1. How would you describe the opening camera shot of this film? What is Hitchcock seeking to establish in this single shot that opens the film? Whose vantage point is being expressed in this shot, given that Jeff has his back to the window?
THE CONTINUOUS PAN that opens REAR WINDOW introduces us to the universe of the movie and serves as a microcosm of the world at large. We're briefly given an overview of all types of people seen going about (what they think are) their private lives.
But their lives aren't private. We are already peeping as the shot moves around the courtyard.
"L.B. Jefferies"/"Jeff" (Jimmy Stewart) is not only facing away from the apartments, he's asleep. Hitchcock is telling us in the very first scene that the point of view is ours: we are "peeping" even before Jeff wakes up. But then, "peeping" is something we do every time we watch any movie, or watch fellow passengers on a plane, or see our drunk neighbor watering her front yard flower beds in her sheer nightgown--in the rain! We don't have to look. But we do.
2. What do we learn about Jeff in this scene without any pertinent lines of dialogue (other than what is written on Jeff’s leg cast)? How does Hitchcock gives us Jeff’s backstory simply through visual design?
THE CAMERA, CONTINUING its opening pan, tells us Jeff has a broken leg. In addition to his smashed-up leg, he owns a smashed-up camera, apparently smashed while he was gallivanting around the globe as an action news photographer. Photos on his apartment walls show car crashes, explosions, all action photos. The camera passes by a bevy of more camera equipment, further underlining he's a professional photographer. Still panning, the camera comes to the negative of the photo of a woman, a blonde--of course! Finally, we see that negative realized as a cover photo on a magazine that looks suspiciously like a copy of..."Life."
That negative is perhaps a hint at the negative relationship Jeff has with a high-fashion model--"Lisa" (Grace Kelly) whom, as the clip ends, we are about to meet.
3. Does this opening scene make you feel like a voyeur or, at a minimum, remind you of being a an immobile spectator? What feelings does Hitchcock elicit from you as his camera peers into these other people’s apartments?
YES, I GUESS it does make me feel like a voyeur since I am looking into the lives of people in their abodes, people who think they have privacy. On the other hand, if they truly wanted privacy, why would they have their windows thrown wide open; sleep on the fire escape in full view of their neighbors; or, like "Miss Torso," dance in hot pants and halter top at the wide open kitchen window while making morning coffee? In other words, sometimes we can inadvertently be "peeping Toms" only because other people are exhibitionistic.
I'm wondering whether now, in this age of the Internet where there really is no privacy, if REAR WINDOW doesn't lose some of the punch it had upon its release six decades ago. Don't get me wrong, I love this movie, one of my favorite Hitchcock films.
In the Fifties in which REAR WINDOW takes place, people did lead more private lives than today. But I think much that's been written about voyeurism vis-a-vis REAR WINDOW no longer applies, not in the 21st Century, not when millions of people willingly "let it all hang out" on the Internet. (I mean, do I really need--or care--to know that someone's grandbaby has projectile diarrhea? And do I really want to see a photo of the poor little dehydrated thing?)
Then again, maybe Hitchcock's film was showing 60 years ago that privacy is an illusion, that people are always watching people--peeping--and always have been, with or without social media. Peeping, looking, watching--whatever you want to call it--is human nature.
BONUS QUESTION: if you have seen the entire film before, do you agree with Hitchcock that this film is his most cinematic?
SOME MIGHT ARGUE that NORTH BY NORTHWEST is more cinematic, with its vertiginous view of the plaza from atop the United Nations building; its wide open vista of flat, Midwestern cornfields and that buzzing crop-duster chasing Cary Grant; or its climactic chase across the faces of Mt. Rushmore.
But I think REAR WINDOW beats it in the cinematic sweepstakes. It's cinematic, however, in a totally different way. There are no wide-open, on-location vistas because REAR WINDOW takes place on a constructed set, the largest ever built for Hitchcock, with everything observable from the vantage point of Jeff's apartment. But within that set of myriad apartments--some furnished, supplied with electricity and move-in ready; each with fleshed-out secondary characters--Hitchcock had absolute control over how his camera would tie them all together, creating a believable world in the make-believe world of a Hollywood studio.
