Thursday Editor’s Pick: Rear Window (1954)

by on September 9, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Thurs Sept 15 at 7:00*, 9:30 at Chelsea Clearview [Program & Tix]
*7:30 show introduced by drag queen Hedda Lettuce


Yeah, yeah, you’ve probably heard it all on Hitchcock’s masterpiece. Allow us at Alt Screen to do a satisfactory roundup of analysis, some classic, some fresh.


David Denby synopsizes for the New Yorker:

The globe-trotting photographer James Stewart, his leg broken and in a cast (he has a furious itch that he can never quite reach), sits in his Greenwich Village apartment, staring gleefully through a telephoto lens at the personal problems of his neighbors across a garden courtyard. He has female visitors—the salty Thelma Ritter, a nurse, who rubs him down, and the glamorous Grace Kelly, who shows up bearing food from “21” and more sexual desire than he can handle. Alfred Hitchcock’s masterly “Rear Window” (1954), from the screenplay by John Michael Hayes (based on a Cornell Woolrich story), has never gone stale. (Moving Image is screening it on March 17, in its “Fashion in Film” series.) It is, as everyone knows, a supreme rebuke to the dubious morality of the spectator, who sits in the dark in what he assumes is safety. But it’s also one of the great films about sexuality and fear. Everything that Stewart sees across the courtyard—loneliness, marital entrapment, murder—reflects his own fantasies or terrors. The voyeur ends up spying on his own life, and it comes back at him and almost destroys him.



Dave Kehr in a beautiful essay for Film Comment (May/June 1984):

The shot that follows the credits is one of Hitchcock’s most original creations. It begins with the crane-mounted camera moving through the free space of the courtyard, passing from window to window and catching glimpses of the inhabitants; there is a sudden, violent whip pan, and the camera pulls back into Jeffries’ apartment, where it catches him in a huge closeup, sound asleep in his wheelchair. The camera movement is so sudden and the focus change is so smooth that we don’t have a chance to adjust to the change in scale-Jeffries’ head looms up with the same proportions as the apartment building, the head of a sleeping giant. There’s a delicate ambiguity at work in the shot: We see the neighbors first, which suggests that they have lives and realities of their own, but the movement into the apartment seems to place them as fantasies in Jeffries’ imagination, as if they were characters in the dream he is dreaming. Hitchcock repeats the shot three more times in the film, in different dramatic contexts. Jeffries’ relationship with the outside world shifts each time in subtle ways, sometimes giving primacy to the neighbors, sometimes to Jeffries. It is impossible to know who is dreaming whom, who comes first in this mental universe. If Jeffries hasn’t dreamed his neighbors, he has, for all practical purposes, created them. He has given them names, and he has invented stories for them. When he tells his stories to Lisa or his visiting nurse (Thelma Ritter), he believes he’s telling the truth, acting like a photojournalism simply reporting the evidence.-Strange, then, that five of the seven stories he tells are projections of his personal crisis. Everywhere he looks, he sees predatory women entrapping helpless men. Jeffries is sure that he isn’t inventing anything, but the other two stories he “sees”-a middle-aged woman working on an abstract sculpture and a composer struggling with a popular song-are both stories of artistic creation, as if Jeffries also needed to project (and in so doing, reject) his self-consciousness as a creator.


Fears are mixed up with desires in these stories, as they are in dreams. Like dreams, they seem to be harmless fantasies, ways of letting off steam. But the fantasies don’t stay harmless for long. Having invented his characters, the artist assumes the power to manipulate them, and the fantasy turns dark, malignant, controlling. The fatal moment comes when the camera, following Jeffries’ gaze, pans from the voyeuristic spectacle of Miss Torso’s dance rehearsals to the neighboring apartment of a costume jewelry salesman (Raymond Burr) and his shrewish, bed-ridden wife. The wife has vanished, and Thorwald, the salesman, is acting suspiciously. Jeffries’ fantasies-the interpretations he makes from the fractured reality on view-have shifted from the sexual to the violent. In Miss Torso, he had invented a fantasy lover to ward off his commitment to Lisa; in Thorwald, he has invented a murderer, a projection of his darkest feelings, to eliminate her. Like any good artist, Jeffries has taken fragments of reality and put them in an order that tells a story and gives them a meaning. But in re-ordering reality, in making his observations and inferences from his hopelessly limited point of view, he has killed it, turning something complex and ambiguous into a tidy narrative pattern, appropriating real peple as the characters of the melodrama he has fantasized. He has created a world in his own image, and, like a hypocritical god, he promptly sits in judgment on it, persecuting Thorwald for the crime that is, at least metaphorically, really his own.


