Rear Window (English 1954) — Master of MacGuffins at work

This is an appreciative analysis post. It does not evaluate the good and bad of the movie. So it will be filled with spoilers. Please proceed to read this only If you have watched the movie. You have been warned!

A psychological experiment; invoking the deluded repercussions of prolonged isolation in a particular place, indulging constantly without any other means with the same set of engagements.

A protocol for suspense; an unorthodox yet rudimentary and robust structuring of the story in such a way as to be considered seminal. Everything, from cinematography to music, serving to heighten the anxiety, with subterfuge and purposeful privy to information for the viewer.

Blocking and Framing ingenuity oozes; how at the same time two distinct stories, characters, and plot points coalesce to form a cohesive experience. The construction of the apartments aided this.

All of this has been the major takeaways of this movie, and I will address them sporadically later. But there is something else about this movie I want to talk about. It is the most fascinating aspect of the movie.

Construction and evolution of a character. There is a potential movie inside all of those houses occupying screen time. This is nothing new. In every great movie, there is a short sequence or a cameo that warrants a spin-off. But those scenes or characters are not confined to a particular space and environment, with minimal to no dialogues and only a zoom (both in and out) lens capturing not more than three to four sequences. So the opportunity Hitchcock has to lay out a feasible description, conflict, and closure for those characters is infernally small. If you don’t innovate, you irritate.

And that is what he does. He innovates and uses all modes of filmmaking; preceding and succeeding scenes, music, stepping out of the usual POV of the movie to pile information after information as subtext after subtext. With these few subtle tools, you are given tangible data on characters who neither come into the primary conflict of the story (almost!) nor have any perspective apart from being those distant figures inside those zoomed lenses.

We do see these entire series of events unfold from the psychology of Jeffries (James Stewart), who later lures his girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) and his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter). And their inferences of the events is the official premise of the movie. But, de facto, it is a manual for character building.

Yes, this is a paranoia induced tale (until it is not) of suspense. And also, a considerable portion of the movie is allocated for the perusal of a paranoid and dangling between a dilemma stricken and adamant romance. But let us take away everything except this. Let the romantics, the Salesman and his wife, the police and the assigned nurse and their entailing scenes stay while scrapping everything else. When the obvious silliness it would present is ignored, we will recalibrate the movie to a story adhering to the aforementioned stipulations. With the exception of the wordplays and puns, nothing is challenging in that. Moreover, it strips away elements I considered as major takeaways of this movie initially. But that does not make whatever left a mediocre waste. That would go against the point I am driving at. The fundamental part of this movie is what we will be left with when we recalibrate. That core is hard and unshakeable. It would still make a good movie. It has the necessary triggers to keep one hooked. But what makes it a great movie? No, let us go beyond that. What makes a movie classic? No, let us go further than that. What makes it seminal? Yes, these nuances; These add-ons; these extra miles the director goes to use the medium to its fullest potential is what makes a movie for posterity.

Whatever technical innovations used in this movie would have been unnecessary without those characters. It is fascinating how something that has not come under the conventional aspects of movie-making could still be that deciding factor between its output. And this crude representation should not be misconstrued. Because the mere inclusion of those characters near the windows would not have served anything. This another lesson for a filmmaking aspirant. It is not whether all those special ingredients are in your screenplay. It is how you merge patterns into a maze of randomness which keeps endowing pleasure after pleasure when sought.

Let us take a couple of examples and see how Hitchcock turned throwaway scenes into an essential one, serving as a quintessential scene for MacGuffins. A piece of crucial information before going into those examples. You must always keep in mind the era in which this movie was released and analyze these details to that era. If you try to place it on a scale against works of later periods, it would look trite. (still, some features of this movie cannot be replicated, and that is an indecipherable mystery about the mastery of Hitchcock)

It is the first scene that presents us with the Piano player in the studio apartment. The camera pans from a temperature scale (which in itself has a neat little pattern) to the studio apartment. You can see the Piano player shaving in front of the mirror and the radio is playing. He hears it and comes towards it and switches the frequency. If you read this without watching the movie, this scene may seem significant to you. When you watch it, with the flow of the movie, it would be a scene depicting a guy in his morning routine. But in retrospect, the content on the radio, then trivial, is now less so. It broadcasts (before he changes the channel) “Men, are you over 40? When you wake up in the morning do you feel tired and rundown? Do you have that listless feeling?” How elegantly he has given the current state (which is also the initial state) of the character.

Let us bring out one more example to embellish the point. Take the scene which introduces us to the tenants who are at the dead center of the main conflict; The Salesman and his wife. Their marriage is in turmoil. The wife is afflicted and bedridden. She has become insufferable and sucks the life out of her husband every day, starting from the moment he enters his home. So Hitchcock gives us a short sequence of him entering the house and going into his wife’s room (here the set design aids in linking two characters with different motives as the wife is seen waiting to pounce on to the worn-out husband but not in a lurid manner) where bickering ensues. What more can you add on to this scene at the same time remain subtle? In the next scene, we can see Jeffires experiencing an irritating itch inside his cast around the leg. He uses a stick and inserts it inside to relieve himself of the discomfort. This, as a standalone, is taken literally. As a metaphor, it is linked to the previous scene. This is so poetic!

