“Rear Window” Talks Without Talking

RearWindow1

Tired of endless exposition and character that simply tell you what they’re going to do instead of just shutting up and doing it? A great film communicates ideas by using cinematic elements rather than simply have a character describe what that person is or isn’t. Fully formed characters, well, characterize their attributes; they don’t say they’re sensitive and like long walks on the beach, they actually imbue sensitivity and go on long walks on the beach. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is prime example of this.

Often considered one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, Rear Window explores the very nature of performance, the act of being seen, and its effects on the viewer, the act of seeing. The film’s protagonist Jeff observes his neighbors through a window, which works much like a TV screen, allowing him to surf from channel to channel or window to window as he peers through a telephoto lens into the lives of his neighbors. By watching their lives at a distance, Jeff pieces together what he believes is a plot and even comes up with stories for each of them. He projects lives onto to them for entertainment, creating a story from a distance.

Sound familiar?

Hitchcock asks the viewer to make up a story from a distance as well. Following the credits, Hitchcock swoops into Jeff’s apartment and shows us how we will see the neighbors. The camera circles the apartment’s courtyard and shows us where each window is in relation to Jeff. When the camera finally lands back at Jeff’s apartment, in tight close-up, we see our lead sweat profusely, before Hitchcock cuts to a thermometer pushing a 100 degrees. Within the first two minutes, Hitchcock has placed us in the setting and the feel. The courtyard is laid out and the heat creates tension.

rear-window-panorama

The Courtyard, where the windows are also channels.

Next, Hitchcock turns the camera inward to Jeff’s apartment. Over the next thirty seconds, Hitchcock scan Jeff’s apartment for information. It slows down on his broken leg, encased in a cast, and moves towards his smashed camera, several photographs of racecar crashes, and a framed, inverted photograph of his girlfriend. The viewer says, “Ok. He’s a photographer who broke his leg shooting a race and has a girlfriend, though, isn’t sure how to develop a proper picture.” Hitchcock then confirms this information with a phonecall from Jeff’s editor and uses this as a chance to hound the viewer for not paying attention. Rather than cutting to each thing or, worse, having Jeff explain to someone his character, the camera gives us a full picture of who this guy is. It delivers the information visually and preps the viewer for what kind of person we’re about to spend time with.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1iY9kVq9CxU

Like Jeff in Rear Window, Hitchcock forces us to snoop around Jeff’s apartment to make superficial judgements about who he is and what he does. We see things from distance and infer what they mean. Rear Window frequently pushes its characters out the window in search of a story they cooked up. To Hitchcock we’re just as voyeuristic with Jeff, always looking for a life outside of our own, no matter how far from the truth we may be.

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  1. I couldn’t agree more! One of the things I love most about classic films from the 30’s – 50’s is that they KNEW how to use silence for more than just a few seconds. It seems like cinematographers were given the chance to tell more of the story. Great film. Nice write up!

    • A director like Hitchcock tended to trust his audience more than most directors. Instead of finding a creative way to deliver information, many would rather have some teacher tell the protagonist who they are and what they have to do. Audiences are smarter than they get credit for. Show something worth seeing and they’ll understand.

      Thanks for the words!

  2. This movie is fascinating – appeals to the voyeur in me – but the set is even more so. The folks who designed & built it are brilliant.

    I like what you said in your previous response about Hitchcock trusting his audience. He never talked down to them, which is one of many reasons why his films still feel fresh.

    • Couldn’t agree more. Last year, a time-lapse video of the courtyard made the rounds. It really gives you an even deeper appreciation for what Hitchcock and his immensely talented team created.

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