We all have a hidden temptation to get an insight into other people’s lives. We fulfil it, for example, by simply watching TV series and movies. Rear Window (1954) is an American thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, written by John Michael Hayes and based on Cornell Woolrich's short story "It Had to Be Murder”, the story of human curiosity. Not only is it considered to be one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, but also one of the most relevant goods of cinema in terms of cinematography. What is particularly unusual in Hitchcock’s movies, is that we can observe lots of diverse techniques, by use of which he successfully communicates with the audience via images. I would like to present an instant for that thesis by analysing two sequences in the movie.
In Rear Window the audience gets an insight into a daily life in a cozy neighbourhood. In the movie, James Stewart’s character, L. B. “Jeff” Jefferies is a photo reporter, who became handicapped after the accident at work. Virtually, the whole plot of the movie is set in his apartment, where he has a huge rear window overlooking a courtyard and the neighbourhood. He spends his days looking through the window out of boredom and observing other people’s daily activities. One day, after hearing strange noises, his attention is drowned to one man, Thorwald. Jeff notices that man’s diseased wife suddenly disappeared from the bedroom and so he starts to follow his actions, which get more and more suspicious every day. This mystery changes Jeff’s innocent entertainment to a kind of a spying habit.
First of all I would like to analyse the beginning of Rear Window, where the audience is subconsciously introduced to the plot and the main characters within a few minutes. We get to see the whole remarkable set design presented with the use of a long panning shot at the beginning. Through an objective eye of the viewer we get introduced to the neighbourhood. According to the title, establishing shot presents a nicely, symmetrically framed rear window. The roller-blind goes up, one after another, as if it is a curtain in the theatre opening a play, which we are about to watch behind that window. “Hitchcock presents the architecture as a tool of the scopic drive by emphasising the window, which, as the film’s title suggests, is also the veritable subject of the film. Unmistakably, he presents the window as a metaphor for the film screen.” (Jacobs, 2007, p.282-295). Not only the window of Jeff’s apartment functions as a screen, each window on the other side does as well. The camera goes closer to the window in the middle looking out the courtyard and the block of flats across the street. Then it gently moves from the right to the left side of the screen portraying the whole miss en scene of the neighbourhood by the use of a long, panning shot, which creates a beautifully framed composition. Afterwards the smooth movement of the camera leads us back, through the window, inside main character's apartment. The first time we see James Stewart’s character in the film, he is sleeping and sweating, because of the high temperature outside, proved in the next shot of a thermometer. The second time when the camera goes out, it takes a peek on one of the neighbour's apartment. It cuts to a balcony, where a couple is struggling to have some sleep. Then it goes down again showing a young, attractive woman stretching in her apartment. All these small scenes from people’s daily life helps the audience establish significant details about those people and build up the theme of voyerism. “These bright, translucent, open-plan cells are like a hen-battery for human beings, a teasing limbo which is the human condition. Our lives are lonely but not private, painful but not without much dignity, at least in the eyes of others.” (Durgant, 1974, p.235-244). When the camera movement takes us back to Jeff’s apartment, we not get properly introduced to his character. The man is sitting on a wheelchair with the cast on his leg, signed with his name, L. B. Jefferies. Now that we know who he is, we can take an insight on the interior of his place. It seems that he is a photo reporter, as we go over to see his broken camera on the shelf and a couple of photographs from some car accident above. Thereafter we see a portrait of a young, beautiful woman in negative and next to it the same picture printed on the cover of a fashion magazine, which is when we get introduces Grace Kelly’s character, Lisa. Screen goes black and we are transferred to another scene.
WIthin the next four minutes we get a closer insight to each neighbour's apartment by various point of view shots. While Jeff is talking over the phone, providing the audience with all relevant informations about himself, he is looking out the window following neighbour’s activities. First he looks at the dancer, who clearly got his attention, as he goes back to the window of her apartment a couple of times. Then he takes a peek at some lady downstairs and some musician in the apartment next to his. Afterwards he looks at the window in front of him, where Thorwald lives., which obviously is the most important “screen”. Although everything looks normal, suddenly the couple starts to fight, what concerns Jeff for a second. At this point the audience is introduced to all of the neighbours and what is most interesting, is definitely the story of the married couple as their every-day reality seems to be disturbed. Later on Jeff looks down on the backyard, where his neighbours are relaxing on a sunny day. Again, non of them seem to be interesting enough, apart from Thorwald. Working in a garden he is very unpleasant to other people bothering him. Jeff’s facial expression makes us realise that there is something suspicious in that man’s behaviour. Not only does he want to keep a closer eye on him, but the audience as well. Jefferies’ curiosity is interrupted by a visit of his housekeeper, Stella. She criticises him for peeking on other people’s lives and a lack of respect for their privacy. We can see he is a bit ashamed of himself, while peeking on some happy, young newly married couple. The sequence ends when the curtain in their apartment goes down.
