Cool Things: Rear Window

Let me just say that I have a soft spot for Alfred Hitchcock. Not the crazy horror movies like Psycho or The Birds, but the masterful suspense films like To Catch a Thief, North by Northwest or The Man Who Knew Too Much. In fact, I seriously considered making this month “Alfred Hitchcock Movie Month” but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. So to round out Classic Color Movie Month, here’s Rear Window.

Rear Window is part of the National Film Registry, a perennial favorite of the American Film Institute and well liked on sites like Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic. What more can one man possibly add to the discussion?

Well, probably not a whole lot. Other than telling you that you really, really need to see this movie if you haven’t. But we’re going to try anyways.

At the center of Rear Window is photographer L.B. Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart). He’s recently broken his leg and spends his time in his cramped apartment confined to a wheelchair, watching the goings on in the courtyard outside his window and the buildings across the way. Equipped with a telephoto lens and a large supply of time on his hands, Jefferies alternates between contemplating the world below and trying to hold off the advances of his high society girlfriend, Lisa Freemont (Grace Kelly). A nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter), provided by his insurance company also visits from time to time.

Things really go wild when one night, during a downpour, Jefferies hears a woman crying help. Among his neighbors there is a travelling salesman named Thorwald (Raymond Burr) who’s wife is a bedridden nag and who, after that one stormy night, Jeffries never sees again.

Jeffries soon begins to suspect that she’s been murdered. But if a man won’t stop at murdering his wife and cutting up the body to hide it, is there really any reason to think he’ll stop at anything else to get away with it?

It’s no surprise that Rear Window is considered one of Hitchcock’s greatest films. While the typical thriller starts at a breakneck pace and doesn’t let us off until it’s all said and done, Rear Window takes a very, very different approach. Things start mellow and almost relaxing and we get to know Jefferies and his friends. We’re most of the way through the first act before Mrs. Thorwald disappears. Even then, no one’s really sure what happened. And it’s not like someone would commit murder right there, in an apartment facing a courtyard where everyone has been sleeping with their windows open in an attempt to beat the heat.

Would they?

Perhaps the most brilliant part of the story is the fact that Jefferies is confined to his apartment. He really can’t leave to investigate, can’t talk to people other than those who come to his apartment to visit, can’t do much of anything that we, the viewers, can except talk to his friends and ask them for favors.  This creates a kind of empathy between audience and character, we’re alike in our powerlessness. We can only observe and hope things work out for the best. At the end, when Jefferies faces his reckoning, we almost feel like we should be there helping, because we feel we’ve been just as meddlesome as he has even though we ourselves have done nothing.

There’s more to Rear Window, of course. All the best stories are wheels within enigmas within mysteries of storytelling. Stewart is a brilliant actor and his costars match him in every respect. The cinematography is brilliant and the music is a nice touch. But, above everything else, the pacing of Rear Window, it’s incredibly slow but inexorable buildup to the climax, the way it feels at once relentless and light, inevitable yet somehow a little fun, is a lesson in pacing many modern film makers could draw on. A lot.

This is really a classic, not just for reasons of nostalgia but for it’s incredible construction and pacing. If you’ve never seen Rear Window, I think it’s time you went out and remedied that. Right now.

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