Title: Rear Window
Year of Release: 1954
Date Viewed: September 2nd, 2011
MPAA Rating: PG
Before we get to today's movie, I'd like to tell you about our family dog. He's a small poodle-bichan breed named Campbell. About the size of a typical stuffed animal. Loves people to death. If there are none around, he'll sit on top of the living room couch and stare out the window waiting for someone to return. And even when not alone, a lot of time is spent at that same lookout point surveying the neighborhood. He's doing it right now as a matter of fact. Any change in scenery whether it's a moving car or pedestrians is met with a bark that only Campbell thinks is intimidating. He's a living breathing security system that often works too well. Nobody knows the geographic details of the street better than Campbell and the human residents have lived here for seventeen years longer.
Bottom line: If any event no matter how insignificant were to occur in the neighborhood, Campbell will learn about it and learn about it first. Lately I've been drawn to a fun habit of relating my movies of choice to personal biographic parallels. Only when I began setting up this post did it occur to me that while my career as a neighborhood spy isn't interesting enough for the written word, Campbell is practically L.B. Jeffries reincarnated to the real world. This brings up the uncomfortable thought about a possible Lars Thorwald lurking within our midst.
The L.B. 'Jeff' Jeffries of the cinematic world is played by screen legend James Stewart. As an on-location journalist, Jeff has taken many dangerous risks to snap the pictures he needs to illustrate the media's top stories. But one day his guardian angels failed to protect him from a race car that veered offtrack into Jeff's leg, breaking it and rendering him temporarily immobile. There are no more assignments for the time being but the investigative instincts burn stronger than ever. Now stuck in a New York apartment and wheelchair, Jeff spends his days looking outside the rear window observing the day-to-night routines of his many neighbors. There's a desperate need to find something worthwhile to study. Something to take a curiosity in. Something to report on.
Jeff thinks that day has finally come when he notices that the wife of a couple that lives across the courtyard no longer resides in her respective apartment. Nobody had actually seen her depart but the husband that goes by the name Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) raises suspicion by transporting a heavy tote case outside. And then a saw. Then a crate.
Jeff witnesses all of this activity through the aid of a specially-made telephoto lens while Thorwald is completely oblivious to the condition that he's being watched. Fearing possible foul play, Jeff contacts a detective colleague (Wendell Corey) to explain what transpired but he's dismissive of the scenario. However, the room's other two frequent visitors have more reason to believe in the cover-up operation because of their own experiences of using Jeff's viewing tools. Grace Kelly plays the socialite love interest named Lisa Fremont. She's persistent to win permanent affection from Jeff even though he's too demoralized to believe in it. Stella (Thelma Ritter) is the know-it-all therapist, caretaker and primary source of comic relief. She has so many shining moments that one could easily mistake this film as a comedy from only watching the first act.
The odd thing about Rear Window is how the film holds up as one of the true classic thrillers from Hollywood's golden age yet there are very few scenes that are actually exciting in the traditional sense of the word. So what makes the film so interesting to watch? Part of it can be attributed to director Alfred Hitchcock's peculiar reliance on the POV camera angle to explore glimpses of Jeff's mind. There's a shot of Jeff positioning his observation point. Then a shot of exactly what he sees. Then a cut back to Jeff. Then back to the location of interest. Nothing unusual here. Let's move on the next spot. Repeat once or twice. Hold on a second. Let's go back to the previous room. Something there didn't seem right.
This is related to another intriguing directorial idea: the careful attention to detail of the location at hand. The action never leaves Jeff's rear window view, so much time is spent relating to the character's tedious observations. Every minor character publicly displays a piece of their story (and never closes their shades evidently). It's like watching an action figure playset come to life. There's a music composer brainstorming with a piano, an exercise enthusiast who loves to work out in her underwear and a dog that's allowed to roam the courtyard at its leisurely pace. (What could possibly go wrong there?) Jeff observes all these people in the hopes of catching something extraordinary or at least noteworthy. And we are meant to do the same thing while wondering why we're sitting on the couch watching this in the first place. But it's a fun feeling of wonder.
The film is consistent with its most important rule. Even though we don't share the exact same set of eyes as Jeff, the character POV is never broken. The only audible conversations are the ones that Jeff is participating in. The rest are up to speculation. Until the climatic scene, there is never a clear indication of whether Thorwald is guilty or not. The hero protagonist could be right on the money with his conclusion. And with the frantic nature of time, the chance for justice could be slipping away. Or perhaps the burning need for a story has made him his own victim. It's scary how often paranoia trumps over reason. This strong understanding of human psychology is one of many reasons why Hitchcock was considered to be the master of suspense.
Campbell is still staring out that window. I wonder what he learned.