Now let us visit the grand squalor. Hitchcock had certainly designed the set more to facilitate the storytelling than to show off. But that does not negate its beauty. There is no scenic background or a vast and wide panoramic view of meticulously constructed fantasy forest or scientific marvel. All you see are buildings with windows and shades, a narrow view of the road behind, a limited visibility of a cafe and sky beyond. It should have been a claustrophobic experience because the buildings occupy the majority of the area and whatever listed apart from those pales in comparison. It is almost congested. Here, again, the characters redefine the experience. Despite being stuck with Jeffries in the same apartment for close to 2 hours, there is not a single moment that traps us in monotony. Yes, claustrophobia strikes, but that was intentional; not a by-product of a mistake. You are held in a cramped space, but not once you feel it. The characters inside those boxes with windows make a wonderful puppet show controlled carefully by the puppeteer. There is always something going on. During the beginning of each act or perhaps the end of a series of sequences that has propelled the story a little further, Hitchcock moves the camera to cover the entire set from Jeffries’s POV. He wants us to simultaneously absorb multiple happenings in multiple houses at the same time. But he also relishes the set. He achieves to propel the story and show off in the same scene.

There is another plot point in the movie that cannot be ignored due to the time it covers during the initial stages of the movie; the romance. There are two adamant characters, one truly in love and another truly in lust. One wants to move forward in the relationship and does everything possible to reach that goal while the other is having a judgemental prejudice against the loving one and thus does not want to move forward. The obvious conclusion is one gives up, or the other loses his/her prejudice. The writing is so good that there is time for smooches and kisses to indicate intimacy. But the real closeness, the magic brings them together in mind and the body is attained by a shared curiosity for strange occurrences. Every scene that is part of the probable crime in the movie makes one more attractive to the other. His/her prejudices slowly wither and die and new love is born as a result. And this birth itself is presented by Hitchcock in a single incongruent cut to a closeup shot in the face of Jeffries amidst the chaotic suspense.

This is an example of how suspense and thrill are precious weapons. If they are wielded by the right hands, you can encompass any genre/s within them. But merely mystery would not make up if the scenes of blatant romance or the conversations that make up romance are basic. Here is where a tiny yet interesting facet of this movie comes into play; the dialogues.

There’s always a tinge of excitement in banter. But you have to be careful with romantic banters. It possesses the risk of going awry and become a subject of mortification in an instant and may very well end up being a real upsetting factor of an otherwise excellent movie. But that is not the case here. The insinuations and puns to explicit mocks; all contribute to establish a relationship at odds in its objective. Despite this being one-sided while the other side is mostly reactionary, it does lay a base to build upon later and conclude with grace.

This is not restricted to the couple alone. There is Detective Lieutenant Thomas J. Doyle (Wendell Corey) and his cool comebacks war with his friend Jeffries. Then there is the outspoken and heavily opinionated Nurse Stella with her oblivious yet technically honest commentary inadvertently affects those around her (goes as far as to make them squeamish). You could say these characters (and actors of course) who have the luxury of having their dialogues heard makeup for those voiceless pantomimes.

Let me complete this by delving into the manipulative section of the movie. The modus operandi of Hitchcock; play with the viewer’s mind and con them at every opportunity while also making sure every small detail adds up to something. That is where we first look at the audio aspect of this mastery. The background music of this movie is largely part of the plot itself; the piano player and the audio from the radios in the apartments. The score the Piano Player plays accompanies most of the situations we encounter in the film. And that music is a character too. This is because it has its exclusive effects on characters and a wholesome connection in the end as closure. Again, a random throwaway scene, if closely observed, relates to this new piece the composer has composed. But that is not what we are dissecting here. The brilliance arrives in the final few moments of the movie. There is palpable tension in the air. Lisa Fremont is in the belly of the beast about to get digested. Simultaneously, another tenant, Miss. Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn) is on the verge of digesting a beastly idea. Now here is the amazement. While all of this is taking place, you have the tune playing in the studio apartment, which also acts as the background score for the scene itself. It perfectly captures the tremors of the scene and elevates the anxiety. But it does more than that here. While assisting the viewer to move towards the edge of their seat, it brings back Miss. Lonelyhearts, who is at the edge of her life. A piece of music channels the fear of one woman stuck in a life-threatening menace while rescuing another from life-threatening crisis.

Pan and cut. Choosing when to use which of these two will be the ultimate variable in film making. This is especially of utmost importance in the case of thriller and suspense. First, let us understand how a pan can be used to delay the revelation, thus sustaining a sense of panic for a moment longer. There is this scene where Hitchcock shows Jeffries sleeping. Then he slowly pans and provides us the scene where The Salesman is leaving with a woman during the middle of the night. Now he could have immediately cut back to the sleeping Jeffries. But he does not do that. He wants this scene to be etched in our memory as it will have its call later. So he does the pan at the same pace as earlier, back to Jeffries’s face. Exemplification of the right usage of the pan.

Now the cut. This example also results in the sustenance of panic. But this panic transforms into dread. After the police intervene in Lisa’s situation, a sense of partial relief sets into the atmosphere inside Jeffries’ house. He gives bail money to Nurse Stella to pay and get his girlfriend released. After this, he calls his friend, the inspector. This sequence goes on for about 90 seconds. In between this, during the first 20 seconds, there is a cut to a scene where the Salesman sees and marks Jeffries’ house from a distance and an immediate cut back to an unaware subject inside the house scraping for money to bail someone. What this trigger is a shiver down the spine for the rest of this sequence. An unexpected fright of the inevitable; The Salesman barging into the house of Jeffries. He does not barge in nor makes a sudden jump scare. But those few seconds we were unaware of this information was incredibly terrifying. And that is how a single cut inspires fear.

Incidentally, these two scenes are the only ones that Jeffries has not noticed but we, the audience, do. And that is how the master, Alfred Hitchcock, fiddles with your mind.

Originally published at on April 16, 2020.




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Raja Raman

Raja Raman

My mobility is through my words.

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