Hitchcock had never pushed himself as far as he’d done in Rear Window.



Hitchcock to Truffaut (click here to listen to the Hitchcock-Truffaut tape discussion of the film):

It was a possibility of doing a purely cinematic film, You have an immobilized man looking out. That’s one part of the film, The second part shows what he sees and the third part sho’vvs how he reacts. This is actually the purest expression of a cinematic idea. Pudovkin dealt with this, as you know. In one of his books on the art of montage, he describes an experiment by his teacher, Kuleshov. You see a close-up of the Russian actor Ivan Mosjoukine. This is immediately followed by a shot of a dead baby. Back to Mosioukine again and you read compassion on his face. Then you take away the dead baby and you show a plate of soup, and now, when you go back to Mosjoukine, he looks hungry. Yet, in both cases, they used the same shot of the actor; his face was exactly the same. In the same way, let’s take a close-up of Stewart looking out of the window at a little dog that’s being lowered in a basket. Back to Stewart, who has a kindly smile. But if in the place of the little dog you show a half-naked girl exercising in front of her open window, and you go back to a smiling Stewart again, this time he’s seen as a dirty old man!


Claude Chabrol in 1955 for Cahiers du Cinéma, back when the French were the only ones to spy a Greatest Movie of All Time:

“Whatever happens, I think the release of Rear Window will tend to create a united front in film criticism. Even the Anglo-Saxon critics themselves, who had shied away from some of Hitchcock’s films for a while, regarded Rear Window with seriousness and sympathy. Indeed, right from its opening, Rear Window does present an immediate focus of interest that puts it on a higher plane than the majority of the earlier works, enough to warrant its entry into the category of serious films, beyond the mere entertainment thriller…


As one would expect in a work as structured as this one, there is in Rear Window a moment which crystallizes the themes into a single lesson, an enormous, perfect harmony: the death of the little dog. This sequence, the only one treated peripherally to the position of the narrator…(the only one where the camera goes into the courtyard without the presence of the hero), though grounded in an incident that in itself is relatively undramatic, is of a tragic and overwhelming intensity.


[…] I shall just leave it up to the spectator to appreciate the technical perfection of this film and the extraordinary quality of its colour. Rear Window affords me the satisfaction of greeting the piteous blindness of the sceptics with a gentle and compassionate hilarity.



An interview with Jimmy Stewart in 1983, when he saw the film for the first time in 20 years at an NYFF screening, at the New York Times.


Some dude in Birmingham thinks the whole movie is a dream…


Jonathan Rosenbaum sees some interesting 1950s zeitgeist details, originally for the Chicago Reader:

Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest movie, Rear Window, is as fresh as it was when it came out, in part, paradoxically, because of how profoundly it belongs to its own period. It’s set in Greenwich Village during a sweltering summer of open windows, and it reeks of 1954. When this romantic comedy-thriller was made, TV hadn’t yet posed a serious threat to radio, much less to movies, and there’s nary a TV set or TV screen in sight. The movie’s overall narrative form of scanning past windows in a courtyard seems to anticipate channel surfing, but it reflects the way one turns a radio knob, tuning in and out of frequencies while the station indicator moves horizontally or vertically along the dial. The same pattern is apparent in the beautifully calibrated camera movements as well as the brilliantly mixed and nuanced sound recording.


