Looking through the window of Jeff
Alfred Hitchcock is certainly one of the world’s most renowned and most influential filmmakers. Yet he famously was never accepted as such in his days even though his films where regular box office hits, or maybe precisely because of that. A definite factor in his marginalization at the time was Hitchcocks love for the genre filmmaking, especially that of suspense and mystery. It was the French critics however who instantly recognized the mastery of the craft displayed in his films and later on everyone else caught up. And “Rear Window” is surely one of his finest films.
But it is quite an unconventional film. It is a murder mystery where we never see the actual murder, in fact the question of if there ever was a murder is a part of the mystery. But it’s also a one room film, as in the whole story takes place in one single room. A room with quite a view that is.
It is very hard to say something new about a film that has such a clear subtext and that has been analyzed in depth since it came out. But one analysis always rang the truest for me, and that is the one by Francois Truffaut, where he compared the relationship between Jeff (played by James Stewart) and his view through the window at his neighbors’ lives to the relationship between the audience and the cinema screen. In fact the very framing of the first shot of the film confirms this, because Hitchcock establishes the connection between the window and the screen by perfectly matching the frame of the window with the framing of his shot.
Throughout the film Jeff becomes obsessed with what he sees through his window and eventually starts suspecting that one of his neighbors might have killed his wife. And by giving the role of Jeff to the ultimate every-man, James Stewart, Hitchcock’s intention becomes even clearer. Because is there anyone better to be the audience surrogate than him? And even though Stewart is oftentimes criticized to be wooden and lacking emotion, Hitchcock uses his emotional neutrality here as a perfect device for audience members to project their own emotions. I’d even go as far to say that here, beyond just merely directing his actor, Hitchcock uses the Kuleshov effect* with his editing to manipulate the correct emotional response from the audience.
Further lines to be drawn are, for example, that the events that Jeff observes through window are mirrored in his own room with his relationship to Lisa. And how Jeff’s affection for Lisa grows the more she is at risk, revealing a woman that Jeff judged wrongly earlier in the film. There is a slightly perverted note in Jeff’s character, but then again Hitchcock did make him a photographer and almost a director in the way he directs detective Doyle to snoop around for him and how he infuses Lisa and Stella, his nurse, with the same enthusiasm he has for solving the murder case. This makes it very easy to draw a comparison between Jeff and Hitchcock himself.
And this comparison further supports another comment that Hitchcock makes in “Rear Window”; the comment about the very nature of cinema itself. That cinema is the voyeur’s art-form. And it most certainly is, with movies we see the most personal moments and events in the lives of the characters on the screen. We’re looking through Jeff’s rear window. They might not be real people, and the events may be designed for our pleasure, but this illusion of reality is the greatest draw of cinema and Hitchcock gladly points that out in this film.
In conclusion there is not much to say but that the French where right all along. Hitchcock is an undeniable master that today casts a shadow greater than any other film director I know of. He directly influenced other great filmmakers like Biran DePalma, Steven Spielberg and even David Lynch. Hell, David Lynch is by far his best student I’d say. And “Rear Window” is a master-class of filmmaking that is not only a great think-piece, but a completely absorbing film that can satisfy even for the most superficial of viewers. The kind of masterpiece that only Hitchcock really knew how to make.
James Stewart - L.B. "Jeff" Jefferies
Grace Kelly - Lisa Carol Fremont
Wendell Corey - det. Thomas J. Doyle
Thelma Ritter - Stella
Raymond Burr - Lars Thorwald
Rear Window on IMDb