This is an entry in "The Big Ones," a series covering 32 classic films for the first time on The Dancing Image. There are spoilers.
Rear Window is a dazzling film, because it's so many things: an entertaining narrative, an enjoyable hang-out film, a beautiful visual experience, a provocative concept, and a clever contraption. This is Hitchcock firing on all cylinders, finding a gimmick (as he loved to do) that opened opportunities rather than constricting options (which was not always the case). It's a movie that has been written about thousands of times, approached from many angles: as a metaphor for the characters' anxieties about marriage, as a clever exploration of voyeurism, and as a meta meditation on film-going (and channel-surfing, in this new age of television). That last aspect particularly interests me, and there's definitely something to it. As James Stewart's L.B. Jeffries looks out over his courtyard, each window is like a separate screen, offering different viewing options in various genres: comedy, romance, musical, and eventually the one that consumes his attention - murder mystery.
Even taken on its own terms, the visual presentation of these little worlds is simply enchanting. It's an approach which has seldom been imitated since; usually homages (as in The Decalogue or Let Me In) focus on the "peeping" part, with a character spying through binoculars or a telescope into one person's room. While Jeffries does that here, especially once the thriller aspect rachets up, for the most part he is watching rather than spying, and all the neighbors are characters in his daily entertainment. What's more, Hitchcock uses the whole set, with individuals sunbathing, or sitting on a porch, or weaving through the hallways and the rooms. The universe outside Stewart's rear window is not a fragmented, disconnected one but a web of units at once separate and linked. It's a dollhouse effect which I've only seen echoed in the films of Jerry Lewis, Jacques Tati and Wes Anderson.
The choice of lens and distance (and optical effects) are just right: we can see everything unfolding in perfect clarity, but always feel ourselves at a bit of remove, wider than the normal wide shot. Our rules of engagement only break when the dog is murdered, and one neighbor berates the others for their indifference - we get a few close-ups of different individuals, for once stepping outside the proscenium of Jeffries' window. The perfect maintenance of this shooting strategy, and the brilliant narrative convenience of having an injured Jeffries locked up in his room, pays off in the climax, when the murderous husband enters the voyeur's apartments. This has two effects: it seems an eerie violation of the distance between spectator and subject - like the girl crawling out of the TV set in The Ring - and it also, weirdly, makes the villain more sympathetic.
After all, we've only seen him from a distance until this moment - and to realize he inhabits the same physical reality as Stewart lends him an at once more menacing and more sympathetic air. He is, after all, human - he's desperate and frightened, and something in us blanches at the violation of his privacy even as we realize he is a cold-blooded killer. Like many other bad guys in Hitchcock's stable, he's as human as he is monstrous, as powerless as he is powerful, at once victim and villain. Indeed, it's interesting to compare him with the villain/antihero in Hitchcock's previous film, released the same year: Dial M for Murder (spoilers for that film ahead).
In Dial M, our sense of identification is never quite clear. In terms of screen-time and character nuance, the hero should be Tony Wendice (Ray Milland). And indeed he is charming, impressively intelligent, and somewhat sympathetic since his wife has been cheating on him. All of the suspense in the film circulates around his plot coming off, so we instinctively root for him the way we're with Norman Bates when that car sinks into the swamp. Yet Wendice is also a murderer, and a particularly cold-blooded one, methodically planning out his wife's destruction and involving other people in his web of deceit. When the murder goes wrong, he manipulates the situation until she is convicted of murder and sentenced to death, an outcome that seems even more cruel than her original fate. When we watch his wife struggle with her assailant, and later when a professional cop and mystery writer unravel the complicated set-up, our sympathies are at least partly against Wendice.
In Rear Window, on the other hand, we watch the murderer quite literally from a distance. Our perspective, and hence our identification, could not be more fixed: we are with Jeffries every second of the way - this is an almost-perfect example of a point-of-view movie like Rosemary's Baby (although occasionally we get to peek out at the courtyard when Jeffries is asleep or looking in the other direction). And while Jeffries has a macabre sensibility and a rather perverse indifference to a lover whom his caretaker quite accurately describes as "perfect," he is not a murderer and his intentions are consistent with conscience, however mixed his lurid motivation. Meanwhile, Lisa is identifiable and likable; in Dial M, Kelly's character, while the victim, does not cultivate much of a personality (especially compared to her husband) so while we side with her intellectually, we never really warm up to her.
Visually, the two films are quite different. Dial M, which has a very nice color palette, is rather stiff and theatrical. Probably because it was to be screened in 3D, the movie sticks relentlessly to medium shots with few expressive close-ups. The difference between Hitchcock's handling of the apartment in each film is like night and day. Dial M's interior feels closed-in - occasionally we look out a window but this is conveyed with a cut to a narrow point of view rather than a shot that includes interior and exterior together. The difference between the soundscapes is striking as well: Dial M's quiet room tone vs. Rear Window's lush sonic landscape, with voices, radios, and distant street noises competing for attention. Yet even aside from Rear Window's notable spatial achievements, the film just breathes cinematically in a way Dial M doesn't even attempt. Inside the apartment, the camera moves freely, reacting to objects, interacting with the characters, registering expressions and exchanges both verbal and wordless.
Ultimately both films are enjoyable in their way, but Dial M is interesting whereas Rear Window is a masterpiece. They make an interesting double feature; like Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock was a prolific director who maintained a personal vision and voice from movie to movie but experimented stylistically, adopting completely different approaches depending on the material or the circumstances. Unlike, say, a Stanley Kubrick or a Terrence Malick who seem to build momentum from film to film, expanding on ideas and approaches they took in the movie before, rapid-fire filmmakers like Hitchcock tend to contract and expand, contract and expand, veering back and forth between masterpieces and misfires, experiments and consolidations.
Tone and mood shifts too; a movie like Dial M is more cerebral, murder as a parlor game, whereas Rear Window is impressionistic and sensual, an experience rather than an exercise. It's an interesting mixture of Hitchcock's light and dark impulses - more comic and playful than Psycho, yet edgier and more intense than North by Northwest. When I first saw Rear Window, I was fresh off viewings of Spellbound and Vertigo; I expected a Hitchcock movie full of twists and surprises, with deep dark psychological undertones, and I was a bit disappointed by the straightforwardness of the situation (we suspect Thornwald has killed his wife, and indeed he has) and the sophisticated normalcy of the characters (unlike Spellbound's amnesiac or Vertigo's acrophobic/romantic-obsessive/necrophiliac, Jeffries' ailments seem to be entirely physical).
Yet repeat viewings have shown me what a rich universe Rear Window's surface conceals - like Jeffries' window looking out at a complex and multifaceted reality. Yes, the murder mystery is not much of a mystery, but its implications and complications make for a taut, exciting thriller. True, Jeffries doesn't have the haunted soul of other Hitch heroes, but his very normalcy makes his darker aspects - the voyeurism, the dismissal of Lisa and willingness to put her in harm's way, the seeming desire for a murder to have taken place - all the more disturbing. Rear Window is above all a film of displacement, in which Jeffries' - and our - discomforts and worries and resentments are put "out there" in a world we can safely watch and eventually manipulate but which in the end will show up on our doorstep, asking what we want - and we probably won't be able to answer them.
Rear Window appears at 5:20 in "The Restless Fifties", a chapter in my video series "32 Days of Movies".