Rear Window – have you seen it? It’s a Hitchcock classic; a masterful take on one man’s social isolation whilst living, incapacitated, in a bustling Lower Manhattan apartment block in the 1950s. As social distancing and self-isolation sweeps the world, I thought I’d revisit it. If you’re short of something to watch during these quiet days, you could do worse than to sit down to Rear Window.
The opening sequence is wordless. We hear the noises of the city fused with an exquisite film score which accents, underlines and stresses the movements of each scene that the camera pans in and out of. The very first shot begins inside, in an undisclosed location, then travels out of an open window panning across the rear of an apartment block behind.
It’s early morning. Red flowers – geraniums maybe – bloom on someone’s balcony. On one of the balconies (or should I call it a fire escape?), a man has taken his mattress out to sleep, escaping the night heat indoors. He’s flat on his back, heavy with sleep and one arm dangles through the railings. Most of the other windows in the block are open, it’s a heatwave in high summer. A cat pads up a flight of stairs in the yard past a trellis of yellow roses. We hear its miaow. The music changes to a low, ominous drumming layered upon plucking of strings. It makes me think of stealthy tiptoeing. The camera sweeps across the buildings then zooms into a couple on another balcony. He’s doing up his tie, she’s drinking something from a cup – morning coffee probably – and their child wheels himself out on a tricycle wearing shorts with no top. A seagull flies across the camera shot at close range. It disappears, and we see another window in which a woman combs her long hair, her arm at an awkward angle as she pulls the comb through to her lower back. There’s a narrow passage between apartment blocks where we glimpse a milkman dressed all in white, a cap on his head, doing his rounds.
The music becomes jauntier, a jazzy clarinet. The camera keeps moving, it pulls back inside, through the very window we started from. There he is: Jimmy Stewart, reclining in a chair, his back to the window (for now), his eyes closed, his forehead drenched in sweat.
Suddenly, we cut back outside; to another open window where a muscular neighbour shaves in his simmet vest––the type men don’t wear anymore. He has a grand piano. He must play often as it’s open, sheet music askew on the stand. Somewhere nearby an alarm rings and the man sleeping on the balcony awakens. He’s wearing checked blue pyjamas––the type men don’t wear anymore. And then the surprise: there’s a woman with him on the balcony, behind him. They’ve been sleeping top to toe, sardines in a can. She wakes and sits up all drowsy, sexy. Or maybe it just seems that way because she’s wearing a ruffled chiffon negligée––the type women don’t wear anymore.
Cut to the woman who was combing her long hair. It’s tied up now. She has her back to us and is fastening a strapless bra as she walks through a messy bedsit. It pings open and falls to the floor and she does a perfect forward bend from her tiny waist to retrieve and re-fasten it. She’s as supple as a marionette with the puppeteer having loosened its strings. Her underwear is candy pink–of course it is. She turns to face us in her tiny two piece (is it a bikini or fifties underwear?). Like all of them, she is unaware we are watching, and she throws balletic leg lifts (those marionette moves) as she makes breakfast.
Meanwhile, down the alley, the milkman has gone. A small fluffy dog is tied to a lamppost and children have appeared in swimming gear, or underwear, to play in the street. There’s water; they’re splashing in it; someone must have turned on a hose. A disembodied hand emerges from a window and shakes a tablecloth. No, I’m wrong, the hand is removing a cover from a bird cage, a canary or small parrot. They leave the caged bird on the ledge.
Now we’re back inside the window, the spot from which we have been watching, observing, honing our voyeuristic skills. He’s still there, the man with the sweat pouring down his neck. We move down his body to discover one leg is in a cast right up to his thigh. The white plaster is unsullied but for the words written in pen: “Here lie the broken bones of L.B. Jefferies.” The background music is bright and excited now as the shot moves around his apartment. There’s a smashed-up camera, an intact camera, numerous framed action photographs and fashion portraits and a pile of photography magazines. As for L.B. Jefferies (we’ll come to know him as Jeff), his eyes remain closed for now, as he rests up, confined to that room like the caged bird close by, in social isolation.
And so, the classic film begins.
Soon, Jeff will turn and look out of the window. He’ll watch and consider, scrutinize and examine, come to know the lives in this postage stamp section of his city from one chair. He’ll see too much and he’ll say, “I’ve seen it through that window. I’ve seen bickering and family quarrels and mysterious trips at night, knives and saws and ropes, and now since last evening, not a sign of the wife.” He’ll call Detective Doyle who’ll tell him to stop watching. “That’s a secret, private world you’re looking into out there.” Doyle will tell him. “People do a lot of things in private they couldn’t possibly explain in public.”
In the weeks to come I may be spending more time at home than usual. It’s not quite Greenwich Village and there is no heatwave in Edinburgh, but I have a rear window and – let’s face it – windows are for looking out of as well as letting light in. Were Hitchcock’s camera to be here it would see the black curly haired woman who sits studiously at her kitchen table under three low ceiling lights––red, green, purple, shaped like upside down ginger jars. It would see the lady who does too many dishes while her husband reads the paper facing the wall on which is hung a map of the world. It might pick out the young man who works late into the night by angle-poise lamp light. The camera might move quickly past the sometimes-naked man (he’d be a good life-model) who occasionally dresses in the kitchen. I don’t know why he does it. It might linger on the silver birch that shows no sign of spring. It might train its lens on the blue pigeons cooing on the tall terracotta chimney pots. And it would pause upon the pure white cat that I can’t hear miaow because my window is closed.
With a real rear window, who needs Netflix?