IT ONLY TAKES ONE WITNESS TO SPOIL THE PERFECT CRIME.
Professional photographer L.B. "Jeff" Jeffries breaks his leg while getting an action shot at an auto race. Confined to his New York apartment, he spends his time looking out of the rear window observing the neighbors. He begins to suspect that a man across the courtyard may have murdered his wife. Jeff enlists the help of his high society fashion-consultant girlfriend Lisa Freemont and his visiting nurse Stella to investigate.
This review may contain spoilers.
Rear Window, Structuring the Viewer's Response:
Hitchcock isn’t referred to as the master of suspense without good reason, and his direction in Rear Window is one of the best instances of how Hitchcock builds tension, bit by bit, over and over again, until the audience reaches their boiling point. In this brief "essay," I will be deconstructing a sequence in the film that perfectly exemplifies not just how Hitchcock structures suspense in his films, and the viewer’s response to said suspense, but how the great director structures audience response in general.
Early on in the film, the viewer comes to learn that our protagonist, Jeff, has a wonderful girlfriend who loves him very much. He isn’t, however, ready for marriage, primarily because he doesn’t believe that she’d be a good fit for the lifestyle that he lives. This information is delivered via a conversation between Jeff and his psychologist, Stella; at this point, we haven’t even met his girlfriend Lisa yet. This shows how Hitchcock has mastered building suspense not only in the realm of horror or thrills but also in the realm of interpersonal relationships: now we want to meet this girl, know her, see all the ways in which Jeff is right and wrong about her, primarily because Hitchcock has held off introducing her character (visually) until after all of this talk. Furthermore, throughout almost the entirety of this sequence/conversation, Hitchcock doesn’t keep the focus solely on Jeff’s words with Stella. Jeff can’t keep his attention away from the windows of the neighbors’ apartments. This forces us to suspect that something — the tone of which we do not know yet — will eventually happen across the courtyard in one of the surrounding apartments.
In the next scene, after Jeff has fallen asleep for some time, his girlfriend Lisa suddenly fills the frame and wakes Jeff with a slow motion kiss; she’s just as beautiful as she’s been described (by Stella), if not more so, though Jeff’s conversation with her exhibits his hesitations to commit to her due to their vastly different lifestyles. Her daily activities consist of sales meetings, visits to the Waldorf, lunch with socialites, multiple “showings,” cocktails with the wealthy, etc. And not that there’s anything wrong with that, but we know that Jeff is a photographer who makes his living off capturing the most bold and daring photographs possible — so now the viewer comes to understand, fully, the deeply disparate qualities of the way in which these two spend their days. Most importantly, we want to know if they’re going to be able to overcome these differences, if Jeff is going to be able to meet her in the middle and commit to a relationship with someone with a more “social” lifestyle, without giving up the thrills and danger that he lives for.
By the end of the scene, the two have fought about these differences to the point that we, the viewers, believe it may be serious enough of an argument for them to split over. And she even responds to his inquiry of “when will I see you again?” with “not for a long time.” Suddenly, the audience is shocked; we wonder if this really is the end of their relationship, so suddenly, so very close to the introduction of her character. But then we hear her follow up that line with “at least, not until tomorrow night,” and we know that this is a pair with a lot of affection for one another, who won’t be broken up by a measly argument — despite their disparities, it’s going to take a lot more to pull these two apart. And, of course, the scene isn’t contained to Jeff’s apartment; throughout most of it, Jeff continues to spy out of his window at the surrounding neighbors, continuing to study them and ponder their lives (as a photographer might).
Then, later that night, rather abruptly, the thrilling sort of suspense that Hitchcock is known for comes into play. The blinds are now drawn over at the apartment of a quarreling couple and the husband has left in the middle of a storm with a briefcase, seemingly to dispose of something. He leaves and returns with this briefcase, the contents of which are unknown to both Jeff and the viewer, multiple times throughout the night, and we come to suspect that there could be some foul play at hand.
The following day, the shades are no longer drawn but the apartment is dark, the wife is nowhere to be found and the husband appears to be peering around the courtyard suspicious that someone may be watching him; his attention is drawn to a dog digging around in his flower garden, which makes him sweat, and he proceeds to pack his wife’s jewelry and clothes into another one of those, or possibly the same, silver briefcase(s). The husband also goes about placing a large knife and a saw into some newspaper before laying down for a nap; he hasn’t gone to work all day, nor has he set foot in his wife’s bedroom. Later, the husband sends a large crate filled with unknown contents off with a conspicuous moving company. By this point, the viewer -- as well as Lisa -- is almost completely on the same wavelength as Jeff, whether we fully believe that his suspicions are true, or simply want to believe them as a result of human beings' inherent curiosity and intuition.
This entire sequence, in particular, displays Hitchcock’s overwhelming mastery of tension building. The most important aspect of building tension, or suspense, is that one does so with care. If a director rushes through such a feat, the audience won’t have time to pick up on all the plants, or hints, being left for them. Fortunately, Hitchcock is patient in his direction and takes his time pushing the narrative forward by emphasizing small details until, ultimately, all of these details come together into a deeply concerning, utterly engrossing whole.