Rear Window and the Edited Element of Suspense
Rear Window (1954) is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous of films with its leading duo being James Stewart and Grace Kelly. The film is a paramount exhibit in Hitchcock’s skill as a suspense writer and director. The film surrounds L.B. Jefferies “Jeff” and Lisa Carol Fremont. Jeff is a photographer on sick leave. After injuring himself on assignment, he has been confined to his loft style apartment for the past six weeks with one week to go. His only visitors are his girlfriend Lisa and his caretaker Stella (Thelma Ritter). The three of them spend the last week of his injury spying out Jeff’s “rear window” of his apartment watching the lives of his neighbors play out. This pastime proves very treacherous when Jeff believes that one of his neighbors, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) has murdered his wife.
Hitchcock is known for his iconic use or creation of suspense and blocking style to create an editing process like no other. Hitchcock is known as the master of suspense and has coined his own variation on the filmic tactic. His use of longer shots that linger and glaze over visuals that characters may not be facing or paying attention too but are ever-present and made aware to the audience, giving them a deeper understanding and knowledge to the surrounding and plot of the scene. In the first scene of Rear Window Hitchcock brings the camera around full circle, in a three hundred and sixty degree pan across the view of Jeff’s back yard and surrounding neighbor’s houses. This shot establishes the setting and sets up the action for the film. The pan is split into two parts, the first takes in the right half of the back courtyard and comes back into Jeff’s home tilting down onto him and his broken leg and then onto his desk where his broken camera sits and above it is a picture of a racecar flying toward the camera (most likely the shot that broke his camera and leg). The shot then cuts and continues on with the neighbors introducing each individual in what role they will play. While this pan seems simple enough and rather mundane, it is the underlying basis of the film. This opening, establishing shot is one, continuous shot, and is held together for a reason. Everything is connected. Everything and everyone in this shot holds levels of importance to the theme that up until now have remained unknown. This is our introduction, our welcoming into the lives of these people and the first thought we are presented with is that we are all connected to one another.
The storyline surrounds Jeff and Lisa as they investigate the unexpected absence of Mrs. Thorwald. The blocking in the film is set up in such a way that all the action may be seen through Jeff’s rear window. While this may seem like an odd decision that the audience may grow tired of seeing the same shot and angle represented repeatedly throughout the film, Hitchcock holds true to his title of “Master of Suspense”. Several times in the film the shot consists solely of the Thorwald residence. The Thorwald residence is split into sections with the far left being the hallway leading up to the door. This design is used in the making and building of suspense. The audience can see what is happening outside the door when the characters inside cannot, giving the audience just enough information to feel the anxiety of the situation. The instance that holds the most suspense would be when Lisa breaks into Thorwald’s apartment. While Lisa and Stella are digging through Thorwald’s garden trying to find evidence of his wife, Lisa decides to infiltrate his home. As she is pillaging through all of his belongings the shot widens to show Mr. Thorwald approaching the door of his apartment. This tension builds as he enters and realizes someone has been in his home. Jeff meanwhile calls the police to come to an assault at the Thorwald’s address. Thorwald discovers Lisa and realizes he has been found out and then grabs her before she can leave. As we see her in distress Thorwald throws the light switch and the apartment goes dark. Just then the audience is made aware of the policemen coming down the hallway and up to the apartment door. The lights come back up and Lisa is saved just before Thorwald has a chance to kill her. The angles and perimeter of each shot in this sequence is what makes it what it is. Building upon each successive shot to create a sequence of heightened excitement and awe.
Hitchcock showcases his expertise in experimental film in Rear Window. As he does with most of his films there are long takes as well as blocking that is so well thought out and planned that Hitchcock has been known to say that after he has finished one of his storyboards, the film was for the most part over. Rear Window took what could have been a stale and stagnant idea, having the film shot from only one location and for the most part one angle, and made it shocking, tense, and something worthy of the name Hitchcock. His use of long takes on shots brought about heightened stakes and more identification with the characters making it inherently Hitchcockian cinema.