Welcome back, as promised, to our recently resurrected series of discussions of the films on AFI’s Top 100 list (10th anniversary edition). Today we’re focusing on Hitchcock’s Rear Window, a film chosen by my regular collaborator Jon Harrison. Both of us are fans of Hitchcock and love Rear Window, which AFI saw fit to rank at number forty-eight on its 2007 list. For those unfamiliar with the film, it explores one of Hitchcock’s favorite themes, voyeurism, by putting Jimmy Stewart’s character, a photographer named Jeff, in a cast with a clear view of all the neighbors. Using his professional photography equipment, he believes he has uncovered a murder. Grace Kelly’s Lisa Fremont and Thelma Ritter’s Stella try to help him prove his neighbor’s guilt in this expertly crafted meditation on voyeurism in cinema.
Hunter: So I was looking back at my initial review on Rear Window and I think I underestimated it. I basically rated it lower than some of other Hitchcock’s films because while it can be watched as pure entertainment, I found that reading analysis on it was much more interesting to me than watching the film itself. Though on this part rewatch, I found it just a very fun film, maybe not quite as suspenseful as some of Hitch’s other stuff, but very entertaining to follow the characters. What do you think about that?
Jon: I agree with you, for example North By Northwest continuously has Cary Grant on the run or with Psycho we always have Norman Bates on the prowl. For the first half of Rear Window it’s almost just a mystery/whodunit type of film because Jefferies is stationed within the confines of his apartment, but the second half matches Hitchcock’s best work in the realms of suspense.
Hunter: I always got very impatient with Grace Kelly and her character, though as time goes on I find myself liking her more and more. She does do quite a bit of “look at me in this expensive dress!” type stuff, but then in the second half she does become a lot more active in the story, which makes me (and Jeff) like her a lot more. Once they start engaging with the (possible) murder more, I agree, it does pick up quite a bit.
Jon: Yeah I don’t think Jeff would have allowed her back in his place, if she would have continued on that route; which makes me think how she did have the willingness to become more involved in his interest with the possible murder. He talked about how she (Lisa) was the polar opposite of everything he wanted in a woman, then bam! All of a sudden Lisa reveals that she is confident and can take matters into her own hands. If you look at it a little deeper, though there aren’t a lot of male characters in the film, the women seemed to have the upper hand over the men, i.e Ms. Torso and the newly-wed couple. It’s interesting to see something so complex within this film when you expect it to be just another Hitchcock suspense thriller. Did you take interest in the other characters relationships with one another?
Hunter: Yeah the neighbors all became very interesting. It does seem like with Miss Torso and the newly-wed couple the women have the upperhand but then there’s poor Miss Lonelyhearts, who is just completely devastated all the time, and of course Mrs. Thorwald, who may or may not have been murdered by her husband. There’s a good mix of relationship dynamics in the apartments across from Jeff. It’s also interesting that technically, both Lisa and Stella join in with these goings on, because Jeff wants information and is trapped in his wheelchair the whole time. So you get to see them cross over to the other side and become observed along with the rest of the neighbors, which arguably is what makes Lisa eventually so attractive to Jeff, the fact that she can now be observed. Remember that shot when she comes back after the first time of crossing over? That reverse shot to Jeff’s reaction clearly shows he’s hooked after that.
Jon: Yeah that was a great shot! What is also interesting is how just from seeing them over on the other-side of the apartment and from the time spent observing the apartments through Jeff’s camera, it feels as though if you know the exact layout inside the apartment and the content within it, yet you haven’t left Jeff’s room! Another shot similar to the one you mentioned is when Stella & Jeff are focused on Miss Lonelyhearts being wooed by the music, but in the same frame we have Lisa above her apartment making a gesture to Stella and Jeff, and also within that frame we see Mr. Thorwald walking in the halfway towards his apartment. That’s suspense masterclass right there.
Hunter: It’s probably an overused phrase, “you notice something new every time you watch it” but with Rear Window, I feel it’s legitimately true. One of the many things I picked up on this time around is that the camera is very anchored within Jeff’s apartment and to his point of view. Obviously, this makes a lot of sense with the narrative and its exploration of voyeurism. I finally noticed this time around, probably on my fifth or sixth time watching it, that it breaks this point of view rather conspicuously when the dog is killed (sad times). I’m not quite sure why it’s done at this time, but perhaps because it’s such an obviously violent act that it breaks the rhythm of the film. There are some establishing shots, I think at the beginning when it goes through the window and looks at Jeff, that aren’t from his point of view, but there are really very few. Did you pick up that at all, or have any idea why Hitch would break that pattern at that point (he also abandons Jeff’s POV at the end, but that’s a lot more straightforward).
But along the lines of what you were saying, you’re right, Hitchcock does have to manage two different storylines there. Crosscutting is a great way to establish suspense ever since DW Griffith and the early day so cinema. I never explicitly thought of it that way, but you’re absolutely right, having to juggle those two storylines makes both Lisa and Miss Lonleyhearts in danger, as Jeff and Stella can only help one of them!
