Rear Window Aesthetics

Windows are usually a metaphor for freedom, but in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) they expose privacy, they symbolize confinement, and they allude to suspenseful plot devices. Hitchcock’s aesthetic configuration of the film manipulates the audience into questioning several aspects of the film—Did Mr. Thorwald (Raymond Burr) actually kill his wife? What is buried under the garden? Will they ever discover any evidence? The biggest plot device used to produce suspense is Hitchcock’s use of point-of-view, an element that is key to suspense. With the combination of suspenseful lighting, edgy cinematography, and unique set design, Rear Window, along with all of Hitchcock’s films, proves why Hitchcock is still both remembered as one of the greatest directors of all time and influential on filmmaking today.

Not only does lighting convey the tone of the film, but it also provides a psychoanalytic aspect of the film. This psychoanalytic light is used “…to escort us across the boundary between knowledge and suspicion” (Pomerance). Various light sources—lamps, windows, and the sun—are significant for tonal, temporal, and psychoanalytical purposes. Through lighting we are told when to be fearful, when to be anxious, and when to be scared. The main drive for these lighting elements is the notion of voyeurism conveyed in the film (Pomerance). Jeff (James Stewart) is always watching others from his wheelchair. His point-of-view, often shown through binoculars or a camera in a circular frame, establishes Jeff’s view of the neighborhood and we automatically find ourselves sided with his intuition. What he sees, however, can be very misleading. Looking through the windows of his neighbors requires a necessary amount of light to be certain of what actions occur. When the rooms are dark, or the curtains are drawn, either we can barely make out what is happening or we have no idea. If we have no idea, then Jeff’s intuition and our own intuition kick in. Through the film’s contextual elements, especially lighting, we are lead to believe that Mr. Thorwald murdered his wife. While are hypothesis seems convincing, there is still a shred of doubt due to the absence of sufficient lighting and visibility. This “subjective suspense” (Morris) suppresses the most important detail and leaves us with only one perspective. With intentionally limited lighting, perspective adds to both suspense and Hitchcock’s ingenuity.

Cinematography is another important aspect of perspective that Hitchcock utilizes masterfully. One instance is the burial theme of the flower garden. Every time we look at the garden—the dog digging, Mr. Thorwald watering, Lisa and Stella digging—we are getting closer and closer to uncovering the mystery. We watch in suspense as we hope that they uncover something worthwhile before Mr. Thorwald returns. What is most significant here is not necessarily the uncovering, however, but the burial theme. Burial is darker than the buried thing, denial is darker than the denied thing (Pomerance). Burial is related to death, as if at a funeral. This relation matches with the possibility of Mrs. Thorwald being the buried object. The camera moves closer and closer to the unearthed flowerbed, and when we get close enough to look inside, we see there is nothing there. At first it seems to be a let down to the suspense, but it quickly reverts itself as a plot-driver and Lisa feels inclined to continue her investigation into Mr. Thorwald’s apartment. Jeff’s struggle against impotence (Boyd and Palmer), that is, his inability to leave his wheelchair, adds to the suspense as the camera sits inside of his apartment and we are helplessly forced to watch Lisa dangerously venture into the apartment—we too become impotent. Another camera technique that adds to this sense of constraint is the panning shots across the neighborhood, which feels like Jeff’s point-of-view but turn out to be our own. We then find ourselves back in Jeff’s apartment in the middle of something. We are just like Jeff, trapped.

Within the first five minutes of the film, a contemporary eye can notice how the neighborhood is built upon a set, whether done intentionally or efficiently. This, however, does not distract us from the events that ensue. Hitchcock carefully sets up the neighborhood to allow room for suspenseful camera movement and a mostly believable diegesis. The use of the window is variously understood as his eye, his opening on the world, his perspective, his camera (Morris). This is his only connection to reality, and although a window is usually understood as a symbol of escape, he is ironically trapped behind it, looking into other windows and into other peoples’ private lives. The backyard square of windows provides several moments of panning shots to engage the spectator into peering into the lives of these side characters. The set’s intentional arrangement in a bustling urban environment allows for multiple uses of foley and sound effects to reinforce the reliability of the diegesis. Hitchcock brilliantly uses a sliver of an alleyway to convey the neighborhood’s location, the only “window” to the outside world that Jeff is unable to reach. The set up of Jeff’s apartment above the ground level allows for a more intensified climax, in which Jeff becomes a “hanging figure” (Morris), clinging on to his life before plunging down and breaking his one good leg. Hitchcock had an infinite amount of ways to arrange his backyard neighborhood, and the way he chose was successfully original and engaging, allowing for the reliability of the story and the diegesis.

Aspects of this film survive today—not as Rear Window, but as key elements in other films. D.J. Caruso’s Disturbia (2007) is almost identical to Rear Window—a teen living under house arrest becomes convinced that his neighbor is a serial killer. Like in Rear Window, we only see through Kale’s (Shia LaBeouf) perspective. Windows become a prominent figure for entrapment and unveiled privacy, while concealing any solid evidence. Robert Ben Garant’s Reno 911: Miami (2007) has a similar sequence in which the main characters are each in a separate motel room. The camera pans across the windows of their rooms in a long shot, uncovering their privacy in a humorous way. Hitchcock’s originality and mastery of lighting, cinematography, and set design in Rear Window were not only successful during the golden age of Hollywood, but will continue to be creatively adapted and consistently influential throughout the future of the cinema.

Post by: Doug Yablun


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