The Getty’s window display brightens tonight with a free screening of a 35mm print of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). The film screens as part of the series Rear Windows and Revolving Doors: Three by Hitchcock, a complement to the exhibition At the Window: The Photographer’s View.
Rear Window is deservedly one of Hitchcock’s best-known films, for its masterful storytelling, memorable set design and cinematography, and remaining a tense pleasure to watch even after you know how it ends. Also, as the trailer boasts, it really is impossible to take your eyes off Grace Kelly in Technicolor. The film stars Jimmy Stewart as risk-taking photojournalist L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies, temporarily confined to a wheelchair in his apartment with nothing but a summer view of neighboring buildings. Not wanting to embrace or commit to the caring presence of his socialite girlfriend Lisa (Kelly), he instead focuses his attention on his neighbors’ open windows, using his camera lens to get a closer look. Soon enough—of course—the fragments of life he sees from one apartment in particular add up to nothing short of a murder cover-up. Determined to prove his hunch, Lisa eventually gets in on the action in true Hitchcock suspense, while Jeff can only watch. Whether you initially think Jeff’s instinct is right or not, Hitchcock is determined to satisfy you by the end.
Rear Window is a four layer cake! It greets you as a straightforward murder mystery, but it’s also a tenderly hopeful love story, an exercise in acknowledging our collective voyeurism, and a lingering more thoughtful approach the next time you look through somebody else’s window. What immediately stands out, however, is how completely we, the audience, see things from Jeff’s point of view. In Rear Window, Jeff’s window and lens are simply extensions of Hitchcock’s camera. We are Jeff, unable to move or look away, forced to fill in the blanks. Each neighbors’ window is a a movie screen, unfolding pleasures for the voyeur in all of us. But it’s not all pleasure when the loneliness and frustrations of the various characters shine through. We soon realize that this one-sided interplay in watching the lives of others has no choice but to morph into an inverted reflection of the viewer’s own fears and desires. Jeff doesn’t want the fate of his neighbors. Their lives underline whatever preconceptions we have of modern life. For better or worse, we see a version of ourselves on the other side.
Or, maybe, we can skip all that and just play all of Grace Kelly’s scenes on a loop. She’s the heart of the film. Never giving up on a man too scared to accept love, and too reluctant to see that his windows of opportunity are closing. Lisa goes as far as throwing herself in front of Jeff’s camera and into a stranger’s apartment to let him know he’s missing out on her—and let all of us know we need not be a photojournalist on assignment to be daring.
I’m not always in the mood for a Hitchcock film, but when I am the shortlist includes Rear Window—though, I prefer Notorious (1946). Regardless of which of his films you’re drawn to, you’ll admit Hitchcock couldn’t help but make great cinema. Almost sixty years after Rear Window was released, it’s still a teaching tool in technical filmmaking, storytelling, and even feminist film theory, among others. For those of us film-obsessed there is always a reward at the end of the Hitchcock rabbit hole. In fact, if you’re still curious about what made Hitchcock the master manipulator of cinematic anticipation and have twelve hours to spare, you can listen to François Truffaut interview the man.
The Rear Window “formula” has been a strong influence on many surveillance-themed films since (Blow-Up, The Conversation) as well as a good source for parody (The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live) and shoddy remakes (Disturbia). I may have missed it, but I’m still waiting for a clever, 21st-century response to Hitchcock’s Rear Window. I’m sure the next one involves a plot along these lines: Retired NSA agent with time on his hands stumbles on the suspect social media accounts of a nonexistent person half a world away. [Side Note: The one film this year that would probably make Hitchcock proud is Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects.]
“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.” —Stella (Thelma Ritter), in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954)
Today, fewer of us are willing to keep our apartment windows as wide open as the tenants in Rear Window. We have air conditioning and know even less about our neighbors. On the other hand, the windows into the most personal aspects of our lives—as those who came of age before the internet love to remind you—are more open and widespread than ever, and come with your choice of vintage filters. We still have the choice of opting in or not—but human nature wants some kind of window, especially if it fits in our pocket. A recent article on Instagram voyeurism in the New York Times Style Magazine, for example, even refers to a store’s account as the “many-windowed splendor showing all we possess or wish for, under squares of filtered glass, each photographic pane an entire landscape or room, backlit 24/7.” Quick, somebody make an Instagram murder mystery!
Hitchcock’s plot devices can be a jumping-off point for today’s storytelling, but equally long lasting has been his visual style. That iconic style retains its allure in and out of Hollywood, as demonstrated by the Hitchcock-inspired magazine photoshoots we still see every so often. A quick search reveals Vanity Fair’s Rear Window shoot with Scarlett Johansson and Javier Bardem and, most recently, Vogue’s version with Carolyn Murphy and Tobey Maguire. I’m not exactly sure what the point of such direct recreations is, other than unabashed reminders used to sell something most of us can’t afford. Luckily, we can also encounter artists that know how to pull off a wink to the “Old Masters” in original work—as is the case with some of the Hitchcock-tinges in the photographs and short films of Alex Prager. Coincidentally, one of Prager’s photographs is on view in At the Window.
Come look through our windows. Ancient soul peeking symbols and transparent portals of light and dark that divide our world in two—in here and out there. Revealing our longings, regardless of what side of the frame you’re looking through.
“When I look out my window, many sights to see. And when I look in my window, so many different people to be.” —Donovan, “Season of the Witch” (1966)