CMBA Hitchcock Blogathon: Thoughts on Rear Window (1954)

Discussing any Hitchcock film and expecting to say something new is like digging into a depleted gold mine and expecting to haul out a fortune. It could happen, but it seems all of the great stuff has already been harvested and disseminated in books, retrospectives, and courses at educational institutions.

Whether this blog post for Rear Window (1954) holds a gold nugget of analysis or  is mostly iron sulfide is anyone’s guess, but I enjoy the challenge. Let’s dig.


GIANTS AMONG US
We are all peeping toms, according to Alfred Hitchcock, so he forces the audience  for Rear Window to observe Jeff (James Stewart) and Lisa (Grace Kelly) as they watch other people in apartments across the courtyard. With very few exceptions, the audience sees only what  can be viewed at a distance from Jeff’s apartment, making the people outside seem small like little dolls and their apartments like tiny boxes.

Viewed in the movie theater, the gang of voyeurs in Jeff’s apartment  not only seems larger than the neighbors outside, they also seem larger than the audience. In Lisa’s introductory scene, she kisses Jeff. As she stares into the lens and leans into the camera for the smooch (ironically like a monstrous being in a 3D film who breaks the fourth wall to make the audience recoil), some reviewers claim that the licentious Hitchcock is merely “saving” the first kiss for himself as director, then allows the next cut to be of the woman kissing Jeff. To the director and to Jeff she’s an inviting presence - they are all the same size- but when Lisa looms overhead, to a cinema audience she’s a towering giant. It’s as if we have become the “little people” in a dollhouse and Glumdalclitch has come to play with us.


Viewing Rear Window on the small screen, (or even in a small screen cap like that above) however, makes Lisa and Jeff  less brobdingnagian and more like their neighbors. Not only are we watching them,  but they seem increasingly shoved into their own small box - our television or computer. With home viewing - pausing, rewinding, etc. - Lisa and Jeff are almost like Barbie and Ken dolls, performing at your command. 
Prepping for the blogathon; Rear Window in a small box

Of course the movie still holds up despite the change in technology. This is due in no small part because the film  invites the audience to compare size, proportion and space anyway. For instance, after Lisa kisses Jeff, she displays her new gown in his cramped apartment. As she twirls, the yards of fabric in the skirt brush against furniture, her matching shawl lightly caresses a desk that probably hasn’t seen a duster in weeks. She declares that the dress is right off the Paris runway, another narrow space that needs careful negotiating.



REAR WINDOW KISS VS. A NEW MOVIE KISS

That Lisa-Jeff kissing scene was helpful in understanding why a similar scene in a recent film did not work.

I watched  a new flick at a movie theater a few months ago. There was your standard two shot close up of a guy and his love saying something important about their relationship. He is trying to rekindle her interest, but they are on a tight schedule - rushing to save the free world or something. He has only seconds. What was meant to be an empathetic and ardent plea of a man desperate for the love of his ex was unintentionally predatory. All I could think of was, “he seems big enough to eat her.”  His head took up two-thirds of that big screen and hers less than a third. Every time he would speak I expected his jaw to unhinge and swallow her face.

It was not romantic - a fact which, for some reason, irritated at me for months.

In prepping for this blogathon, my mind began comparing that recent close up with the Lisa-Jeff introductory scene. When the film introduces Lisa smooching Jeff, both stars’ heads take up equal amounts of space in the frame, even though Miss Kelly has a relatively small cranium and Stewart is known for his elongated face. But in this close up you don’t see much  of  the actors’ heads, except the parts that move a lot - mouths, eyes, lashes.  You are concentrating on what they are saying and doing with their faces - smiling, talking, kissing, whispering, etc. The ears, tops of heads and Stewart’s chin are all but cut out of the frame.


Then it hit me - in that recent movie, you can see the entire profile of the two love birds - top of the head, chins, ears, everything. You see just how much bigger the actor is than his counterpart, which doesn’t help in that scene where the lady is supposed to be a dominant force and the man is emotionally at her mercy, since she’s moved on with her life and he wants her back. 

It’s a small point, but one that I appreciate because that contemporary scene kept nagging me and I couldn’t think of a way to fix it.  Rear Window is very instructive.

