Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Thirteen

#13 — Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
Sometimes when a work of art can reasonably be deemed prescient, what’s actually happening is the fiction is tapping into a fundamental truth about human nature, something that can carry forward and be applied to future situations regardless of the technological or social advances that take place. The crux of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window — the specific incident that drives the plot — involves a housebound photographer (James Stewart) who looks across the courtyard and witnesses what he’s certain is a murder. Adapted from a Cornell Woolrich short story (the script is credited to John Michael Hayes, one of Hitchcock’s favored screenwriters), the film allows Hitchcock to scratch many of his most persistent artistic itches: the normal man thrust into troubling circumstances, the ease with which people commit reprehensible acts, even a rigid structural impediment that necessitates visual creativity (the director had such a complete command of film narrative grammar by this point in his career that it seemed he was cooking up self-imposed challenges to keep things interesting). It succeeds equally as a piece of crackerjack entertainment and a master class in onscreen suspense, which contributes to this standing as arguably Hitchcock’s most imitated film, at least if television episode storylines are included in the tallying. For me, the primary appeal of a modern viewing is discovering how nicely Rear Window serves as an analogue for the safely distant voyeurism of the internet age.

Stewart’s L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies may become obsessive over the dark doings of Lars Thorswald (Raymond Burr), but that’s not the only impromptu reality show he watches across the way. The conspicuous lack of blinds or drawn curtains on his neighbors’ windows sets Jeff to examining all of them, taking what he sees to help build narratives and add character depth. He goes further to give some of them nicknames, such as Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy) and Miss Lonelyheart (Judith Evelyn), not unlike the online handles that currently proliferate. He consumes the data they unwittingly provide, eventually feeling that he knows them, knows their stories. He has only shards of their existences and yet feels as closeness to them all, one that he doesn’t quite realize is entirely manufactured by him. To most of them he is a passive observer, unnoticed and not considered. He is following, but has no followers himself. That imbalance doesn’t diminish his sense of closeness to those he watches, indeed his feeling of ownership. Jeff stands in for anyone who follows a Twitter feed (or Tumblr account, or Instagram account, or….) and feels a one-sided closeness to a stranger because of it.

Of course, all that film school analysis is probably more indicative of the pliability of Hitchcock’s themes than anything else. Jeff’s hunt for the portions of the murder plot that are still missing from his picture can be (and certainly has been) seen as Hitchcock illustrating the necessary storytelling rigor than goes into good filmmaking. Voyeurism in any and all of its forms is present in the film, and surely there are hundreds of meticulous, passionate essays with the subtitle “Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and the Male Gaze” out there in the world. Hell, it’s possible the only thing the director really cared about in pursuing Rear Window was the cementing of another vehicle that would allow him to train his camera on Grace Kelly, the quintessential Hitchcock blonde, all placid beauty and untouchable, well-chilled sex appeal. It was his second film with her that already that year, and the second of three straight in which he cast her in the lead. Almost as if he knew his time with her as a muse was limited, he pushed to work with Kelly as much as possible. My celebration of modern parallels to Rear Window‘s ideas aside, Hitchcock’s urgency to collaborate with Kelly before she exited his creative life forever may represent the keenest predictive powers at work.

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