Rear Window December 12, 2017
1 Hr., 54 Mins.
he opening credits end and there we are, sitting at the edge of a rear window. The sky’s blue, the day’s young, and the thermostat says 94. We’re in Greenwich Village, and it’s summertime. Look outward. We’re surrounded by a smattering of bricked apartments lived in by lonely-hearts, newlyweds, and dream-seekers. Look downward. There’s a courtyard. There you might see a wrinkled old lady reading fashion magazines on a lawn chair, a tomcat
prowling around the patches of greenery. The occasional gardener watering a thin garden bed. A friendly wave to a neighbor.
There’s a man at the center of the action. He is wheelchair-bound and an inadvertent voyeur. When we first meet him, he is in the throes of a midday nap, sweat dribbling down his forehead. No dialogue has to tell us who he is. The camera does the talking. According to the writing on the cast that imprisons this man’s shattered leg, the name’s L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries. Judging from his salt ’n’ pepper hair and thinning body, we’d say he’s in his late 40s, early 50s at the oldest. And that he’s played by James Stewart, aging and approachable.
Once we’re done eyeing him, we’re directed toward photographs detailing a fiery race car crash hanging loosely on the wall. Below them sits a mezcla of lenses, bulbs, and cameras, perfect for a still life. We gather he’s either a NASCAR great or a more adventuresome Dennis Stock. This man’s trapped. He’s been confined to his wheelchair and the windmills of his mind for months, barely leaving his tight, albeit comfortable, apartment. The only thing he can do to entertain himself is watch his neighbors. For hours on end, he shamelessly looks through their windows and tells himself made-up stories about their lives.
Days are made slightly more bearable by visits from his insurance company’s acid-tongued nurse, Stella (a wonderful Thelma Ritter), who gives him generous massages and sage life advice. Evenings are seasoned by dinners with Jeff’s sexy fiancée Lisa (Grace Kelly), who’s young and high society and movie-star glamorous. (This means she’s way out of the this cynical photographer’s league.)
Jeff’s nearing the end of this monotonous routine – he’s about a week away from getting out of this plaster cage – and it could be argued that the anticipation is starting to mess with his head. He gratuitously picks fights with Lisa and begins taking Stella’s drop-ins for granted. But then the unexpected livens things up.
After noticing obvious marital troubles across the way between the husky Thorwald (Raymond Burr) and his unnamed wife, the days-later disappearance of the latter starts to toy with our protagonist – and us. Especially after we see Thorwald leaving his apartment with a suitcase multiple times per night (usually around 2 a.m.), after we witness him washing a sizable butcher knife in the sink, and after we catch wind of this would-be murderer manhandling his wife’s jewelry.
We, and Jeff, are convinced that Thorwald has done something shady. But before jumping to conclusions, we must first ask ourselves: has this man actually killed his wife, or is Jeff’s stir-craziness just informing paranoia? Of course we know the answer. But part of Rear Window’s hold over us stems from how slowly it unfolds, and how plausible it seems. Director Alfred Hitchcock, at the top of his game in the 1954 in which the movie was released, somehow makes this stagy descent into suspense seem reasonable. It’s an effective what-if movie that has the necessary patience to make it appear as though this cinematic rollercoaster is all happening in the real world. Jeff’s doubt is palpable, so it’s impressive how the movie so exceptionally conveys his slipping inhibitions without wagging fingers and declaring that Thorwald is, in fact, a murderer.
It’s a testament to Hitchcock’s standing as cinema’s unequaled “master of suspense.” So many filmmakers of the period avoided single-setting features in fear of initial interest disintegrating with running time. But Hitchcock regularly challenged himself, attempting to thrill audiences using the bare minimum. In Lifeboat (1944), he watched passengers attempt to survive after a World War II attack sinks the vessel on which they were traveling. In Rope (1948), which took place in real time and was edited to appear as if it were shot in a single take, a dinner party was intensified by a murder victim’s being placed in the trunk used as a buffet table. In Dial M for Murder (1954), also starring Kelly, a botched hit on an unfaithful wife became pivotal.
