Marriage, alienation, and Alfred Hitchcock: Why Rear Window belongs on my A+ list

You hardly notice the knot growing in your stomach. The glamorous movie stars on the screen are doing little more than talking as they try to work out whether or not there has been a murder. Slowly you begin to realize, long before they do, that they’re putting themselves in danger. Your hand starts squeezing the armrest–or a loved one’s hand. Before it’s over, you may shriek in terror.

And you’ll enjoyed every second of it.

Most love Vertigo, but to my mind, Rear Window tops every other thriller created by the master of the genre, Alfred Hitchcock. He plays the audience like an organ, making us laugh, worry, clap, and scream at his command. And it’s never less than thoroughly entertaining.

But Rear Window is more than just entertainment. As James Stewart turns his binoculars on his neighbors, Hitchcock aims his directly at us. And what he sees isn’t pretty. We’re voyeurs but not friends; lovers, but not committed.

As a study of urban society wrapped up in the pleasant package of an escapist thriller, Rear Window makes my A+ list. These are the near-perfect films that I fell in love with years (preferably decades) ago and still love today. I revisited this 1954 classic Friday night at the Castro, where it opened the Noir City festival.

One set, but what a set

The entirety of Rear Window is set in the small, Greenwich Village apartment of news photographer L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies (James Stewart). Everything you see in the film is either in the apartment, or visible through the large rear window that looks out at his neighbors.

This is a one-set film -placing the story in a confined space. Depending on whether you count Dial M for Murder, it’s the third or fourth such film he made in a decade. But he did it right with Rear Window, building one of the most impressive sets in film history. The backs of several apartment buildings create a makeshift courtyard. And above that courtyard are the windows in which we spy on other people’s lives.

And Jefferies spies on them, too. A lot. He’s recovering from a work-related injury, which leaves him confined to a wheelchair and his apartment. Boredom has turned him into a peeping tom. He spends his time watching his neighbors. He doesn’t know their names, but he knows their likes, dislikes, habits, and routines. He’s given some nicknames—Miss Torso, Miss Lonelyhearts, the Salesman, and so on.

He’s not alone all of the time. A nurse, played by the wonderful Thelma Ritter, comes in daily to give a massage, make lunch, and dole out philosophy. Ritter provides at least half of the film’s laughs; a great part for one of Hollywood’s greatest unsung actresses. And nightly, there’s his girlfriend (Grace Kelly)–a young woman so beautiful and aristocratic that you wonder why she settled on a middle-aged, self-described “camera bum.”

Then the Salesman’s wife–an invalid–disappears. Jefferies begins to suspect that the salesman murdered her, and sets out to convince his girlfriend, nurse, and–the most skeptical of all–the police.

Watching people watching people

There’s something inherently voyeuristic about watching a movie, and in Rear Window, you’re spying on people who are spying on people. Jeffries has his own collection of screens to watch, and the people he’s watching don’t know what he’s up to. Each of the windows looks a bit like a movie screen. And he often looks through lenses–either binoculars and later, as the story heats up, a camera with a very long telephoto lens. The audience is complacent complicit in his invasion of his neighbors’ privacy, and Hitchcock doesn’t let us forget it.

Jeffries knows his neighbors by spying on them, but he doesn’t know them the way neighbors are supposed to know each other. He hasn’t talked to them. He doesn’t know their names. And they know nothing about him. The Greenwich Village created on a Paramount sound stage for Rear Window is a microcosm of urban alienation.

In one key scene, a woman discovers that her dog is dead–intentionally killed. “You don’t know the meaning of the word neighbors,” she cries out. “Neighbors like each other; speak to each other, cares if anybody lives or dies.” And the speech has a temporary effect, causing a brief moment of community. There’s still some humanity in Greenwich Village.

The problem with marriage

According to Patrick McGilligan’s biography, Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light, Hitchcock’s wife and primary collaborator, Alma Revelle, had an affair in the late 1940s. McGilligan couldn’t find out if Hitchcock knew, and if he did, how he reacted.

But if you look at his films of the early 1950s, it’s easy to imagine that Hitchcock at least suspected. In Strangers on a Train, the protagonist’s philandering wife is strangled to death. In Dial M for Murder, the villain’s philandering wife almost meets the same fate.

Rear Window takes a more complicated look at marriage, but it’s still not a happy one. The killer has murdered his wife, and from the brief moments where we see them together, we can see why. She’s not only high maintenance; she’s a harpy–insulting her husband mercilessly.

And that’s not the only marriage in the film. A couple of newlyweds have moved into an apartment, and the appear to be very happy. It’s pretty clear that whatever they’re doing behind the closed window shade couldn’t be shown in a 1954 movie. But the last time we see them, they’re arguing.

(To be fair, an older couple seem to be happy together.)

And finally, there are the film’s romantic leads. Kelly’s Lisa is pressuring Stewart’s Jeffery into marriage. He’s reluctant, feeling that neither of them can adapt to the other’s lifestyle. He has a point.

Rear Window is a technically polished, thoroughly enjoyable, and thought-provoking. Alfred Hitchcock made a lot of great films, but none surpassed this one.