Beginnings: Alfred Hitchcock frequently began his movies with a scene that introduces the viewer to both character and setting in an understated, economical way. The opening scene of Rear Window is perhaps the best opening of any Hitchcock film. After the curtains rise, Hitchcock does a slow counterclockwise pan of the courtyard. He is not introducing us to characters yet, he is just giving us the lay of the land.
After completing a circle, the camera pulls in the window ending on Jimmy Stewart’s sweat covered brow. Hitchcock then cuts for the first time, to a close up of a thermometer hovering in the mid 90’s. Then the camera does another, even slower counterclockwise revolution of the courtyard. This time, he begins to show us many of the characters we will encounter throughout the film.
Then the camera pulls into Jimmy Stewart’t window again, and continues, all in one unbroken shot, to show us a series of images:
Before we have had a word of dialogue, we know the precise layout of the courtyard and apartment. We know our leading man’s name (it is written on the cast), we know his profession, we know he has a broken leg and we know how he got it, courtesy of the smashed camera and photo of a race car with a loose tire flying off. All of this is done in with only two editorial cuts, and no dialogue.
Montage: Much of what makes this movie work is Alfred Hitchcock’s use of montage. Throughout the film we see Jimmy Stewart look at something, then we see what he is looking at, then we see Jimmy Stewart’s reaction shot. As in the series of images below:
Here is what Alfred Hitchcock had to say on the subject in a 1973 interview in Antaeus:
There are too many films with what I call photographs of people talking…You see, most people get confused; they think that galloping horses are cinema. They are not. They are photographs of galloping horses. Pure cinema is montage, the joining together of pieces of film and creating an idea. It’s like putting words together in a sentence. From that comes the audience’s emotion. Rear Window, possibly one of the most cinematic pictures that anyone’s ever attempted, depended upon cutting to what a man is seeing, then cutting back to his reaction. What you’re doing is using his face to create a thought process.
In conversation with Truffaut, Hitchcock said:
Pudovkin dealt with this, as you know. In one of his books on the art of montage, he describes an experiment by his teacher, Kuleshov. You see a close-up of the Russian actor Ivan Mosjoukine. This is immediately followed by a shot of a dead baby. Back to Mosjoukine again and you read compassion on his face. Then you take away the dead baby and you show a plate of soup, and now, when you go back to Mosjoukine, he looks hungry. Yet, in both cases, they used the same shot of the actor; his face was exactly the same. In the same way, let’s take a close-up of Stewart looking out of the window at a little dog that’s being lowered in a basket. Back to Stewart, who has a kindly smile. But if in place of the little dog you show a half-naked girl exercising in front of her open window, and you go back to a smiling Stewart again, this time he’s seen as a dirty old man!
Hitchcock used montage in many of his films, but never so completely as he does here.
Voyeurism: Rear Window deals with this subject in a couple of different ways. It is a direct commentary on people who spy on their neighbors. As Stella tells Jeff: “We’ve become a race of peeping Toms. What people oughta do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.”
Jeff himself speculates: “I wonder if it’s ethical to watch a man with binoculars and a long focus lens.”
And later, Detective Doyle will tell both Jeff and Lisa: “That’s a secret, private world you’re looking into out there,” and later: “People do a lot of things in private they couldn’t possibly explain in public.”
Jeff and Lisa are actually thrilled with watching the goings-on in the Thorwald apartment, and even disappointed when they believe for a moment that there is a logical explanation for all they have seen, that Thorwald is indeed innocent. Of course, the audience is complicit in Jeff’s peeping. Isn’t the act of movie-going very much like spying on a private world? It is no accident that Hitchcock shot this movie in a 1.66:1 camera aspect ratio, for this mirrors almost exactly the size of the longer windows in the movie.
Here are the curtains going up on the opening shot, just as the curtains rise at a performance. Later on, Lisa will close the curtains, saying “show’s over.” It is almost like intermission. Of course, they won’t stay closed for long. They then close again at the end, over the Paramount logo. When Jeff is looking through all of those windows, it is like he is watching his own series of private movies. One of the most powerful and beautiful shots in the film comes late, when Jeff and Stella are distracted by Miss Lonelyhearts in the lower window, and stop watching Lisa inside Thorwald’s apartment. Then, suddenly, both women are drawn to the window by the composer’s music.
It’s rather like watching both films of a double feature at the same time, and not knowing which feature to focus on. When the police come to Thorwald’s apartment, and Thorwald sees Lisa signaling with the ring, he looks directly at the camera, and directly at us. This is the most unsettling moment in the movie, for now the watcher has become the watched.
At the film’s climax, when Lars Thorwald enters Jeff’s apartment, and asks “What do you want from me?” he is addressing the audience too. And as is typical of Hitchcock, he subverts expectations here. We actually feel a little sorry for this sad, quiet man. And maybe even a little guilty for our spying. Of course this doesn’t last long. After all, a bad guy must be a bad guy in the end.
We will let Hitchcock have the final word on voyeurism:
I’ll bet you that nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undressing for bed, or even a man puttering around in his room, will stay and look; no one turns away and says, ‘It’s none of my business’.
If you want to be really mean towards the character in this film you could call him a Peeping Tom. I don’t necessarily think it’s a statement of morality because it’s a statement of fact. You don’t hide from it, there’s no point in my leaving it out. When Grace Kelly says that they are a couple of fiendish ghouls because they’re disappointed that a murder hasn’t been committed she’s speaking the truth.