Another, less obvious aspect of the movie that feels very up-to-the-minute is the way it evokes the Sunday funnies. Apart from movies and radio, comic strips were probably the most popular vehicle for narrative at the time, and the movie’s repeated traversals of courtyard windows capture some of the experience of reading one of those strips — especially when the windows frame one neighbor, traveling salesman Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), as he moves from hallway to kitchen to living room to bedroom, a journey comprising roughly the same number of squares as a daily strip. As Jeff becomes increasingly intrigued by the movements of the harried Thorwald and his nagging, bedridden wife (Irene Winston) — especially after she mysteriously disappears and Jeff suspects a murder plot — he finds himself “reading” Thorwald in precisely this manner, and the viewer is increasingly encouraged to “read” Thorwald over Jeff’s shoulder.



Peter Rainer for New York Magazine:

Rear Window features James Stewart as the cinema’s most famous Peeping Tom and is often described as the ultimate movie about voyeurism. Since watching a movie is, in itself, a form of voyeurism, Hitchcock’s film has also been called the ultimate movie about moviegoing. There may be some truth to this, but, like so much academic Hitchcock criticism, it doesn’t really describe our feelings when we watch the movie; it doesn’t convey our sheer enjoyment. It is perhaps the clearest example of a Hitchcock movie that functions on dual levels: It’s both mousetrap and abyss. Contrast this with Vertigo (1958), also restored a number of years back by Harris and Katz, in which the mousetrap, for perhaps the only time in Hitchcock’s career, is entirely gone, and what we get instead is pure, obsessive trance. Vertigo is a great walkabout of a movie, with delirium at its core. What disturbs viewers about it is that Hitchcock is supposed to be the director who makes us all, at least for the time that we are in the theater, a little crazy, and yet in this film the moviemaker himself seems unmoored. In Rear Window, Hitchcock never lets himself go like that, but the movie has a morbid, spectral atmosphere that links it with that later work, and Stewart’s performance is almost a warm-up for what he would accomplish in Vertigo. In both films, his characters dally with a suspicion that ultimately engulfs.


Rear Window has a ghastly, comic subtext: Jefferies’s obsession with the supposed murder is also a projection of his own desire to be rid of Lisa and her gold-plated ministrations. (She does things like ordering up to his apartment dinner and champagne from “21.”) Virtually the entire movie is shot from Jefferies’s vantage point inside his cramped apartment, and the people who pass through it often register as intrusions. They distract Jefferies from the real show going on across the courtyard — the summertime mini-dramas glimpsed through unshaded windows. These window-framed vignettes are trite, perhaps deliberately so, but they offer up a quintessentially urban phenomenon. In the city, every window is a portal into an incompletely understood story. (Psycho, remember, opens with the camera’s entry into a randomly chosen window.) Hitchcock captures our compulsion to transform our surroundings into a narrative, a cyclorama, not only for our amusement but for our sanity.



J. Hoberman for The Village Voice:

Steeped in fetishism, concerned with l’amour fou, and structured by dream logic, Vertigo is Hollywood’s surrealist masterpiece; Rear Window showcases another side of Hitchcock’s vulgar modernism. It’s a blatantly conceptual movie, self-reflexively concerned with voyeurism and movie history, the bridge from Soviet montage to Andy Warhol’s vacant stare, as well as a construction founded on the 20th-century idea of the metropolis as spectacle—or, more specifically, on the peculiar mixture of isolation and overstimulation the big city affords. Reveling in the simultaneity of the 8 million stories in the Naked City, Rear Window is the slyly alienated precursor of multiple narratives like Short Cutsor Magnolia.


Jeff’s aesthetic distance is shattered when intrepid Lisa materializes in the theater of the Thorwald apartment. Suddenly, the voyeur is reacting like the most naive spectator, shouting a warning to a figure who cannot possibly hear him: “Lisa, what are you doing? Get out of there!” Lisa’s appearance on the screen is paralleled by Thorwald’s evolution from a distant silent actor to the all-too-real creature who, as in some Pirandellian nightmare, enters Jeff’s space hissing, “What do you want of me?” In a denouement Time correctly identified with Mack Sennett slapstick, the movie turns interactive—although, by this time, the joke is on the audience. Thorwald’s question is really addressed to the spectator. (Lisa speaks for all when she tells Jeff they are “ghouls” for being “plunged into despair [to] find a man didn’t kill his wife.”) Jeff’s pad is just one more window. As always in Hitchcock, there is no pleasure without guilt.



