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Rear Window

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

USA, 1954

Cornerhouse, 25 November 2012

Rear Window

Truffaut famously remarked of Hitchcock that if you stripped his films of all dialogue, they would still make perfect sense.

Perhaps Rear Window is the film that illustrates this best of all, what with each apartment presenting James Stewart’s photographer (and we too, of course) with a short silent film of its own, a series of windows into other people’s lives.  He sees a young woman whom he names Miss Torso, a good-time girl surrounded by wolves; a newly married couple, passionate to a fault; a heart-broken pianist working on a new song; an older woman, ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’, who is desperately looking for love; and a salesman who may (or may not) have murdered his wife.  These people become real for us, even though most rarely or never speak.

Stewart plays detective in trying to prove that a murder has taken place, reprises a scene from Vertigo by dangling from a window (and there is an allusion to another Hitchcock film in the fate of the little dog, killed because it ‘knew too much’) and learns that Grace Kelly, his devoted girlfriend (improbable though that seems), has an adventurous streak to match his own.

In truth the film is clever rather than compelling, smart instead of suspenseful, except towards the very end when the action heats up significantly.  Throughout, Hitchcock displays a wicked wit, especially in the way he relates Stewart’s situation to what is happening in the apartments he surveys.  At one point Stewart (in detective mode) asks aloud something like, ‘How would you carve up a human body?’  This just after we’ve seen a shot of Miss Torso reclining on a bed, reading a magazine.

You could well call Rear Window a film about film, Stewart getting saddled early on with the accusation of being a Peeping Tom.  To look or not to look, that’s his quandary.

One incident grates.  When Stewart rings Doyle, his detective friend, and gets the babysitter it is clear from her voice that she’s black.  Yet there’s nary a black face in sight here, which is curious for New York in 1954.  Hitchcock was not a grand artist, and unlike Protagoras he never wrote a treatise on wrestling.

Still, this film is a virtuoso instance of Hitchcock’s consummate skill.  And Thelma Ritter is wonderful.

Rear Window is showing again on Wednesday as part of the Matinee Classics season, further details being here.