A man and a woman: The real underlying theme in this movie is that of relationships between men and women, and the seemingly irreconcilable differences that separate the sexes. It is only through compromise that relationships will work, Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes seem to be telling us. The subject of relationships, and the dialogue to be found in such scenes, is Hayes greatest strength. Not only is this his greatest screenplay; it is one of the strongest screenplays to ever come out of Hollywood.
We first meet Lisa Fremont with arguably the greatest kiss ever captured on screen. It is idealized and romanticized to the point of seeming like a fantasy, with a slowed down, close up image. We have to ask ourselves, is this how it really happened, or how Jeff imagined it to be?
Of course, this idealized love doesn’t last long. Very soon, they are bickering. Lisa wants a committed relationship, but Jeff won’t agree to it. He thinks they are from different worlds, and can’t compromise enough to make it work. Of course this doesn’t keep him from wanting to keep things “status quo.”
As Jeff looks out on the courtyard, virtually every window tells the tale of a relationship, and will therefore remind him of his own. First and foremost, there is Lars Thorwald and his wife. She is supposed to be an invalid, but doesn’t look to be in very bad shape. She is very critical of Thorwald. Jeff comments while talking to his editor on the phone about not wanting to become a husband going home to his nagging wife. Note also, the nightgown that Mrs. Thorwald is wearing in her early scenes is almost exactly like the one that Lisa will wear later in the film.
There is also the newlywed couple, whose closed curtains imply the marriage is being consummated quite thoroughly. And yet by the end, they are bickering too. Miss Lonelyhearts is hungry for love, with a desperation that escalates to the brink of disaster. Miss Torso is pushing men away throughout the film, “juggling wolves” as Lisa calls it. You could say that the composer is married to his work. Stella talks about her strong marriage, calling herself and her husband “a couple of maladjusted misfits” and saying the only way you could get her wedding ring off would be to chop off her finger. And Detective Doyle is a family man, who is not averse to admiring Miss Torso himself.
When Lisa begins to take chances, when she leaves the note under Thorwald’s door, that is the moment that Jeff begins to really fall in love with her. To make sure we notice this, Hitchcock gives us a close up of Stewart’s face.
When Lisa is in Thorwald’s apartment, signaling to Jeff that she has the ring, the double meaning of the image can’t be mistaken. She is pointing repeatedly to a wedding ring on her finger. She has found Mrs. Thorwald’s ring, but it is also symbolic of her desire to wed Jeff.
The movie does have a mostly happy ending (except of course for poor Mrs. Thorwald), but there is that little twist at the end. Miss Torso is attached to a scrawny soldier who is more interested in the contents of her icebox than her bikini. Miss Lonelyhearts and the composer are brought together by music, at least in a friendly way (One can’t really imagine them becoming a couple). The couple with the dog have got a new puppy, the newlyweds are bickering. And Lisa is reading a book about climbing the Himalayas, at least until she is sure Jeff is asleep. Then she grabs her Harper’s Bizarre. Compromise is the name of the game.
Sound and vision: Nothing seen or heard in a Hitchcock movie is ever there by accident, and never more so than here, where Hitchcock had such close control of every aspect of production. Hitchcock had an all-star team on this movie, and they all worked together seamlessly. From Robert Burks’ cinematography, to Edith Head’s costumes, to Hal Pereira’s art direction and Franz Waxman’s music, every piece of the puzzle fit together perfectly.
The above image is a good example of all of these technical elements working together.
Hitchcock also found many interesting ways to film the characters in Stewart’s apartment, without anything ever feeling staged.
Lisa wears a pale green here, mirroring the green that Miss Lonelyhearts is wearing as she prepares to go out on the town. Here is what Hitchcock had to say about Miss Lonelyhearts color palette:
Miss Lonelyhearts always dressed in emerald green. To make sure that that came off, there was no other green in the picture, because we had to follow her very closely when she went across the street into the cafe. So I reserved that color for her.
The final scene with Detective Doyle, Jeff and Lisa plays out with long takes and very little cutting. Hitchcock has the actors keep moving around, and regrouping, so the shot composition is always engaging.
One of the most overlooked aspects of this film is also one of its most brilliant, and that is the movie’s musical score. The score is diegetic; it is comprised of only music that exists in the narrative world of the film. It other words, all of the sounds we hear come to us from the open window of Jeff’s apartment; the songs are either on someone’s radio, or emanating from the composer’s apartment. And the songs all perfectly suit what is taking place on the screen. While Jeff is watching the newlyweds enter their apartment, we can hear an instrumental version of “That’s Amore”. When Miss Lonelyhearts is having dinner with her imaginary beau, the rather cruelly ironic song playing is Bing Crosby’s “To See You Is To Love You”. Later, when Miss Lonelyhearts crosses the street to the bar, we hear “Waiting For My True Love To Appear.” The greatest musical element, however, is the song “Lisa”, which we actually hear being composed as the movie progresses. In other words, the composer, in his apartment, is writing the movie’s score as we watch the movie. When Lisa first comes in Jeff’s apartment, we hear someone practicing scales. Obviously this is the warm up, before the real work begins. Then, over the course of a few scenes, we see the composer developing his song, culminating in the scene where both Lisa and Miss Lonelyhearts are captivated by the song. And finally, in the movie’s very last scene, we hear a recorded version of the song, which is named after Grace Kelly’s character.
Hitchcock thought that this idea of developing a song as the movie progressed was a failure. I disagree. I just think that the story is so strong, the music gets lost in the background. I would strongly encourage anyone who is a big fan of this movie to watch it again, focusing on the sound and music. You just might be amazed.