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The film’s plot and overall effectiveness holds well because of the attention to minutia. The intricacies of multiple layers of storytelling, down to the framing of a kiss make this film thoroughly re-watchable.  The details establish a certain atmosphere or feeling and you don’t exactly know why until you pick the film apart like an old watch to see how it ticks. It’s almost as if Hitchcock anticipated home viewing, or at least multiple viewings, people pausing it to look for the little things. Rear Window is just that good.

More Hitchcock Blogathon contributions are here at CMBA.

27 comments:

  1. REAR WINDOW, is one of my favorite Grace Kelly films. Humour in just the right places and great performances by Kelly, Jimmy Stewart and Thelma Ritter.

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  2. Rear Window is such a great Hitchcock film I love Jimmy Stewart and the choice of casting Grace Kelly as his devoted partner was genius. A wonderful review on a Hitchcock classic! : )
    Page at My Love Of Old Hollywood
    http://myloveofoldhollywood.blogspot.com/

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  3. This is such a brilliant film. It IS difficult to add new "nuggets" to the already-prolific canon of writing about Rear Window, but you make an interesting--and unique to me!--point about the framing of Lisa and Jeff's first kiss. I never really considered it before, but you're absolutely right about the effective way in which it was staged.

    Great post! Thanks for giving me something new to think about in regards to one of my favorite movies of all time.

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  4. Java - One of the great gold nuggets of your piece was your introductory statement about the difficulty in saying anything new about Hitchcock...how true! Very much enjoyed your tour of "Rear Window" and your observations. I've seen the film in a theater, but years ago - have seen it many more times on TV - and I always find "the kiss" scene very romantic and intimate. Hitchcock had a way with a kiss...I'm thinking of "Notorious," "To Catch a Thief," "Vertigo," & "N by NW," too. With the kiss in "Rear Window" one feels so close that it's almost like three people kissing...Hitchcock's camera was nothing if not subjective. Thanks for a great blog - with more than a few gold nuggets...

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  5. You're spot-on when you relate how difficult it is to write anything new about Rear Window but you succeeded admirably in adding to the conversation. I particularly enjoyed your insights on seeing Window on the big screen because that was how I was introduced to the movie; it was the only one of the five Hitchcock films rescued from legal limbo (the others being Rope, The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo) that made it to my neck of the woods in 1983-84 and it remains one of the most memorable movie-going experiences of my lifetime.

    You may find this difficult to believe, but I know a few individuals who don't rank Rear Window too highly in the Hitchcock pantheon (it's personally in my top five). This doesn't make them bad people, just horribly, horribly wrong.

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  6. Good for you! You say you can't add something new and your observation on the kiss is refreshingly original. Thank you!! And Ivan, you are too funny. Thankfully, I'm not horribly horribly wrong and rank this in my top five. How can you go wrong when you've got Thelma Ritter supporting Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly? :)

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  7. Interesting analysis! You managed to take a movie on which so much has been said and say something new.

    -Caroline

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  8. Java, you always add new insight to the films you write about! Hitchcock was meticulous in how he planned each camera shot and movement. So, your analysis of his framing of the kiss says a lot about what Hitchcock wanted to convey and how he wanted the audience to feel as they watched tHe kiss. REAR WINDOW is my second-favorite Hitchcock film, topped only by VERTIGO. As I've read the Blogathon reviews today, I've been reminded of the importance of casting in Hitchcock pictures. If the "peeping toms" in REAR WINDOW had been actors other than the immensely-likable James Stewart and the charming Grace Kelly, would the results have been different?

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  9. Good point, very well explained, Java. "Rear Window" is probably in my top 3 Hitchcock movies, I adore it, soo much fun, Stewart + Kelly, such brilliant music and Thelma Ritter!!

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  10. You did a great job writing a very interesting review of Rear Window despite your caveat about the many times it has been dissected. I enjoyed it very much!

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  11. Like everyone else here I really appreciated your fresh thoughts on an old favorite. I got a kick out of the idea that we're looking in on Jeff & Lisa just as they're observing everyone else.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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  12. I loved your comment about the ability we have now to pause, rewind, multiple viewings -- it is amazing how perfect most of Hitchcock's work is. Rear Window always made me want the same kind of apartment with a courtyard when I was a kid!

    Really good take on a very famous movie -- you added to its mystique in your discussion of the two kisses and why Hitchcock's is better. Kudos!

