Friend, blog reader and sometime fellow blogger Harvey nudged me gently last week with a bit of information I hadn’t remembered. August 13th, 2014 was the 115th birth anniversary of Alfred Hitchcock. Was I planning to post something Hitchcock-related to mark the occasion?
And how could I not? Hitchcock – in my opinion, one of the best directors cinema has ever seen, regardless of time and place – is a firm favourite of mine. I’ve reviewed several of his films; in fact, one of the first films I reviewed on this blog (The 39 Steps) dates from Hitchcock’s early British period. I’ve reviewed a hilariously black comedy (The Trouble with Harry); I’ve reviewed classics like Rebecca, and relatively little-known ones (among those not Hitchcock aficionados, I hasten to add) like Strangers on a Train or Lifeboat.
Time (and occasion) therefore, I concluded, to review one of my favourite of Hitchcock’s colour films, in the classic suspense mould. Rear Window, about a photographer stuck in his tiny apartment with a broken leg…
James Stewart, a Hitchcock favourite (he also starred in Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much and the brilliant Rope) plays LB Jefferies, ‘Jeff’. The first few minutes of the film give us an idea of who Jefferies is, just by the camera panning from one end of the rather messy room to the other, and back again. We see Jeff’s leg, in a plaster cast on which someone has scribbled his name. We move on to a smashed camera, to a series of fascinating photos – shots of a racing car hurtling up in an obviously terrible accident; people running from a raging fire; an explosion; what looks like a mushroom cloud. More cameras, more photographic equipment.
Jeff lives dangerously. His broken leg – the fracture sustained in the car accident he was able to photograph, though it cost him limb and camera – is to remain in the cast another week. Meanwhile, Jeff has been amusing himself by looking out of the rear window of his apartment at his neighbours.
And what an interesting lot they are, too. Jeff doesn’t know any of them, but he’s been looking in through their windows, into their lives so closely all these six weeks, he has begun to assign them names, begun to take an interest in them. For instance, there is ‘Miss Torso’ (Georgine Darcy), the young and very supple ballet dancer, who obviously leads a hectic life, both dancing and entertaining men.
There is Miss Lonely Hearts (Judith Evelyn), middle-aged and hopelessly romantic but all alone. Come evening, she dresses up, lays out a pretty candlelit dinner, pours wine, welcomes and chats with an invisible beau – and then, realizing she’s deluding herself, curls up and cries.
There is a song writer, inclined to drink and perhaps having a hard time making a success of his career. There is the female sculptor who’s a bit of a busybody, but probably good-natured in her own way. Above her, a few stories up, lives a somewhat untidy couple: they’ve decided it’s so hot, they’re best off sleeping out on the fire escape, even if it means having to hang up their alarm clock from the railing. On a lower floor, there’s a newly-married couple, very much in love, who’ve just moved in—and whose window blinds have been pulled down ever since.
And there is the Salesman (Raymond Burr) and his wife, who live next door to Miss Torso. Two windows of their house are invariably open: one in the bedroom, one in the sitting room next door. These seem to be the sort of people a rather cynical, commitment-shy Jeff fears marriage is all about: a nagging wife who is an invalid, confined to her bed; a harried and frustrated husband.
Not that Jeff himself is completely bereft of all company. Every day, the insurance company nurse Stella (the brilliant Thelma Ritter, an old favourite of mine) comes visiting, not just to massage Jeff’s back and help him around a bit, but also to dispense good, old-fashioned, hard-nosed advice. Stop being a peeping tom. Get a life of your own. Get married to Lisa.
Jeff’s girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) is the other daily visitor. She and Jeff seem to be polar opposites, at least on the surface: she is immensely wealthy (the dress she’s wearing when she first appears is—she announces nonchalantly—worth $1,100); she moves in the very highest circles of society; a cozy dinner, for her, consists of getting a great restaurant to deliver a lobster dinner, wine and all, at Jeff’s place.
Yet, Lisa is truly and deeply in love with Jeff. She’s been trying to get him to marry her, asking him if they cannot come to a compromise—either he can stop flying around the world on dangerous photo assignments, or she can give up her plush job as editor of a fashion magazine and join him. She is willing to do that (and it’s obvious that she really means it, even if she does not fully realize exactly how hair-raising Jeff’s job can be).
Jeff, however, is adamant: this will not work. Can’t they go on as they are? Maintain the status quo, as it were? And Lisa, though she’s hurt and angry enough to leave, is back again the next evening…
…by which time, a stormy night has resulted in some very interesting proceedings in the Salesman’s apartment opposite Jeff’s. Jeff, sleepless through much of the night, sees that the blinds of the Salesman’s bedroom window are pulled down, but through the other window, the Salesman can be seen, picking up his sample case, donning a raincoat and going out. Then, 45 minutes later, coming back in. Again going out, and then—after returning—going out a third time. At 3 o’clock in the morning? Why on earth?
Jeff, exhausted, finally falls asleep. When he comes awake, it’s broad daylight – and, picking up his zoom lens (Jeff’s already tried binoculars, only to discover they aren’t powerful enough) – he looks towards the Salesman’s house. The blinds of the bedroom are still down, but through the other window, the Salesman can be seen. He’s wrapping something up in newspaper: a large, evil-looking kitchen knife. And a saw.
Jeff, till now merely curious, suddenly turns suspicious. Lisa, when she arrives, is dismissive, but Jeff presents the case well. Soon, the elegant Lisa too has been roped in: she sneaks across and reads the Salesman’s name on the address board: Lars Thorwald.
And what has Lars Thorwald been up to, with knife and saw, going out three times in the course of one night? And why are the blinds on his bedroom window pulled down?
