The Master(class) of Suspense: The Begining of Rear Window
The benefit of being able to talk about whatever I want every week (shoutout to Holly Barnhart and Daniel Feldbusch once again) is that I get to do arbitrary themes or series with my blog posts. I have already done an inadvertent series on different types of biographical films, and now, in the midst of my internship, seems like the perfect time to actually consciously do. So, BOOM, now my next three articles are all about classic cinema. It’s almost like magic.
And what better classic film to start with than Rear Window (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)? It is the quintessential Hitchcockian thriller, but what has always enthralled me is how it begins. Rear Window does not get fully involved with its core mystery until around 40 minutes in. In fact, it does not even start to implicate that something sinister is going on until this point.
Instead, we spend the beginning of the film analyzing the intricacies of L.B Jeffries (James Stewart) and the two women (Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter) who routinely enter his apartment. Opposed to us learning about the mystery of what happens in the apartment across from L.B. immediately and the film oscillating between instilling doubt in his suspicions and confirming what he believes, we get an ingrained reason to doubt L.B. due to his restlessness and his yearning for adventure on account of his injury that keeps him homebound. We get knocked off-balance not because the script tells us to be off-balance, but because we get the time to understand why we feel this way and can more easily roll with it as the mystery unfolds.
The other interesting thing Hitchcock does in the opening minutes is that he introduces us to L.B.’s neighbors, or, at least, his voyeuristic impression of them. That seems unnecessary to the larger plot of the film, especially as the other residents take a back seat as the mystery starts, but it provides a richness to the proceedings. The events of the film do not take place in a vacuum, they occur encircled by a living, breathing community which eventually is affected in its own way when one of the neighbors’ dogs is killed. The depth created in the setting makes the stakes of Rear Window mean even more.
Without these first 40 minutes, Rear Window is a worse, less complex film than the eventual final product. It’s a masterclass in character driven drama and tension that actually begins very quietly. It’s a classic because it seemingly sets a blueprint, but has been followed sparingly since its release. Only the master of suspense could create something so simple, yet hardly replicable.
Rear Window is streaming on all major VOD services.