Friday, 27 March 2020

Classic Film: Rear Window


In a scary world fixated on the importance of social distancing and self-isolation, Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window felt like a fitting oldie to pop in while stuck at home. Here's my review of a classic.

With a lot of the world under lockdown right now, and many of us confined to our homes for the foreseeable future, I got to thinking – what are some films that are set in the one place? Well, there’s Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, which sees, well, 12 angry men confined to a courthouse. There’s John Hughes’ seminal high school classic The Breakfast Club and Ben Wheatley’s warehouse-set shoot ‘em up Free Fire

But all of these follow characters as they grapple with fleeting moments of confinement. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window – which sees magazine photographer L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jeffries (James Stewart) confined to his sweltering New York apartment with a broken leg during a heatwave – elongates this notion of isolation and inability to move over several days and weeks. So, in keeping with the times, I popped in my Rear Window Blu-ray for another look, and came away with newfound appreciation of this 60-something year-old classic.

Hitchcock is no stranger to films that are rooted in one place, with 1948’s Rope and 1954’s Dial M for Murder both exploring this concept. But Rear Window is where Hitchcock perfected the technique, by allowing Jeffries – bored and frustrated after several long and sticky weeks confined to a wheelchair – locked in place, but gazing outward at the world beyond his rear window, at the apartments and the people and the lives that exist just out of reach.

Rear Window is typical of the era in which it came out, when Cold War paranoia and suspicion was rife. With the good and evil dichotomy of world war in the past, it was more likely that your deceitful neighbour was secretly harbouring a nefarious ideology borrowed from some overseas enemy. Jeffries is positively bristling at the chance to catch his neighbours – or more specifically, the shifty-looking salesman Thorwald (Raymond Burr) who lives just across the courtyard – in the act.


Of course, Hitchcock being Hitchcock, Rear Window doesn't rebuke this idea or reprimand Jeffries and his accomplices (Grace Kelly’s socialite Lisa and Thelma Ritter’s nurse Stella) for their voyeuristic tendencies. Quite the opposite, in fact. In this perverse reality, the voyeur – and by extension, the audience – is vindicated, as all our suspicions prove well founded. Keep tabs on those across the street, Hitchcock suggests, and you might just sniff out a murderer.

Narratively, Rear Window is remarkably simple – Jefferies overhears something grisly in the middle of the night, but can’t piece it together in the days to follow. He can only sit there in his pyjamas and with his camera, peering down the lens and watching everyone in his neighbourhood like 'bugs under a glass'.

Every open widow tells a different story, but not in full. A lot of the plot is communicated visually and without dialogue. Like Jefferies, the audience is made to join the dots with one arm tied behind our back. A jumped conclusion here, a leap of faith there – and all of a sudden the next-door neighbour is a wife killer.

Lighting (or lack thereof) plays a big part in Rear Window too. Darkness and shadow offers Jefferies a modicum of anonymity, as well as a way to indulge in his darkest impulses, while the harsh light of day and backlight apartments expose the truth. The Blu-ray copy I was watching looked amazing, with the colours – from Stewart's deep blue eyes to the splashy sunsets that drench Jefferies' apartment in orange and red – leaping off the screen.

It might not be as scary as Psycho, as thrilling as North by Northwest or as dizzying as Vertigo, but Rear Window is Hitchcock at the top of his game. It might even be my favourite of the lot. 

It has two terrific performances – from an increasingly unhinged Stewart and an otherworldly Kelly – at its core, not to mention some gorgeous production and costume design. And what is has to say about loneliness and isolation is as apt today in our terrifying world of social distancing and contact tracing as it was back in the 50s. Stay safe (and sane) while staying home, or you might just start suspecting someone in your street of something strange…

1 comment:

  1. For me, Rear Window is my favorite Hitchcock hands down. It's a more recent first time watch for me but I love it.

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