Alfred Hitchcock is often accused of being entirely subservient to the whims of the audience; to him, every creative choice is run through the prism of his imagined spectators and weighted based on how much it will satisfy them. There are, as you can imagine, great benefits and great drawbacks to such an approach, but at the very least you can never accuse Hitchcock of not doing his damnedest to entertain you. But Hitchcock’s mastery of control over the movie-going audience at times extends beyond pure entertainment and becomes something altogether more powerful, exhibiting a deep understanding of not how a particular story will affect an audience, but on the entire perverse and powerful nature of movie watching in general. Rear Window (1954) is just such a picture, a perfect example of Hitchcock as a master of suspense and a scribe of cinematic history. Cinema is often said to be a mirror, but in this case, it’s a window.
The film opens much as a theater screening of old might: with the curtains rising from our screen. This particular screen, for invalid photographer L.B. Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart), is his titular rear window, looking out upon the courtyard of his apartment complex-cum-prison and, crucially, into the windows of his neighbors. Within each of these windows is an ongoing narrative thread that Jefferies, and us as viewers, spy upon and eagerly anticipate developments on. These prefigure the rise of television programming—weekly installments covering different genres, all from the comfort of your own home—as much as they convey the art of visual storytelling. Each thread is a captivating little vignette into the personal space of lives we shouldn’t be watching and are developed almost entirely without sound—an expression of Hitchcock’s deep love and understanding of the unique language of cinema.
Just as each of these neighborly vignettes occupies their own windowed framing, they have their own genres as well. The ballerina across the way has sex appeal, the couple who sleep on their fire escape up high are a real laugh, the lonely woman on the ground floor is a tragedy, and the struggling piano player to the right is a real underdog story. A newlywed couple to the left draws their shade when they know they’re being watched, a crucial reminder to us that cinema is an inherently voyeuristic activity, something Jefferies’ supporting characters are quick to rebuke him about. However, the apartment smack in the middle is the most compelling story of them all, one even Jefferies’ erstwhile critics can’t resist (nor can anyone for that matter, as its always been the most powerful draw the movies have to offer since the beginning): the story of mystery, suspense, and drama. The story of murder. Mr. and Mrs. Thorwald across the way begin as a sordid tale of an unhappy marriage, but some midnight excursions by the mister and the sudden disappearance of the missus transforms domestic drama into a thriller. This piecemeal tale of intrigue and horror is picked apart across the way, quickly ensnaring a rapt audience of Jefferies’ nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and his girlfriend, Lisa (the always luminous Grace Kelly), making for crucial water-cooler discussions in the palpable heat of the summertime atmosphere.
But watching stories unfold has consequences, because as much as we want to think it is at times, watching movies is never a fully passive experience. Sometimes we take things home with us. If we didn’t, dictators and censors would never have bothered with slicing up or silencing mere “entertainment.” And when Raymond Burr’s lumbering and malevolent Mr. Thorwald looks straight into our eyes—which are also Jefferies’ eyes through Hitchcock’s canny use of subjective camera—it’s about as unnerving a cinematic experience as you can get.
Mr. Thorwald eventually enters the darkened interior of Jefferies’ home theater, and it’s a perfect representation of the confrontations of our deepest fears that occur in the cinema. Everyone is afraid of murder, but this confrontation is personal to Jefferies’ story on a deeper level—as are all the apartment stories. Jefferies is afraid of commitment and the struggles and compromises that come with it, and all his neighbors are windows into that fear, but Mr. Thorwald most of all. After all, a marriage so bad it ends in murder is the logical extreme, is it not? But by confronting his fears and coming out the other side (mostly) unscathed, Jefferies and his fellow tenants all get their happy endings, the cathartic experience of the externalized trauma of cinema having run its course. I wonder if Jefferies would be quite so happy in the end if he knew he was being watched as well? I imagine he’d at least be jealous of the close-ups.