Seldom do we observe such a strong influence of the Kuleshov Effect on director’s work. Hitchcock, as a master of visual storytelling, makes a use of the theory in a very thoughtful way. He shows us the character, then he cuts to the action and cuts back to the character again. Throughout his facial expression we can decide on wether he’s a good or a bad person. He builds tension and develops a story by the use of such point of view shots. In the interview with Francois Truffaut (1962) he came near a very significant thesis, that “People don’t always express their inner thoughts to one another; a conversation may be quite trivial, but often the eyes will reveal what a person thinks or needs.” Which is why, the director does not focus on creating a story through a dialogue, but simply via images. “I’m what they call a purist in terms of cinema, as much as I can. Now I’m inclined to go for the subjective, in other words, the point of view of an individual. So that visually you do a close up of him, then you show what he’s looking at, then you cut back to the close up and you see his reaction.” said Hitchcock revealing one of the main techniques of the use of cinematography in his movies. He puts his biggest effort to develop a story with every single frame. In the sequence above, the use of several panning shots provides us with almost every information, that is significant for its storyline. Hitchcock manipulates the images in a genius way giving the viewers the idea of what the film is about.
Another relevant sequence in Rear Window, I would like to put into analysis is the second to last one with the climax of the story. It begins with Jeff, Lisa and Stella looking over the window in a complete dark and trying to find an evidence for Thorwald’s crime. Interesting point of view shots, through binoculars and a viewer, on the backyard make the audience more curious of the answer to that mystery. The whole investigation is shawn from Jeff’s perspective as well. We do not get to see what exactly happens in suspect’s apartment. We only see, what main character can see. Through the lens of Jefferies’ camera we observe man’s reaction to the threatening note he sent him. Again, simply by following the facial expression we can decide on his innocence. The whole action of this scene is shawn in small windows of the building presented in a wide shot. Quick shots of Ms Lonelyheart, preparing herself to commit suicide, put between the main shots, send a strong message to the audience. Curiosity and the need to discover other people’s secrets make us blind for what is really important. We can prevent terrible things from happening, like this woman’s life, that is about to end as she suffers from loneliness. No one can see her pain, even the man who was watching her for a couple of week, as we are more curious about things we imagine and want to see. In the climax the protagonist of the story meets face to face with the villain. Hitchcock had an interesting theory on a fight scenes as well. “If you’re going to show two men fighting with each other, you’re not going to get very much by simply photographing that fight. More often than not, the photographic reality is not realistic.” he said. “The only way to do it is to get into the fight and make the public feel it.” In that scene we can understand how he follows this rule. The scene of fight consists of many point of view shots, that show both men and at the same time make the audience feel in the middle of action. For a second, we can put ourselves in a perspective of one man attacking another and the other way around. The use of dark and an interesting flash of the lamp appearing on the screen make the scene more mysterious and scary. We cannot see much, but only Thorwald’s eyes in the dark and Jeff’s posture in the shadow. During the fight Hitchcock uses a lot of close ups of Jeff’s facial expression of pain and fear.
Alfred Hitchcock is considered to be one of the greatest directors of all times, who will surely not be forgotten. Not only was he the most successful artist of the golden age of Hollywood, but he remains influential and inspires many great filmmakers nowadays, as well. “When we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise…” he claimed. By the use of the suspenseful lighting, unusual set design and scenic images, cinematography in his movies is incredibly eye-catching. Hitchcock had the ability of putting so many relevant informations in the frame, that dialogues were not at all important for the story. As far as I am concerned Rear Window might as well be a silent movie and would still be a masterpiece of the cinema.
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