Furthermore, REAR WINDOW comments on the very act of watching--even the making of--a movie. With Jeff as our on-screen surrogate, we gaze through his camera. He (we) is (are) directing where the camera will go. From apartment to apartment we pan--or jump--lingering on each long enough to glean information before moving on to another. Along with Jeff, we are not only directing the film; we are also editing/cutting as we go. We jump from one apartment to another, essentially cutting the film. In life, this is how we see: with each turn of our head, or blink of our eyes, we are constantly editing reality.
Typical of Hitchcock, long stretches of REAR WINDOW are "pure film"; that is, the visual can be all we get, and all we need. Much of what we see in Jeff's neighbors' apartments is seen in mime, or dumbshow--no dialog required. In short, each apartment is a silent movie. As Jeff, and we, will see, it just so happens one of those silent movies is a horror film, replete with knives and saws and a trunk large enough to cart off a corpse.
If watched only on its surface, REAR WINDOW is hugely engaging and entertaining. We can't diss Jeff. Having spent his professional adulthood looking at life through cameras, what the hell else is he supposed to do, confined to his wheelchair and to his sweltering, claustrophobic apartment? Finally, we can't overlook the fact that it's Jimmy Stewart up there, the "Everyman" actor. We root for him because, after all, he's us.
REAR WINDOW is also a meditation on married vs. single life. Each of those little movies is essentially commenting on Jeff's anti-marriage stance vs. Lisa's pro-marriage views. She thinks Jeff should settle down as a society photographer in New York where she's a model swept up in the social whirl of the big city. Jeff can't imagine anything more boring. He'd rather roam the world in a constant effort to capture that perfect photograph.
Lisa, meanwhile, relates to "Miss Torso" having to fight off **** suitors when all she wants is for her short "Stanley" to return home from the military. Elsewhere, the newlywed couple give Jeff reason to want to avoid marriage at all costs: the sexually insatiable bride is constantly calling her new husband--"Haaaarrrrryyyy"--back to the bed. Jeff, at least as long as he's in that cast, is essentially paralyzed from the waist down. Hitchcock seems to stress this with Jeff's telephoto lens--a phallic symbol if ever there was one--as Jeff's only tool for experiencing Life--but at a distance.
Lisa moons over the music being worked out on the frustrated composer's piano. (By movie's end, that composition will be finished and, with lyrics, titled--what else?--"Lisa," sung over closing credits. This is Hollywood, after all, and closing songs were typical of the period.)
Finally, on a personal note, I know the following may appear a stretch, but it's the truth--at least as I see it: I never watch REAR WINDOW anymore without thinking about Giotto's fresco cycle in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy. Both of the interior's side walls that lead from entrance to altar are lined with horizontal rows of individual panels, the panels depicting specific moments in the life of Christ and the life of the Virgin. Giotto was beginning to paint the human figure in three-dimensional space instead of the flat two-dimensions of the preceding Byzantine Era. His work would become, if you will, a hinge that would swing the Byzantine to the Renaissance, when the human figure, in well-rounded three dimensions, was practically jumping right off the canvas (think Caravaggio) or frescoed wall or ceiling (think Michelangelo).
Giotto's long rows of panels are like film strips, each panel a frame, like an individual frame of film. Of course, with static Italian fresco panels, you don't have the movement of a camera pan. However, as you walk down the middle aisle looking at the panels in sequence, you become the projector just as a projector running a strip animates the frames.
Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW apartments are like those individual fresco panels, letting us look in on the lives of others, seeing the drama, the comedy, the mundane going on in each one. It's as if the artist Giotto anticipated film 600 years before its development. After the development of film, Hitchcock's REAR WINDOW raised the daily, human act of merely observing to the level of art.