Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” places us as the audience in the same seat as the film’s protagonist; we see things from his perspective, we learn as he learns and draw inferences (whether they be right or wrong) as he does the same. We feel his boredom turn to curiosity turn gradually to suspicion and ultimately fear as if we were sitting in that wheelchair with the binoculars ourselves.
Cynical photographer L. B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart) is recuperating from a broken leg and spends his time sitting by his open window watching his neighbours in the opposite apartments to quell the boredom. His only regular visitors are his beautiful and glamorous girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) who is wanting their relationship to progress but he is reluctant to do so, and his insurance appointed and wise-cracking nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) who visits every morning for a massage and to bust his balls a little. He becomes familiar with the lives of his neighbours since they all have their windows open during a brutal heat wave and comes up with names for each of them; there’s Miss Torso (a young beautiful dancer who hosts numerous suitors), Miss Lonely Heart (a middle aged spinster who holds imaginary dinner dates at her kitchen table) a number of married couples of varying degrees of happiness and a zany older woman who enjoys pottery. One couple which Jeff has been keeping an eye on is Thorvald (Raymond Burr), and his bedridden wife who seems to scorn and ridicule Thorvald. One night Jeff hears a loud scream and a crash, the next morning Thorvald’s wife is nowhere to be seen and over the course of the following days Jeff convinces himself that Thorvald has murdered his wife. After finally convincing Lisa and Stella of his theory, Jeff is determined to gather enough evidence to prove Thorvald guilty, all the while being stuck with his leg in a cast and without being caught.
One thing which really struck me in this film was the ingenious production design; the apartment buildings with their various occupants were built specifically for the film and as the camera pans over each window, we catch glimpses into their worlds. These little moments are beautifully handled; from Jeff’s window we witness the heartbreak, joy, loneliness and rage of these people at their most vulnerable and unpretentious. Hitchcock allegedly worked from Jeff’s apartment with James Stewart, all the other actors were all fitted with flesh-coloured ear pieces so that he could issue direction and their movements were in time with the speed of the camera. It was just so unlike anything else I had seen in a film before, much more in keeping with a theatre production than a motion picture and an incredibly clever way in which to ensure that we only ever see whatever Jeff sees from his chair. It’s as much our journey as it is his.
As far as thrillers go, this is a slow burner; intricate and creeping before the explosive and thoroughly well-earned final act. We slowly and steadily build the case with Jeff that Thorvald has killed his wife but what is so brilliant about Hitchcock’s direction is that there’s always the possibility that Thorvald is innocent. Nothing that Jeff witnesses is iron-clad proof; everything we’ve seen Thorvald do could have had an explanation and its perfectly possible that the conclusions we’ve jumped to were as a result of watching through Jeff’s paranoid lens. Though Jeff is the hero of the film, he’s not necessarily a good or moral man; his obsession with Thorvald and his wife isn’t so much to bring him to justice but to satisfy his own curiosity.
As for the performances, I don’t suppose there’s anything that remarkable about these characters and the actors are therefore more of a tool to funnel the story. Each of the core cast are enjoyable, particularly Grace Kelly – surely there’s never been anybody as glamorous, elegant and beautifully spoken as she was in her heyday, she is the quintessential Hollywood movie star and steals any scene purely by being in it. James Stewart is fun as Jeff, he suits the jaded old bachelor type well and delivers clever quips with undeniable charm. One thing that irked me just a little bit was how much time was spent on Jeff and Lisa’s relationship and the fact that he couldn’t see her surviving in his world. It’s not that it wasn’t well done or inorganic for the characters or anything, its more that I felt it diverted from the crux of the story and could have been done without.
There’s something quite spellbinding about 1954’s “Rear Window”; this is admittedly my first Hitchcock but the direction is undeniably unique and makes for not just an entertaining thriller but also a lovingly and expertly crafted masterpiece which explores the lives we lead when we think nobody else is watching.
By Jock Lehman