22 July 2010

On Tuesday 10 August FACT will be screening your choice of the greatest English-language film of all time. You can cast your vote here where we have also provided a few suggestions. Next up in our blog series comes Alfred Hitchcock’s masterwork 'Rear Window'...
Few films can lay claim to having as many stories running comfortably together at once as Rear Window (dir. Alfred Hitchcock). It’s delightfully simple premise (a wheelchair-bound photographer snoops on his neighbours, persuading himself that he has witnessed a murder) allows star James Stewart, and director Alfred Hitchcock to present a world of mini-threads, as the apartment complex that Stewart’s L.B. Jeffries resides in plays host to all human life.

In a career so full of masterpieces and genre-defining work (see Psycho, North By Northwest, Vertigo, the Birds) it is never easy to select one picture to represent one of cinema’s most hard-working, and most consistently brilliant filmmakers. Indeed, Hitchcock’s pictures often seem to live in their own genres, pushing the boundaries of narrative construction, and consequently re-shaping the audiences expectations.

With Psycho, a long and complex prelude establishes that our heroine is on the run with $40,000 and a dark secret. Seemingly out of nowhere, a detour to a family-fun motel off the beaten track leads our heroine to meeting the very friendly, very normal, if a little short-fused Norman Bates. A similar preamble occurs in The Birds, only for all sense of reason to be thrown out of the window as nature randomly avenges itself on a tiny lakeside hamlet. Hitchcock is never more at home than when he is ambushing his audiences, and writing the rule as he goes.

Rear Window works as a stage piece, yet is no less striking in it’s originality. All dialogue and filming is observed from the hero’s apartment; we are treated to numerous soap operas unfolding before our eyes as the bored photographer, more comfortable in war zones than with his socialite girlfriend draped over him, searches for drama in the everyday lives of his neighbours. Hitchcock suggests, ever so tactfully, that we as viewers are implicit in this kind of eavesdropping everyday. Jeffries’ and his accomplices’ line in dark humour (Stella: “Let’s go down there and find out what’s buried in that garden.” Lisa: “Why not? I’ve always wanted to meet Mrs. Thorwald”) highlights just how desensitized audiences can become, even at such a short distance.

The discovery of Lisa in the supposed murderer’s apartment is watched intensely by Jeffries, offering him the closest thing to his war photography that he will find in the ‘normal’ world. When it comes to observing something he actually cares about he is made ineffectual by his own insistence that he can control events from his towering observation point.

Jeffries’ weakness, and our own as his willing accomplices, is never more obvious than when the murderer breaks the ‘fourth wall’, and enters Jeffries’ apartment. As the film closes Hitchcock has not allowed his hero to heal, he has further injured him. His desensitization, despite his fortunate ‘solving’ of the case, has only left him weaker, and less independent. Mundane life continues before his eyes; his punishment, for a month or so, will be to remain on the outside, looking in.