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  13. Absolutely my favorite Hitchcock film and as a avid film "watcher" the theme of being a peeping tom is of course a guilty pleasure of sorts that all film lovers must admit to (LoL). I like your comparison to Barbie and Ken. Hitchcock was always good at kissing scenes as he is here and in the five minute NOTORIOUS kissing scene that he managed to get passed the censors of the day.

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  14. I was lucky enough to see "Rear Window" for the first time in a real movie theater during its re-release in the mid-80s, and what a memorable experience it was. But as you point out, it holds up very well on the small screen at home because of that very perceptive observation you made about the use of "size, proportion, and space." It's astounding how cinematic and how compelling this movie is considering that Stewart is confined to a wheelchair, the action takes place largely in one room, and the apartment house courtyard is very much like a stage set. Of all Hitchcock's experiments with filming in confined spaces ("Lifeboat" and "Rope" immediately come to mind), this must surely be the most successful. Even my non-cineaste and non-Hitchcock enthusiast friends love this movie! And this is for me Grace Kelly's most charming performance, and as beautiful a woman as she was, she never looked better than here. I have to tell you how impressed I was with your comparison to the unnamed contemporary movie and the analysis of that extreme close-up, not to mention how perfectly that shot illustrated your point. A great post that did--for me at least--manage to say something new. Oh, and let's not forget the great Thelma Ritter as the nagging conscience and voice of caution, another of her performances that makes her for me the #1 character actress of all time.

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  15. Dawn, Hitchcock's humor makes the horror easier to take. Rear Window is one of his funniest.

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  16. Page, thank you. Thanks for commenting.

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  17. trueclassics,
    Such kind words. Thank you so much!

    Your blog post about Hitchcock's endangered females was spot on. It's interesting to contrast Margot giving up power to the males with Lisa's more proactive stance in life. Both fear for thier lives, nonetheless, and are likely to be killed in Hitchcock's world.

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  18. LadyEve,
    Hitchcock's kisses are out of this world romantic. When Grant and Saint are just about to kiss on the train in NORTHWEST... some the most romantic, fully-clothed few seconds onscreen ever.

    About three people kissing, I guess it is a menage a trois between the two leads and Hitchcock. Wow.That puts a new twist on it.

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  19. Ivan,
    I wonder why they don't rank Rear Window too highly in the Hitchcock universe. It seems there are Hitchcock fans who lean more towards his horror, some more towards his romance, others towards his more austure earlier films.

    If they don't rate Rear Window highly something must be wrong. :)

    You saw it on the big screen? Nice. I've thought about throwing up a sheet and using a projector to get some semblance of how the movie was supposed to be viewed.

    As always, I appreciate your comments, Ivan.

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  20. ClassicFilmBoy, You cannot go wrong with Thelma Ritter. She's a spark of life even in dull movies.

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  21. Caroline,
    Thank you. I truly appreciate the compliment.

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  22. Rick,
    You've got a great idea there - different casting for a Hitchcock film would be a great blog topic. As I mentioned on another blog, his casting in The Birds left much to be desired. I'd probably care about the love angle if everyone wasn't so... bland?

    If the leads in Rear Window weren't likeable, we'd be cheering the murderer. :)

    About what Hitch wants the audience to feel while watching the kiss - Although some say the director was directing Kelly to kiss Hitch, I think he wants Kelly to kiss the audience for some reason.

    Thanks for giving me something new to think about. I appreciate your many contributions to this blog.

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  23. Clara,
    I love the lush Hitchcock films - the one's with an endless array of costumes, brilliant color and likeable stars. However, I like the earlier minimalist ones too because they feel more real than the big budget ones.

    Thanks for dropping in.

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  24. Laura, Indeed, we're all peeping toms. :) Thanks.

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  25. John,
    As I indicated above to Lady Eve, we should just declare Hitchcock the king of cinema kisses, the heavyweight champion. Then retire the belt.

    Thanks.

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  26. R.D.Finch,

    You're right - Rear WIndow is indeed compelling despite the confined space. I've always felt that ROPE was claustrophobic, however. (Though I get that way when there's a corpse in the room.)

    Thelma Ritter is certainly the voice of reason, and the voice of the audience at times. As she says,"Lisa Freemont is the right woman for any man with half a brain who can get his eyes open." This is what the audience will be thinking after they meet the Grace Kelly character.

    Thanks for dropping in. I found your post on THE WRONG MAN most informative.

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