But they aren’t pulled down for long. The next time Jeff looks, he sees straight into the bedroom. Mrs Thorwald isn’t there; the bed is empty. There’s a packed trunk, tied with stout rope. Even as Jeff – along with Stella – watches, Lars Thorwald receives visitors: two men from a freight company, summoned to take away the trunk. Stella rushes off to try and see the name on their van, but to no avail.
By this time, Jeff has decided whatever it is Lars Thorwald is doing, it cannot be legal. Where has Mrs Thorwald gone? Left her husband? But she was an invalid; she couldn’t even get out of bed. And what about that knife and saw? The ominous trunk, sent away? He does the only thing he can think of: he phones his old friend, Detective Lt. Thomas Doyle (Wendell Corey) and calls Doyle over.
But Doyle is not convinced. Jeff should not be prying into the private lives of his neighbours, and anyway, there’s probably a very good reason for all that Jeff’s been witnessing in the apartment opposite. Reluctantly, and after much badgering from Jeff, Doyle agrees to make a few discreet enquiries. Nothing official, not yet, since he can just about imagine what the reaction will be if he seeks a search warrant on such flimsy ‘evidence’.
And what does Doyle come up with? The news that Mrs Thorwald isn’t ‘missing’ as Jeff imagines her to be; no, she has left town, at 6 AM that morning. The building superintendent has confirmed it. And the trunk? It has been confirmed by a cop whom Doyle put on the job to check who collected that trunk. Mrs Hannah Thorwald.
A damp squib. A wild goose chase.
But is it? Jeff does not believe it, despite everything.
Rear Window does interesting things with tried and tested formulas. One, of course, is the oft-used trope of the locked room, but turned on its head here. Instead of the crime being committed in a locked room, it is the detective who is in the confined space: Jeff, bound by his broken leg to a wheelchair, unable to move around much without help. It is this enforced inertia – and the ensuing ennui – that has probably made him turn to this voyeurism to relieve the boredom of daily life. It is this inability to stir out of his room which makes Jeff become an armchair detective. The crime, happening almost in front of his very eyes (though with little direct evidence), the detective, in an enclosed space.
The second trope which Hitchcock turns on its head is one Hitchcock used in several of his other films (especially the early British ones), all the way from The 39 Steps and Young and Innocent to Saboteur: the hero who has to flee because he has been mistakenly accused of a crime he did not commit – and whom nobody is willing to believe. In Rear Window, the opposite happens: the hero (rather, the protagonist) is again not believed, but it’s not his assertion of innocence that is doubted, but his assertion of another man’s guilt. Nobody, at first, believes Jeff when he insists that Thorwald has murdered his wife. Jeff can present whatever logic he wants; there is always someone – whether Stella or Lisa or later (and more strenuously) Doyle – to refute or simply scoff at what he says.
What I liked about this film:
So much. The actors (James Stewart and Thelma Ritter are among my absolute favourites, and Grace Kelly is gorgeous as always). The taut, tight scripting and the storyline – which is enhanced by the fact that Jeff cannot race about, like other thriller film heroes, trying to solve the crime for himself, simply because he is physically incapable of doing so.
The story isn’t terribly convoluted, either. It doesn’t teem with red herrings, and other than Thorwald, there are no real suspects (because nobody except Jeff, and later Stella and Lisa, believes a crime has been committed). Yet, despite being so straightforward – man suspects neighbour of murder, man observes, story plays out – it doesn’t get boring, and there are interesting little twists and turns (the little dog and the flowers, for instance) that suddenly come along and spice things up.
And there is, always, Hitchcock’s deft hand at suspense. The slow buildup, the gradual closing in. In the first couple of scenes, Jeff is merely looking at his neighbours through the window: he (and we) can see them, but we can’t hear any dialogue, and we can’t clearly see their faces. Impressions are what we get. Then, as the story progresses and Jeff begins to use first binoculars and then his zoom lens, we are allowed to get closer to the neighbours. We see them better, because Jeff can see them better. And we hear them better, because their volume rises: Miss Lonely Hearts screams at an unwanted lover, the woman who sleeps on the fire escape berates the rest of the neighbours, the newlywed husband has his wife calling plaintively to him, the song writer has a loud party at home… slowly, these people have gone from being the people in the windows around Jeff’s to being an integral part of the story that’s playing out.
Then, the little things that go into filling out the main story: the struggle between the commitment-phobic Jeff and the I-want-to-get-married Lisa; the no-nonsense wit of Stella; the personal lives of the neighbours. And the occasional mentions of things that one should perhaps ponder over: window ethics. How ethical is it to invade a man’s privacy, peering in at him, even if it is to find him committing a crime?
Or rather, what I think could have been better.
The character of Lisa. Lisa is pretty much the usual Hitchcock heroine: blonde, beautiful, successful, yet not empty-headed. She is smart, clever enough to be able to make deductions that help Jeff in his quest to get to the truth about Lars Thorwald and his wife. From the beginning, though, even when she’s trying to convince Jeff that they should get married and that she will accompany him on even the most dangerous and inconvenient of his expeditions, it’s obvious that this woman has no real idea of what she’s getting into – rather ignorant, if you come to think of it. The stereotypical ‘thinking with her heart’ woman, too impulsive for her own good.
That stereotype gets reinforced towards the end of the film, when a sudden impulse makes Lisa do something that sends the story spiraling out of control. Jeff refers to it as brave, courageous; I thought it was downright foolhardy. Another instance of the silly woman who jumps in without thinking, and ends up nearly getting everybody – not just herself – into trouble? At least long enough for the male protagonist to be able to come to her rescue (in this case, if not literally, then through proxy)?
But that’s a minor point, and eventually, if I look at the film as a whole – and when compared to other contemporary films that showed women in a far less flattering light – I can find it in me to forgive this blow to the feminist in me. Especially as the suspense film lover in me finds Rear Window utterly satisfying.