience. Confined to a chair and captivated by the ‘show’, Jefferies represents the cinema audience. While Lisa refers to Jefferies’ behaviour as ‘diseased’ and his nurse fears, ‘we’ve become a race of Peeping Toms’, they are soon lured into watching the drama as it unfolds.
Jeffries voyeurism also leads to his own introspection. As Jefferies contemplates marriage to his beautiful girlfriend Lisa, he watches the newlyweds. James Stewart’s skill in conveying Jefferies’ emotions using his facial expressions alone is remarkable and another classic example of Hitchcock’s visual storytelling.
Jefferies’ relationship with his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) serves as the main anchor for Rear Window.
Lisa is a beautiful Park Avenue socialite with a job in fashion. This brings necessary glamour to a film set entirely within a New York apartment block – Lisa swishes about in 50’s A-line dresses, peeks out from behind pillbox hats and opens an overnight bag that froths with luxurious fabric – but it also provides a point of conflict with Jefferies.
Jefferies desire to get back on the road clashes with Lisa’s lifestyle. The idea that a man should be bored of Lisa’s perfection, wishing ‘if only she was ordinary’ is unexpected but made convincing by Stewart and Kelly. Lisa, desperately in love with Jefferies and wanting to be taken seriously – ‘if there’s one thing I know it’s how to wear the proper clothes’ she asserts – uses the events to demonstrates that she is more adventurous than Jefferies initially believed. ‘When they’re in trouble, it’s always their Girl Friday who gets them out of it,’ says Lisa, but when Jefferies replies ‘it’s funny, he never ends up marrying her, does he?’ the audience is left to wonder what might happen to them. Critics have argued that the various neighbours represent the possible eventualities for Lisa and Jefferies’ relationship, from the newlyweds to Thorwald and his wife.
Rear Window is a masterwork in the art of suspense. Succeeding in both visual storytelling and sharp, intelligent dialogue brought to life by a quality cast, Rear Window has long been considered one of Hitchcock’s best. It is rare for a film to deliver on so many levels, making Rear Window a fascinating watch for anyone interested in film. Anyone who has ever looked out of their window at their neighbours will find something familiar in Rear Window, making it both intriguing and captivating. Rear Window is a thoroughly enjoyable classic and one that you will want to watch again and again.
There are some good dashes of humour in Rear Window from the ‘here lies the broken remains of L.B. Jeffries’ written on his leg’s cast to the couple who lower their dog into the courtyard everyday using a basket and a rope. The dialogue is quick, sharp and often funny, so I couldn’t help but share some of my favourite quotes with you.
Jefferies editor on marriage: Jeff, wives don’t nag anymore. They discuss.
Jeffries: Oh, is that so, is that so? Well, maybe in the high-rent district they discuss. In my neighborhood they still nag.
Lisa describes her dress: A steal at eleven hundred dollars.
Jefferies: Eleven hundred? They ought to list that dress on the stock exchange.
Jefferies talks about life on the road: Sometimes the food you eat is made from things you couldn’t even look at when they were alive.
Don’t forget, you can watch the trailer for Rear Window on my YouTube channel