Jon: Funny you mention that because there is a shot right before the sequence of the dog being killed, we see a shot of the party across the way, and there is a old lady that is dead asleep, but standing up with her head moving up and down, I honestly can’t explain it, it makes me wonder if Hitchcock even knew she was there!
I NEVER noticed that! There are closeups on the neighbors, Torso and Lonelyhearts in particular just when you want to believe you know the movie front to back, boom, it just hits you with new stuff, good call. Which makes me think of this Roger Ebert quote “Every great film should seem new every time you see it.” I’m not quite sure why Hitch would suddenly abandoned something already established. I like the way you put it though, it definitely breaks the rhythm of the film, and reels you in, so perhaps that’s why we receive these close ups to feel like we are standing there in the courtyard too? But yes, Stella and Jeff could have only helped one, unless they were Batman, then they could have saved both.. I’m back on the boat you were, it’s almost more fun reading analysis on Rear Window than it is watching it, the film is just so dense, but can easily be watched for entertainment.
Ahhhh speaking of the silent era in the early days of cinema. Hitchcock was also a part of those days before he moved to America. Did you notice how most of people who played these roles acted as silent actors? (if that’s what you’d call them?) They performed movements and actions but they done were so well you could fully understand and feel the emotions. This was done exceptionally well with Ms. Lonelyhearts.
Hunter: You’ve completely lost me with the sleeping woman. I just looked back and can’t find her?
Changing perspectives like that really rips you out of the outsider’s view that Jeff has. Now you’re more focused on the neighbors, maybe because Jeff suddenly is not the only watching them. He was having his own moment with Grace Kelly, not spying, then was called to the window to look out just with everyone else. I think mainly though, it disturbs the film because the killing of the dog was so violent.
I actually wrote about that in my original review! Hitchcock of course did make silents in Britain for sure, and the actors become more demonstrative in the other apartments because we can’t hear what they are saying. This is especially apparent when Stella and Lisa cross over to the other side because they have to make sure Jeff understands them; that’s how I first noticed it. And the Miss Lonelyhearts subplot always makes me feel a lot of sympathy for her. I liked how Hitch humorously wraps up all the neighbors’ storylines at the end and Miss Lonelyhearts doesn’t have to be alone anymore! 🙂
But another thing I noticed this time around is that almost all the main players, with the exception of Thelma Ritter I think, have these incredibly piercing blue eyes: Grace Kelly, Jimmy Stewart, and even Raymond Burr who plays Mr. Thorwald. It makes their eyes really stand out, obviously important in a film that highlights looking so much. Jeff even wears blue pajamas for a lot of the film which helps his eyes stand out more!
Jon: It’s at the moment Doyle looks out the window when he arrives at the apartment before the dog killing sequence takes place. Everyone is huddled around piano I believe and this old lady is clearly there sleeping. I didn’t notice all the blue eyes in the film until my girlfriend asked me why does everyone have blue eyes, and not that you are mentioning it, I didn’t even realize how his pajamas complemented his eyes. Interesting observation Hunter!
Nice! It sounds like I have some reading to do after this. I enjoyed the humorous wrap up as well, but you just made me notice how the ending mirrors the beginning in a way. We are introduced to all the characters by observing them through their windows, and the movie finishes on that as well, to show how everyone’s relationships progressed or in certain instances regressed… (Rear Window 2?!) Even the opening introduction to Jeff was mirrored at the end but this time we have Lisa there and the clothing and magazine she’s wearing tells you exactly where their relationship stands, and/or is heading. Hats off to Hitch for not needing to have to have text explain the future or a narrator; “pure cinema” at its finest.
Hunter: Ha ha I found the woman! I think she’s just totally smashed. It is a party after all!
The ending to this film is great, and pretty funny. I’ve always liked it, sometimes Hitch’s endings seem compromised by censorship but this one is perfect!
Because we’ve reached the ending of the movie, let’s start wrapping up our discussion of it as well. So Rear Window stands at number forty-eight on the list, with A Streetcar Named Desire on one side and Intolerance on the other. I think I know where you stand on this, but personally I think it should be a lot higher. It’s one of Hitchcock’s best films, and just a great film in general that comments on movies themselves, and what is happening psychologically when we watch them. And despite my initial assertions, it’s just plain entertaining. Do you think it belongs on the list, and if so, where AFI actually put it?
Jon: Mystery solved! I agree with you completely, it’s definitely a film everyone should see at least once. I believe it should be in the 25-30 range, especially if Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and E.T are that high. We may just have to make our own order of this list at the end!
Hunter: Wow, that would certainly be a challenge, especially because this is the first film we’ve actually agreed on! We’ll cross that bridge if we get there ha ha!
So that wraps up our discussion on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. We both seem to be in complete agreement on it, which is kind of rare. Next we will be tackling Sidney Lumet’s 1976 classic, Network, which neither of us have seen yet. In the meantime, we’d love to get your thoughts on Rear Window!
“We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change. Yes sir. How’s that for a bit of homespun philosophy?”
Long story short: 4/4 stars (yes, I revised my original rating)
For Further Reading: