Rear Window (1954)
Release Date: August 1st, 1954 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Alfred Hitchcock Actors: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr, Georgine Darcy
he film starts with a camera surreptitiously panning around an apartment complex, invading the privacy of several inhabitants while heralding the central theme of voyeurism and its potentially shocking consequences. A purposefully contradictory jazz score narrates this activity, interrupted sporadically by thundering percussion and terrifying violins, along with calming piano and trumpet music (as played by characters in the film) to dictate the changing tones of melancholy, drama, romance, mystery, and horror. Numerous contrasting audio modes, including singing and utter silence, are also used for thematic effect.
Magazine photographer L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart) is recovering in his tiny home, stashed away in a wheelchair after having his leg smashed in a racetrack accident. It doesn’t help that he’s terribly bored doing the only thing that amuses him, which is to spy on his neighbors via a telephoto lens, all of who bore him (save for the ballet dancer in training, living across from him, continually parading about her room in skimpy attire) and the temperature outside is approaching 100 degrees. His nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter), helps him pass the time by conversing about his unwillingness to marry his girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly). Stella thinks the girl is perfect for him; Jefferies feels that she’s entirely too perfect. Her elite Park Avenue upbringing and financial prospects and comforts don’t harmonize well with his desire to be with a normal woman with standard, lower expectations. His week-to-week monetary existence is so far beneath her high-class “never wears the same dress twice” aura. Nevertheless, she loves him dearly, but tries to erroneously prove it with lavish gifts and the arrangement of expensive provisions.
Lisa is ideal, but Jefferies can’t see it. Ironically, he’s so preoccupied peering out his window into the lives of his less fortunate neighbors that he fails to recognize the beauty and admiration right in front of his face, catering to his every need. His frequent insensitivity and inconsiderateness is thinly veiled by sarcasm, yet Lisa shrugs it off, intent on winning him over even if it’s an uphill battle. He vehemently wishes to avoid commitment, measuring his occasionally dangerous career to a certain incompatibility with her cushy, velvet-covered life. In a deviously twisted way, Lisa’s inevitable involvement and endangerment for the incapacitated photographer is a rite of passage to affirm her durability and her own romantic assurance – which goes largely unrewarded and indeterminate by the conclusion.
Meanwhile, Jefferies spectates on a wide assortment of people, from a passionate songwriter to a newlywed couple to a lonely lady stood up on a date yet again. Of particular interest are a bitter jewelry salesman, Mr. Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), and his sickly invalid wife (Irene Winston). They persistently argue with one another, until one day she disappears and Lars is seen wrapping up a saw and a butcher knife. Paranoid Jefferies immediately imagines the worst and proceeds to use binoculars and a powerful long focus camera lens to continue his unobserved onlooker research.
America’s fascination with grim crimes and peeping toms are secondary to the amusement of an audience vicariously solving a crime by watching a character surveying suspicious activities. Frustration and anticipation build, as no one, especially L.B.’s army buddy and convenient detective Thomas Doyle (Wendell Corey), believes the wild story of a married man hacking his wife into pieces. But this is an Alfred Hitchcock movie, meaning morbid ghastliness likely lurks around every seemingly commonplace corner – and every new detail for the overly suspicious amateur sleuth is steeped in sinister dubiety. The suspense is palpable. For a film with few sets, only a handful of roles, and no special effects or visual wizardry, “Rear Window” is a singular masterpiece, relying on superb character development, clever red herrings, and darkly witty, natural dialogue. And to think the entire premise would be unimaginable if more people shuttered their windows.
– Mike Massie