Chris Fujiwara on the film’s visuals, for the Boston Phoenix:

Rear Window relies less than almost any other color Hitchcock film on scenic and decorative splendor. The settings are deliberately drab. The exterior walls of the complex are red brick — in this restoration, queasily purplish. We see the sky rarely: first, in daytime, as a gray-blue rectangle between the rooftops and the top of the frame; later, as a smoldering orange-yellow rectangle.We’re not in one of the more fashionable parts of New York. The story of Rear Window is so enclosed, so interior, and our immersion in Jeff’s psycho-optical conditions so complete, that one imagines that the film would be just as fascinating if it were exhibited in the form of black-and-white storyboards. But to see it in a good print on the screen is to realize how great a part its tonal restraint plays in our involvement. Thanks to the homogeneity of colors and textures and the wealth of subtle sound-detailing, Jeff’s courtyard world becomes a lulling spectacle. We’re invited to skate over it with our eyes, to drift in and out of it the way Jeff drifts in and out of sleep in his wheelchair.


All movie viewers know they’re voyeurs, thanks to Rear Window[…] Hitchcock disturbs us just enough to make our uneasiness a source of pleasure. The shame and the shock that tinge Jeff’s pursuits make them titillating to us. But Rear Window is more than just an allegory of naughtiness punished. It’s one of the most perfect Hollywood entertainments. It’s an insightful survey of the American urban anti-community. It asks ethical questions about our responsibilities to others. Above all, it creates a richly textured, magnificently artificial, total world — one that’s essentially filmic. Through Jeff’s interaction with this world, Rear Window invites us to share in creating it, to become co-directors with Hitchcock. This most delusive of the pleasures of the movie is also the most glorious.


Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

Jeff begins to suspect that a murder has taken place. The way he determines this illustrates the method of the movie. Rarely has any film so boldly presented its methods in plain view. Jeff sits in his wheelchair, holding a camera with a telephoto lens, and looks first here and then there, like a movie camera would. What he sees, we see. What conclusions he draws, we draw–all without words, because the pictures add up to a montage of suspicion.


This level of danger and suspense is so far elevated above the cheap thrills of the modern slasher films that “Rear Window,” intended as entertainment in 1954, is now revealed as art. Hitchcock long ago explained the difference between surprise and suspense. A bomb under a table goes off, and that’s surprise. We know the bomb is under the table but not when it will go off, and that’s suspense. Modern slasher films depend on danger that leaps unexpectedly out of the shadows. Surprise. And surprise that quickly dissipates, giving us a momentary rush but not satisfaction. “Rear Window” lovingly invests in suspense all through the film, banking it in our memory, so that when the final payoff arrives, the whole film has been the thriller equivalent of foreplay.


Martin Scorsese chimes in:


And don’t miss out on the belly laugh of the film re-invisioned as “Three’s Company:”


Rosenbaum again:

More than anything, Rear Window, without ever ceasing to be a grand entertainment, is a moral investigation into what we do and what that implies whenever we follow a murder plot as armchair analysts. Hitchcock explores the question from just about every possible angle, including the issue of whether we ogle our neighbors the way we ogle characters in plays and movies — from a dark place and a safe distance. The movie begins and ends with a theatrical metaphor — the raising and lowering of the window shades in Jeff’s flat as if they were stage curtains, a symmetry that was brutally violated in Universal’s previous rerelease version, which ends instead with the Universal logo.


Significantly, both the raising and the lowering of Jeff’s shades are fantasy images of divine intervention. He’s asleep during both events, and he’s alone in his flat when the shades are pulled up; when they’re lowered Lisa is nearby, but she’s sneaking a look at Harper’s Bazaar, not pulling the shade cords. The shades go up and down one at a time, without human intervention, and it’s clearly Hitchcock himself, more deity than director, who’s inviting us into his world and then ushering us out.


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