Wednesday 4 January 2012

Movie Review: Rear Window (1954)

An Alfred Hitchcock classic, Rear Window peeks into the lives of neighbours to find a potential murderer, but more importantly uncovers a changing society about to be transformed by unstoppable forces.

Photojournalist Jeff Jeffries (James Stewart) has badly broken his leg while on assignment, and he is stuck in his hot and humid apartment for another week before the cast comes off. With a crushing heatwave forcing all the neighbours to keep their windows open, Jeff whiles away the time observing from his rear window the goings on in various apartments. Jeff's nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and his girlfriend society girl Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) visit him daily. The crusty Stella does not approve of Jeff's voyeuristic habit, while Jeff is having trouble finding a way to imagine the fashionable Lisa fitting into his rugged international photojournalist lifestyle.

One of the many apartments that Jeff keeps an eye on is occupied by Mr. Thorwald (Raymond Burr), a salesman, and his bed-ridden wife. One dark night Jeff observes Mr. Thorwald repeatedly leaving and returning to his apartment with a large briefcase. The next day Mrs. Thorwald has disappeared from her bed, and Jeff observes Mr. Thorwald cleaning a large knife and a sharp saw. Jeff is convinced that Mr. Thorwald killed his wife and dismembered her body. He calls upon his friend, Detective Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey), who is sceptical but starts a low level investigation. As the ongoing lives of the neighbours unfold and sometimes intertwine, Jeff, Lisa and Tom are drawn ever deeper into the mystery surrounding the Thorwalds.

Rear Window offers up an increasing dose of tension, but the thriller elements are only the outside packaging. The film's rich texture resides in its mature portrayal of a society in quiet upheaval, and the prescient look ahead to a world filled with plenty of image consumption and dangerous levels of pleasure derived from voyeurism.

The John Michael Hayes screenplay is rich with social observation, starting with the evolving role of women. The nurse Stella is the model for the first post-war generation of working women, independent, opinionated and confident, and she may be the midpoint of the spectrum. Jeff's neighbours cover the range of rapidly evolving women's roles in society: At the extremely traditional end is Miss Lonelyhearts, a depressed widow close to the end of her rope. Mrs. Thorwald, the victim, is utterly dependent on her husband and unable to defend herself against his violence.

Towards the mid-range are the couple sleeping on the balcony, representing the average married man and wife of the era, content and resourceful. Tilting to where society is headed, the newly-wed wife is sex-obsessed but turns against her husband as soon as he loses his job: perhaps the prototype of the newly independent woman, not shy about her sexual and financial needs. Miss Newlywed is unlikely to ever suffer at the hand of her husband. And at completely the other end of the scale from Miss Lonelyhearts is Miss Torso, young, exhibitionist, enjoying the company of a multitude of men, and hiding her own secret. She controls and manipulates the life of the men around her, at the edge of a new movement about to explode out of post-war repression and into a revolution of liberation.

Jeff's own relationship with Lisa has to navigate the turbulence of women's changing role in society. Clearly in love with each other, but coming from different worlds and both financially secure, neither is immediately willing to sacrifice a valued lifestyle for the sake of the relationship. While Jeff seems to recognize that asking Lisa to fundamentally change her life is a wrong foundation for a marriage, Lisa is more brash about pushing Jeff to change his life to suit her. Lisa goes ahead and proves her willingness to be adventurous, but Rear Window ends with persistent question marks about the viability of their couplehood: the sense is that Jeff's version of adventure is too crass for Lisa's high flying, high fashion, high society taste.

Rear Window's other objective is to transform all viewers into voyeurs, as guilty as Jeff in enjoying the sordid lives of others. Oh dear, we've become a race of Peeping Toms, Stella says in her first scene. Hitchcock leaves his audience no choice: watching the movie is a Peeping Tom experience, with most of the camera angles representing Jeff's point view, and the camera movements mimicking the motion of his eyes. Jeff's behaviour can only be castigated by those who did not actively participate in it, and the film's construction makes this impossible: we are all as culpable as he is, and deserving of his fate. Hitchcock anticipates an era when watching will become a lot more popular than doing, and few complain about it.

Rear Window is a participatory masterpiece, a multi-layered film that elegantly represents its society with sharp commentary woven into an arresting mystery.

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