CLASSICS: Rear Window (1954)
written by: John Michael Hayes
produced by: Alfred Hitchcock and James Stewart
directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
runtime: 112 min.
U.S. release date: September 1, 1954
If there’s any medium of art that has taught us to observe the actions and behavior of others it is the cinema. It’s all there for us on the screen, so how can we look away. The movie camera of our mind is always rolling and recording who we encounter and those we observe from afar. But when does it get to the point of obsessiveness? Director Alfred Hitchcock touched on such a question in his 1954 masterpiece “Rear Window”, in which a wheelchair-bound character becomes consumed with the activity he sees outside his window. In it, the filmmaker makes an obvious statement about voyeurism – as viewers watch a movie about watching – and how the audience is no different from those they are watching.
A line heard fairly early in the film from Thelma Ritter‘s Stella, “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms,” basically breaks the film down and watching the film in 2016 confirms that we’ve (yes, you me and the rest of humanity) apparently always been Peeping Toms. I know I often study the balcony of the apartment behind mine when I’m dumping trash in the alley. I know there’s two young blonde Polish gals who live there with their two Yorkies. I may not know their story, but I imagine one for them. Does that make me lewd or perverted? No more than anyone else, I’d wager.
Who hasn’t had that neighbor who knows everything about the locals living in or near the apartment building/neighborhood? The yearning isn’t just to watch, but to know – to understand what is going on with or the ‘real story’ behind those who live alongside us – without them knowing. That’s the key part right there; because once we know that they know we’re watching them, we’re the ones who are exposed and…well, it’s no longer fun or intriguing. But, as much as “Rear Window” is a movie about watching others, it’s also a movie about how we project our own beliefs and convictions on the lives of those we’re studying.
In the story, written by John Michael Hayes (who would go on to pen three other Hitchcock films), based on Cornell Woolrich’s 1942 short story It Had to Be Murder, James Stewart plays L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies, a freelance photographer restricted to a wheelchair during a heat wave after breaking his leg while covering an auto race, leaving him confined to his Greenwich Village apartment with his insurance company nurse, Stella (Ritter), regularly checking up on him.
To pass the time, Jeff gazes out his window (yes, it’s which provides a view of the courtyard he shares with the neighbors in other apartment buildings. We learn that Jeff suffers from gamophobia (it’s not called that here, but I did my research) – that is, a fear of commitment; specifically a persistent and irrational fear of marriage – which becomes obvious the more we see Jeff’s interaction with his other frequent guest, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly, who has possibly one of the best entrances in cinema), his gorgeous, high-maintenance girlfriend. She’d continuously tries to convince Jeff how great they are for each other – in words and deeds – yet he feels Lisa (pronounced Leeza, for some reason) is too good for him, not adventurous enough.
There’s more going on with how Jeff views relationships though – marriage specifically – and we learn this subtlety as he studies his neighbors. Jeff seems skeptical about the seemingly radiant newlywed couple over to the left and gets a kick out of the long-married couple above them with their little dog, who sleep on the balcony due to the heat. There’s not an envious or longing bone in his body because he sees their marriages from afar, only knowing what he sees and imagines. He looks across the way where the Thorwalds live and he sees a short-tempered husband (Raymond Burr) and a nagging wife (Irene Winston) and from what he sees, he thinks he’s not missing out on much. He’d much rather ogle Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy), the fit and firm dancer on the left who practices her acrobatic moves in plain sight or feel sorry for Miss Lonelyheart (Judith Evelyn) the sad alcoholic who lives under the Thorwalds, then be reminded of the traps of matrimony.
Jeff thinks he knows these people as he switches back and forth, from binoculars to telephoto lens on his camera in order to observe them, but it’s really only his version of who these people are. He doesn’t care about them nor does he care to know them, which is why he gives them names – except for the Thorwalds, he knows their names. In fact, his attention toward the Thorwalds sharpens when he notices Mrs. Thorwald is missing and begins to notice the strange late night activity of Mr. Thorwald – working in his garden and mysterious trips outside with his suitcase. Could he have killed his wife?
Well, the Master of Suspense – as Hitchcock would come to be known – leaves such a deduction for the viewer and for the single-minded Jeff and his newly invested co-horts, Stella and Lisa. The mystery surrounding the disappearance of Mrs. Thorwald is only one element that qualifies “Rear Window” as a suspense thriller, but because Hitchcock’s camera is such an observant one right from the start, everyone and everything it studies could lead to incriminating evidence. Crafting a thriller that creates palpable suspicion, paranoia and fear isn’t Hitchcock’s only goal (although that can be found in many masterful, mostly silent, scenes here), there’s also the comedy found in the human interaction we see and the drama of Jeff and Lisa’s plateaued relationship.
Much of the humor comes from Ritter’s Stella and her dialogue with Stewart’s Jeff, especially early on when she presses him about his reluctance to marry Lisa. Her sarcastic quips are deliberate and Ritter’s timing is delightful, whereas the humor from Jeff is more biting jabs at Lisa, who is eager to prove she is worthy wife material. He’s rather unpleasant toward her, which could be because he feels cornered by her, but the whole time we watch them it’s hard to figure what she sees in him, which adds drama to their relationship. But the fact that Hitchcock can still inject humor during some of the more intense scenes – like when Lisa and Stella dig up Mr. Thorwald’s garden to find evidence – and do so in such an effortless manner, never ceases to impress.
“Rear Window” demands your undivided attention and it earns it immediately, from Hitchcock’s surveying camera to Stewart’s surveilling obsessiveness. Any first-time viewer will have a difficult time taking in all that the movie has to offer and will therefore require additional viewings. With the detailed and thorough set and costume design and splendid cinematography from Robert Burks (who worked on twelve Hitchcock films), there’s certainly plenty of reasons and motive for return visits.
This is one of Hitchcock’s most accessible films, because of all that it includes and how it goes about it in such a fluid and captivating manner. It’s debatable, but “Rear Window” may be a perfect Hitchcock film. It has his signature hypnotic suspense, but also drama and some well-earned laughs, all while making a statement about our predilection for other people’s lives.