Anatomy of a Scene: “Rear Window” (Alfred Hitchcock, USA 1954)

This week, Fathom events is showing Rear Window in theaters across the country. The first round was yesterday; the rest are Wednesday. It’s one of the greatest films of all time, so I suggest going, and in its honor I’m posting an edited version of a paper I wrote in my freshman year in college about the film’s climax. The paper was a close-viewing that was essentially a prototype for what my little-used “Anatomy of a Scene” series is, so I’m going to present it with few changes.

The Unarmed, Silent Standoff: On the Climax of “Rear Window” as a Battle of Truth against Evil

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Rear Window may be best defined by its climactic scene of confrontation between protagonist L.B. Jeffries and antagonist Lars Thorwald. While the rest of the film is more comedic and literal that this climax, no other scene in this picture is a strong metaphor for the universal theme of the battle between truth and falsehood. Its power derives largely from the low-key lighting with a few high contrast shafts of light that draw attention to details such as the doorway and Lars Thorwald’s eyes. Hitchcock skillfully cuts short, repetitious shots; hardly allows any sound to be audible; and utilizes low-key and high contrast lighting in order to manipulate the viewer into viewing this climactic scene that acts as almost the entirety of the film’s third act as something apart from the rest of the picture and also as something more meaningful than perhaps most of the film is.

Note: It would require pretty heavy re-writing to make this fit in more naturally. At this point in my “career,” so to speak, I was pretty much trained in the “auteur” school of film, crediting everything to the director instead of sharing credit with those who aid in the specific tasks involved in film. So that they are credited properly, the editor of the film was George Tomasini and the cinematographer was Robert Burks. This was Tomasini’s first Hitchcock film, though he would edit several more in the future. Burks was already a Hitchcock veteran and would wind up working on 11 of the director’s films. Interestingly, both worked on what I would rank as his finest work, North by Northwest (USA 1960) and on the film that recently ranked as the greatest film of all time in the Sight & Sound poll, Vertigo (USA 1958). It seems they were something of the A-team for Hitchcock.

This scene opens, in essence, with the medium shot of the bottom of the doorframe, which, in the otherwise almost pitch black, is a high contrast source of bright white light, and represents Jeff’s ability to escape. Just two shots later, Thorwald’s dramatically turns out the hallway light. This shot represents how he has prevented Jeff’s ability to escape as well as obscured the truth with his lies. These two shots can define the scene pretty much on their own. They depict the metaphor that Hitchcock will continue to portray throughout the scene in the battle between truth, represented by light, and falsehood, represented by darkness; it exemplifies the low-key and high-contrast lighting that will be used throughout the scene; and it has a sense of suspense, just as exists in most of the film, as we see that Thorwald is just outside the door but we do not know what he is planning to do and simply, as Jeff does, await his entrance.

Following the expository shot of the door frame, Hitchcock cuts to a close shot of Jeff’s face. Jeff’s face being restrained closely by the frame is obviously used to depict the claustrophobic, constrained, inescapable situation Jeff feels he is in. It takes only a faint creaking of a floorboard to make Jeff look back at the door just before Thorwald arrives at it. This second door shot is when the light is blocked by Thorwald’s figure just outside the door, and the repetition of the shot makes it seem even more meaningful for Thorwald to arrive and turn out the light. That repetition recurs then as Hitchcock cuts to another close shot of Jeff’s face in which Jeff squints toward the door, straining to see the blackness or, rather, the cause of it. Hitchcock then cuts back to the door, giving us a shot of what it is at which Jeff is squinting and thus forcing the audience to identify with Jeff yet again.

After the semi-standoff between Jeff and the door, we see Jeff in a semi-close shot, searching for a weapon against the intruder he expects. Perhaps the truest genius of this scene is that the weapon Jeff finds is a camera flash and a series of bulbs. He grabs this weapon and ammunition and wheels himself further into the darkness, staring at the door as he does so, but not wheeling far because the size of the apartment limits him He prepares to use his flash, representing the light of truth, against Thorwald, who is at this point nothing but a shadow. Jeff’s breathing is not even audible.

Here Hitchcock returns to the medium shot of the door. The door opens in an almost supernatural silence, allowing the audience its first view of Thorwald at Jeff’s apartment, as a silhouette. Raymond Burr’s massive frame makes for a particularly imposing silhouette as he and Jeff begin a literal standoff. Hitchcock intercuts between shots of Jeff, tensing almost imperceptibly in the darkness and Thorwald, staring at Jeff with a high contrast shaft of light over his eyes. Jeff licks his lips and grips the flash more tightly with each shot, but we can see no such anxiety in Thorwald. Thorwald is conspicuously emotionless as he stares at Jeff, and yet Jeff’s is the face we all but cannot see, which makes for a very interesting contrast: Jeff’s anxiety masked in the dark versus Thorwald’s relative calm highlighted by the high contrast light over his eyes. This stalemate is extremely tense. In fact, it is much more so than a more typical armed standoff.

When Thorwald speaks, Burr’s powerful, singular voice breaks the tension of the standoff; however, it also awakens us to the fact that Thorwald is a massive man and thus a real danger to Jeff. He walks toward Jeff, trying to figure out what Jeff wants, since he assumes that Jeff is a blackmailer. Thorwald becomes a more humanized character as he asks, “What is it you want? A lot of money?” and immediately answers himself in a way with the statement, “I don’t have any money.” Jeff stays quiet, nervously gripping his flash in the dark and silently hoping that Thorwald will not actually come after him.

Finally, this scene basically ends with the attack of Thorwald. Thorwald walks toward Jeff in anger at his silence in response to the repeated questioning, and Jeff defends himself the best he can with his flash. Jeff, in a three-quarter angle and semi-close shot, raises the flash to face level and flashes it at Thorwald. We see an orange circle appear in the center of the screen and widen until it is in fact out of view to imply to the viewer how the flash would affect Thorwald as we see Thorwald reach up to his eyes and adjust his glasses in an attempt to reorient himself. This event repeats three times further before Jeff runs out of flashes and Thorwald is able to grab him. Just before Thorwald grabs hold of Jeff’s collar, we see a shot of across the street, where police officers, Lisa Fremont, Thomas J. Doyle, and Stella are going into Thorwald’s apartment. At this point, the confinement and ambiance of the standoff are lost and the scene basically ends. Both characters are now completely visible and we can thus see everything they are doing, which doesn’t allow us to imagine anything about the characters and thus is the end of the mystery of this scene as well.

The climactic confrontation superficially between L.B. Jeffries and Lars Thorwald but truly between truth and falsehood in Rear Window is a very powerful, suspenseful cinematic achievement, its effect mostly achieved through high-contrast and low-key lighting, but also achieved through the lack of sound, the repetition of shots, and the lack of any shots longer than the medium shot of the door. The editing, lighting, and sound elements all come together in order to give this scene a strength that cannot be overstated and a power over the viewer that only a master like Hitchcock can wield. Nowhere else does this picture have such a suspenseful tension or indeed such a powerful metaphor as in this scene. It is impossible to miss this scene upon watching this film, but it only increases in brilliance and power with later viewing and study, which is a true mark of mastery.

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