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The temperature is 97 degrees Fahrenheit as Rear Window opens on the kind of torrid New York morning that causes characters in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing to go out and start an urban riot. But photojournalist L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries is not going anywhere on account of having broken a leg shooting a wreck at an auto race. Eager to rove the world again in search of marketable images, Jeff is feeling antsy over “six weeks sitting in a two–room apartment with nothing to do but look at the neighbors.” In 1954, lack of air conditioning means keeping windows open and falling prey to prying eyes. In a world that is also pre-internet and even pre-TV, Jeff fends off boredom by gazing at the lives of strangers. He imagines identities and contrives dramas for the faces he sees. This is a drama that could not unfold in an age of texting and caller ID.
Alfred Hitchcock, who puts in a signature cameo visiting a neighbor, often laced his films with what he called MacGuffins — elements that drive the plot but distract us from what is really at stake. For most of Rear Window, Jeff’s attention is riveted on odd occurrences in an apartment across the way. The visual evidence leads Jeff to infer that a man has murdered and dismembered his wife. But the film is really about Jeff’s relationship with Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly), the fashion model who loves him and visits while he is convalescing. Convinced that Lisa is a fragile, frivolous society belle who could not adapt to his irregular, itinerant ways, Jeff resists her matrimonial overtures. However, Lisa’s response to Jeff’s theory of a neighborhood homicide is bold, resourceful, and tenacious. The true conclusion to the film is not related to the resolution of the murder MacGuffin, but to Jeff and Lisa’s relationship.
When Stella (Thelma Ritter), the gruff nurse assigned to keep an eye on Jeff, catches him spying on his neighbors, she chides: “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms.” Rear Window not only interrogates the ethics of a man who makes a career of photographing strangers, but it also suggests that moviegoing, which allows us to indulge in unobserved observation, is itself a dubious form of voyeurism. What distinguishes Rear Window from other vicarious thrills in a darkened theater is its mastery of craft and its bracing self-awareness. James Stewart’s Jeff is immobile but, as deft reaction shots reveal, not unmoved. Confined to a single set, as with Rope and Lifeboat, Hitchcock concentrates the mind and exercises it.
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