Alfred Hitchcock began before the talkies; his career in film started in 1919 as a card illustrator for silent pictures. As a consequence, his films pay special attention to their visual components, with the director once stating that he would create pictorial action to keep the audience invested, just in case the audio in the cinema went out. Hitchcock’s previous experience working in and directing silent film lends us a unique perspective to analyze his work. Let’s take a look at Rear Window (1954):
Rear Window is an astoundingly visual film, which may sound like an oxymoron. At it’s heart, it should be, because it is a tale of a man who watches – things, people, neighbors. Cinema, to Hitchcock, is a way to observe without being observed, see without being spotted, a voyeuristic look into the lives of others.
When we meet L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart), he is a professional photographer out of commission due to a broken leg; prone to boredom, he does little else but watch his neighbors from his window; one is a dancer, one a composer, another a jewelry salesman, and a newly married couple. He passes his time by viewing the world around him, presumably partly because he is a photographer and prone to visual spectacle, but also because is human, and we have a natural tendency towards curiosity.
He becomes preoccupied especially with the salesman, Thorwald, who cares for an ailing wife. One night, he closes the blinds, a woman’s scream rents the air, and Jefferies watches him leave his apartment multiple times around 3 AM, with only his briefcase in hand. He also sees him unwrap a large carving knife, and assumes the worst: Thorwald has killed his wife.
Jefferie’s fiancée, Lisa, is skeptical. “What is it you’re looking for?” She asks him, and he responds that it is only concern for Thorwald’s wife. But what is it that Hitchcock is asking us? What are we looking for?
Voyeurism is one of the many tricks and tools in the director’s bag. He is famous for subverting our expectations, reviling in our revulsions, portraying the twisted desires of people’s inner consciousness. Going to the movies is a voyeuristic activity; we sit, stationary, and watch events unfold, things that happen to others that we act as witnesses to. Who else emulates this, but Jefferies, who sits, stationary in his wheelchair – even sleeping in it – watching the lives of his neighbors play out?
Hitchcock wants to make us reflect upon what we see; as Jefferies’ nurse Stella says, ‘they’d do better looking in at their own house’. We are looking for what we observe in other people that reflects on ourselves. At the end of the scene with Lisa, she tells Jefferies “tell me what you saw, and what you think it means…”
What it means is relatively simple, at the outset: it means a man has killed his invalid wife. What it means is that we, and Jefferies, are looking into the darkest aspect of humanity; our cruelty, our violence against one another. We are looking into our own houses, no binoculars needed. This can be tricky, because we are biased in favor of ourselves, and how we present to others. Which leads us to:
Composition: Points of View
This film is particularly visual not only because of what it presents to us, but how its captured; you could watch this film on mute and still know every major plot development, making this film possibly the most Hitchcockian Hitchcock movie ever. Yet this presentation of the murder, the crux of the movie, is almost unseen, and rests on what Jefferies thinks he saw. His theories, even though they are accurate, are speculative and require solid proof.
Rear Window was famously shot on one full studio set – 31 apartments in total. This gives us a full range of the neighborhood and courtyard in a way that feels real; we are looking at them as they would appear in life, and we are also looking at them from Jefferies’ perspective, stuck, in one apartment, looking outwards.
A majority of the scenes include Jefferies looking out of his window, or what we, and Jefferies, see going on. When we follow an action of a character outside Jefferies’ apartment, we see them from the perspective that is far away and distant. We never see any other apartment from the inside, and what this does is make us look at things solely from Jefferies’ point of view, because it is all Hitchcock offers us.
Hitchcock, as mentioned before, believes in telling stories visually – when dialogue is removed from the scenario, his stories are told with points of view, and objects, famously known as ‘Macguffins’. This is demonstrated in Rear Window by the establishing shot, and the reverse shot, which gives us our viewer, Jefferies, and the subject, whatever he’s looking at.
The film is a very one-two punch; it establishes distance from the characters and neighbors, yet makes us invest in them – Miss Lonelyhearts and Thorwald’s wife; it keeps us at arm’s length, yet forces us to watch from afar as events unfold. The heart of the suspense is not the actual murder, but our acting as witnesses to its aftermath, and one of the most suspenseful moments in the film is after Lisa breaks into Thorwald’s apartment only to have him return, while Jefferies can do nothing but watch.
Hitchcock makes distance our enemy and our friend until the very end, when he collides the viewed with the viewer. We are subject to what happens to voyeurs, attacked in their home by the ones they were watching; Jefferies, who, as a photographer, wants to capture but not possess, observe but not touch, is faced upfront with the ramifications of his actions, good intent or no.
Rear Window is a tale of viewing and voyeurism, but it is also about its consequences – we are prey to our own perspectives, and correct or not, what we see is only ever that, subjectivity, boiled down to what Jefferies sees, and what he interprets that to mean. We can see the full picture, but, when it comes down to it, we will eventually only see what we want to.