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Rear Window

Rear Window

Rear Window

1954. Universal. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, written by John Michael Hayes. With James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter, Wendell Corey, Raymond Burr.


Nearly everybody who is interested in American movies knows about Rear Window as an allegory of the movie-watching experience. It's by now a staple of the culture that Jeff, the incapacitated photographer, is like a person in a movie theater, sitting in the dark watching dramas enacted within rectangular frames before him. He is our surrogate, and if we have reservations about his voyeurism, we should have reservations about ourselves as well.

In my opinion, this only scratches the surface. Rear Window uses a variety of strategies to reflect back to its viewers their own role as spectators.

For example: The fact is that Jeff doesn't exactly watch the dramas across the countyard; it would be more accurate to say that he makes up dramas based on snatches of events he happens to witness. He interpolates far more than he observes. And this is in fact what movie-watchers (or consumers of any kind of art, for that matter) do as well: we draw conclusions, based on very little actual information, about who characters are, what motivates them, and, as Lisa says, "what it all means." We actively participate in creating the stories that entertain us.

We do more. Here's the famous quote from Hitchcock: "You have an immobilized man looking out. That's one part of the film. The second part shows what he sees and the third part shows how he reacts. This is actually the purest expression of a cinematic idea.

"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!"

This is another of our job as spectator: we participate in constructing the character of Jeff by projecting our own responses on to his more-or-less neutral face. This keeps us working actively, processing and interpreting what we see, and then attributing our conclusions to Jeff. As Hitchcock discovered early in his career, this approach gets audiences profoundly more involved in the movie than having actors "indicate" how they are feeling through facial contortions, quavering voices, etc.

So we make stories and we make performances. And finally--Job 3--we make movies. We make them, quite literally, by providing a continuity between individual still phogoraphs flying past our eyes. There is a nanosecond of black between every frame, and movies move only because our brains project a fragment of missing action into this blackness. Rear Window points this out too.

When I said that Jeff misses more than he sees, I didn't just mean that he sleeps through certain events. Even when he's looking, he sees only a little. Shades are sometimes drawn, and he sees only shadows or horizontal stripes of activity through venetian blinds. Or the lights are out, and he has to make what he can of vague shapes and occasional highlights. Most interesting, the two apartments where the most dramatic events happen—Miss Lonelyhearts' and the Thorwalds'—each have three windows (four, if you count the one that shows the building's corridor) separated by expanses of wall. As characters walk from room to room, we see them and lose them and pick them up again in the next window—an alternation of image and darkness that's like one of those old pre-cinematic spinning gizmos like the phenakistoscope.

Taking into account the brief flashes of black that separate frame from frame and our own eye-blinks, we must actually "not see" a significant fraction of every movie. We fill in, of course, just as Jeff does. But sometimes we fool ourselves; there's a shot where Thorwald moves past one window, the camera moves to the next one to pick him up as he emerges, but he doesn't reappear, and in fact turns and goes back the other way.

Rear Window shows that "watching" a movie is a multi-level creative process. We supply connections that aren't really there—between bits of narrative, between shots, and between frames. Whether we take this process as unsavory, fetishistic, phallocentric, Oedipal, fatally escapist, manipulative, imperialist, or even commendable depends on our critical stance, yet another level of interpretation.

I imagine that Hitchcock had some fun contrasting the traditional exposition that goes on within Jeff's apartment to the "pure cinema" of what he sees out his window. Most of what happens among Jeff and his friends is made quite explicit: how Jeff broke his leg, what Stella is doing there, how Tom and Jeff were in the war together, what the problem is between Jeff and Lisa, etc. Each scene is carefully shaped and ends with a clever or provocative "button." Contrast this to the elliptical style of the telephoto work, where we are given many fewer answers and have to stay in more "suspense." Hitchcock is experimenting here with a looser, more modern, more European style. Significantly, while there is a great deal of dialogue within Jeff's apartment, the "movies" that he and we see are almost completely silent.

After exploring in Rear Window what it means to be a film viewer, Hitchcock turned a few years later, in Vertigo (which begins where Rear Window ends, with James Stewart hanging from a ledge in peril of his life), to the question of what it means to be a filmmaker.

(2/3/95)

 

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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein