I’ve never seen ... Rear Window

For a housebound James Stewart, staring out at the neighbours becomes an all-consuming obsession. Luckily he has Grace Kelly to help sort truth from fantasy

Some turned to Contagion, but the film I decided to watch in the first week of the lockdown was Rear Window, which turns out to be as close to having a Secret Cinema-type experience from the confines of one’s home as it is possible to have. I am not sure why this particular Hitchcock, out of all the big Hitchcocks, was the one I had left unwatched, though I suspect it could be due to me confusing the title with “rearview mirror”, which left a low hum of an idea in the back of my mind that it was about cars. I knew that it was about voyeurism, and witnessing a murder, but what I did not know was how perfect a film it would be to watch in a time of lockdown.

It’s as if, in 1954, Hitchcock had a glimpse of what would happen in 2020, and cooked this up especially. It is not simply the fact that it’s about being stuck at home, watching what other people get up to when they, too, are at home. Under usual circumstances, the voyeurism of James Stewart’s Jeff, the photographer out of action with a broken leg, should be intrusive and uncomfortable. As he ogles Miss Torso, he should be taking his nurse Stella’s blunt advice: “You know in the old days, they used to put your eyes out with a red hot poker,” she chastises him, when she catches him spying on the neighbours again. “What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.”

Watch a trailer for Rear Window

But under self-isolation and social distancing and quarantine, those of us who are not essential workers are all a little bit Jeff. We can’t get outside and look in. Even Stella is sucked in to the drama he half-invents, in the end. Jeff is making a spectacle out of whatever is right there in front of him, turning it all into entertainment. Perhaps that is why so many people have taken to baking.

Whether Thorwald actually killed his wife, as Jeff’s glimpses of suspicious activity lead him to think, or whether it’s a cooked-up figment of his bored imagination, is never certain until the film moves towards its chilling conclusion. And what a conclusion. The genius of Rear Window is that every one of the apartments contains a story that could sustain a movie of its own. The story of the woman he nicknames Miss Lonelyhearts is devastating, as she acts her way out of loneliness with an imaginary date, before a real one turns up, and turns nasty. But when all of the detective work that Jeff, Lisa and Stella carry out reveals its answer, the result is genuinely scary: Thorwald’s slow creep towards the door had me gripped, and chilled, and the vision of him stunned in red light is indelible. He is a great, great movie villain.

Look here … it’s Grace Kelly, for goodness’ sake.
Look here … it’s Grace Kelly, for goodness’ sake. Photograph: Moviestore Collection/Rex Features

The film is prophetic, too, about what has happened to our collective attention spans in the digital age. Jeff is constantly distracted by the carousel of action taking place in the apartment block he spies upon. It is not just the grisly Thorwald mystery that means he is unable to concentrate on anything else. He pays little attention to his smart, caring, accomplished girlfriend Lisa, who is Grace Kelly, for goodness’ sake, because he has so much else to look at. She barely manages to interrupt his gazing at the pianist, or Miss Torso with her gentleman friends, or Miss Lonelyhearts, re-enacting her personal tragedy nightly. It is not until she gets on board with cracking the case, until she joins his fantasy world, that she becomes worthy of his time. Rear Window was made seven decades ago, but its contemporary relevance is extraordinary. Next up, Outbreak.


Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

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