This morning, in the post ‘On this day in geekdom’ I noted that Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) is celebrating its 64th birthday. The film – about a wheelchair-bound photographer who believes he has witnessed a murder – is one of my favourite Hitchcock movies.
Rear Window takes a simple premise, one location and just a handful of characters and over the course of two hours creates a very tense and dramatic story. Is it as tense or as dramatic as some of Hitch’s other works, like Psycho (1960) or North by Northwest (1959)? Yes and then some, but it’s all very subtle in it’s approach.
So how does Hitchcock do it? How does Alfred Hitchcock take such a simple film and make it so suspenseful?
Location is key. Rear Window takes place in one room, overlooking the courtyard of an apartment block. While the audience is privy to the comings and goings of the neighbours in the block, the camera never leaves that room.
When L. B. “Jeff” Jefferies – James Stewart – witnesses what he believes to be a murder, he does it while sitting in his own apartment. When he tells his girlfriend Lisa about the murder he does so from that same apartment.
At no point during the main crux of the movie, does “Jeff” leave his apartment – he doesn’t need to. From the apartment he can see everything that is going on, which means we as the audience can see everything too.
By the end of the film we forget that we’ve just spent two hours in one location, as it feels as if we’ve moved around the building. We would swear blind that at some point we’ve gone into a neighbour’s apartment or we’ve walked across the courtyard – but we haven’t.
By keeping the main character locked into one small apartment, Hitchcock creates a real sense of claustrophobia. “Jeff” can’t leave, so we can’t leave either – it’s subtle but it’s something which seeps into our subconscious and builds a lot of tension.
By extension of the single location discussed above, the use of a wheelchair is also very important in building suspense.
Throughout the entire movie, “Jeff” has his leg encased in plaster, forcing him to sit in a wheelchair, high up in his apartment. As the story progresses and characters enter and leave the apartment, we become aware that “Jeff” is effectively trapped, which means, should “Jeff” need to leave suddenly then a quick escape is simply not going to happen.
When the movie reaches its conclusion and “Jeff” finds himself in his apartment with only the killer for company, there’s genuine peril as to how this situation is going to play out. All of the subtle moments from earlier in the movie (“Jeff” struggling to scratch his foot, having his food brought to him etc) suddenly come to the forefront and that’s when there is a genuine fear that “Jeff” is in trouble and he can’t escape.
At the beginning of the movie, Hitchcock focuses in on a temperature gauge, which indicates it’s hot outside. We then see beads of sweat on “Jeff’s” forehead, we see a couple of neighbours sleeping out on their balcony at night and we get a sense that it is very warm.
Although we can’t feel temperature through the cinema screen or through our TV screens (as such) we note that the setting of this film is taking place during a warm and sticky summer. Building upon our knowledge of what a hot summer feels like, we suddenly feel very uncomfortable without even realising it.
Once again, it’s subtle things like this which make all the difference.
Seemingly unimportant characters
In Rear Window, there are five main characters: “Jeff”, Lisa (Grace Kelly), Tom, Stella (“Jeff’s” nurse) and Thorwald (the killer). Beyond these five characters, everyone else is unimportant, right?
Rear Window is filled with seemingly unimportant characters that become key to the story and are used to increase the tension.
There’s ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’ – a middle-aged woman who is desperately looking for love. At first she seems included in the story for comedic value, but her story takes a sharp turn and almost ends in tragedy.
During a rather dark moment ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’ contemplates suicide, leaving “Jeff” with no choice but to call the police for help. The problem is, at the same time Lisa finds herself in trouble, because “Jeff” has had to refocus his attention.
Then there’s the neighbour’s dog – a happy little chappy who likes nothing more than digging up the flowerbed. Not out of the ordinary for a dog, is it? But that dog is digging where it shouldn’t and soon that unimportant dog is found dead, suggesting it got a little too close to the truth.
And what about, Mrs. Thorwald – the murder victim and a character we barely see? She is perhaps the most important, ‘seemingly unimportant’ character in the movie as the entire narrative revolves around her.
It’s Mrs. Thorwald’s handbag which provides a clue and it’s her wedding ring which becomes a key piece of evidence. Even in death she remains a key character and one who helps to build the tension even though she’s barely present.
And finally, the romance – another key ingredient to the construction of tension and suspense in Rear Window.
Over the course of the movie, a romance is in play between “Jeff” and Lisa. For the majority of the film the romance is simmering away nicely as the pair discuss what could or couldn’t be.
Towards the end of the movie it becomes quite clear that “Jeff” is into Lisa – he gives her a look that suggests he’s invested in this romance. So when Lisa is put in jeopardy, when she is confronted by Thorwald, there is a genuine moment of fear that this happy little love story could come crashing to a halt.
Once again, Hitchcock is able to inject tension without us quite realising it. Because we know “Jeff” cares for Lisa, in turn we now care about them both and we hope that nothing bad happens to either character.
Five steps to creating tension in a perfect movie.