In honour of… a thing… The Guardian has been running a series of posts online called “My Favourite Hitchcock” in which their journalists write a short essay on their favourite Hitchcock movie, starting with their lead film critics Peter Bradshaw (Psycho) and Philip French (The Lady Vanishes). So I thought I would stick my oar in and have a go myself.
I like a lot of films and, being a bit of a film buff, will often get asked what my favourite film is. However, there are so many genres and so many great movies that picking just one is nigh on impossible. However, for the sake of these questions, my answer is always Rear Window and I shall tell you for why.
(Warning: This post will feature spoilers from the movie. If you haven’t seen it then you really should. Also, if you haven’t seen it, don’t read this just yet.)
A very simple plot overview to start with. Jeff (James Stewart) has broken his leg and can’t leave his apartment. He spends his days observing his neighbours out of his window. One stiflingly hot night he wakes and, in a bit of a daze, thinks he may have witnessed a neighbour Thorwald (Raymond Burr) murder his wife, but he can’t be sure. In the end he sends his girlfriend Lisa, played by Grace Kelly, to go and investigate. She finds the evidence and, ultimately, Thorwald is arrested.
The point of giving that very brief overview is to illustrate just how simple the story is. Hitchcock was known as the master of suspense for a reason. Here he takes a simple story and manages to slowly ratchet up the tension. If this were a modern film, this would be act one. “Not enough happens,” would be the cry from the executives, “make him a serial killer.” But this is a drama about real people in a real place. By taking his time and letting us get to know Jeff and Lisa, and become absorbed in the stories of all of the neighbours (not just Thorwald), we almost become a part of the film. As a viewer we have a direct surrogate on the screen. Jeff is stuck in his apartment – all he can do is watch – and so we become Jeff. By inviting us into the film, even the smallest details become more interesting, and the fear becomes more palpable.
And why is the fear heightened in this way? Well, it’s us investigating Thorwald, it’s we, the viewer, who sends in Lisa, sends in Princess Grace, to investigate. We put her in harm’s way and if anything happens to her, it’s our fault.
Hitchcock makes this point quite clearly as we enter the final section of the film. Jeff’s friend Detective Doyle has found supposedly conclusive proof as to Thorwald’s innocence and jeff and Lisa’s initial burst of disappointment is mirroring our own. We came to this film because it was a murder story. We wanted the viscera of death brought into our lives and Hitchcock tells us off in no uncertain terms:
Jeff, if someone came in here, they wouldn’t believe what they’d see … [Us] Plunged into despair because we find out a man didn’t kill his wife. We’re two of the most frightening ghouls I’ve ever known. You’d think we could be a bit happy that the poor woman is alive and well.
It is not Jeff and Lisa who are the ghouls but us, the audience. We paid to see someone die and we’ll be disappointed if we don’t get it. Hitchcock clearly knows this and there could be an unwritten addendum to that speech, an author’s aside, something to precede what occurs almost immediately after.
OK – if you want a murder, you can have a murder. If you want Thorwald to have killed his wife, I can give you that. But remember, this is what you wanted. You have Grace Kelly’s life in your hands and this is what you’ve decided. If anybody gets hurt, it’s on you.
Shortly after, one of the neighbour’s dog is killed and the culprit is quickly deduced to be Thorwald; the murder’s back on and pretty swiftly Lisa is sent to investigate.
The beauty of all of this is not just the story telling, though a brilliantly told story it is. The beauty is seeing Hitchcock’s fingerprints all over it. Throughout the film he is using his characters to tell off the audience.
We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.
I can smell trouble right here in this apartment. First you smash your leg, then you get to looking out the window, see things you shouldn’t see.
The film is a game to Hitchcock and he is toying with the audience like a cat toys with a mouse it has caught.
But not only that, the whole film is a lesson in story-telling. Each of Jeff’s neighbours has their own narrative which develops over the course of the film – Miss Lonelyhearts, The Songwriter, Miss Torso, The Newlyweds – they all have a mini-story of their own, all of which develop with only the slightest commentary from Jeff. These are like slimmed down silent films, vignettes dropped in to round out the neighbourhood. That we can get emotionally involved in the story of Miss Lonelyhearts, willing her to find love, is further testimony to the skills of a director on the verge of entering arguably the greatest purple patch any director has ever had, with To Catch A Thief, Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho and The Birds all to follow in the next decade.