Of Hitchcock’s limited-setting thrillers, Rear Window is the most successful. It is the most consistently engaging – and multidimensional. Based on Cornell Woolrich’s 1942 short story It Had to Be Murder, it is pulp turned into great cinema, the premise holding steady in its ability to mesmerize. The stretches of suspense so slowly unfold – and are so ingenious in their execution – that the film enforces the sweating of bullets better than any grandiose Hollywood thriller could. Screenwriter John Michael Hayes is so detailed in the way he approaches the characterizations that the film, like in all near-perfect genre excursions, would have been striking even without the unease.
Hitchcock’s restless visuals are just as arresting. Robert Burks’ Technicolor cinematography astutely mimics Jeff’s wandering eye; the camera has a tendency to scan, to parade into locations in which it has no business being. This photographic curiosity helps flavor the film with a sort of additional intimacy. Because Hitchcock takes the time to visually tell the stories of Jeff’s neighbors (the musician next door drenches himself in alcohol to ease his frustrations; the comely young dancer across the way is so passionate and hopeful about her burgeoning career that we’re almost waiting for the day she has to be real with herself; the woman downstairs is so depressingly lonely she makes a fancy dinner and pretends as though there’s a man with her), the film seems further in touch with the real world.
Through these detours, Hitchcock not only subtextually claims that Jeff is just a city-type who happens to be the protagonist. He also enforces a sort of unexpected realism. What Jeff goes through in Rear Window could happen to anyone, Hitchcock argues, and that makes what we experience in the film all the more thrilling. By emphasizing Jeff’s quasi-nobody status by also putting a spotlight on his neighbors, the film becomes more an exciting slice of life than a genre exercise. These circumstances keep the film in line with the director’s fascination with dragging average Joes into situations they’d likely only see in a theater. Stewart’s Jeff joins the likes of other hapless Hitchcock heroes, like Joel McCrea’s John Jones, Farley Granger’s Guy Haines, and Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill. (And, of course, pretty much every other character Stewart played in a Hitchcock movie; the actor collaborated with the iconic filmmaker a remarkable four times.)
But Jeff often differs from the Hitchcock wronged men because he is not predominantly defined by the danger fast approaching him. The looking into the windows of neighbors signifies just exactly what Jeff’s running away from. The depressed musician next door reflects Jeff’s awareness that he’s skilled at what he does, but that this skill nonetheless cannot distract him from the fact that he’s aging and that he is still without a completely steady love life. The dancing female is both a symbol of Jeff’s consciousness that his greatest days are behind him and his recurring problem with being romantically satisfied. “Miss Lonely-Heart” epitomizes Jeff’s fear of being alone, despite constantly trying to break up with Lisa toward the beginning of the film. When these characters receive happy endings at the movie’s end, there’s an unsaid truth that Jeff has finally found closure, too.
Comparably, Lisa is one of the more three-dimensional Hitchcock blondes. Before we even meet her, she’s defined as something of a fantasy. “She’s too beautiful, too talented, too sophisticated — too everything but what I want,” Jeff moans to Stella early in the movie. When we do first meet her, she’s broken into Jeff’s apartment and wakes him from his slumber with a sensual, ruby-red-lipsticked kiss. Once she steps back, we reason that she just might be the gorgeous, arguably shallow high society type Jeff has judged her for being. She’s donning expensive jewelry and is wearing a garish designer dress, though she claims she isn’t coming from an upper-class event — she just changed for Jeff. She's even somehow managed to get the most expensive grille in town to cater for dinner.
But as the film progresses, Lisa proves herself as something more than an idea with a Vogue visage. She’s caring and sympathetic — a purveyor of kind words even when Jeff’s being unnecessarily dickish. She’s also remarkably shrewd. She instantaneously believes her boyfriend’s claims that his neighbor is a murderer, and ends up being a crucial piece in the investigation with her clever instincts and fearlessness. One memorable moment arrives when she sneakily places a note under Thorwald’s door to trick him into leaving his apartment. Jeff and Stella watch as she scurries back to the former’s unit, the supposed murderer simultaneously reading the note in horror. When Lisa returns, a big grin’s plastered on her face. “Wasn’t that close?” she exclaims in excitement. “What was his reaction?” Just watching Jeff’s expression change — from skepticism regarding Lisa’s future ability to comfortably suit his photographer lifestyle to one of total admiration — is touching.
The scenes that find Jeff and co. directly trying to provoke Thorwald are certainly the most exciting. That aforementioned sequence is accidentally funny because we can so tangibly feel the giddiness anyone might when playing would-be detective. But then things progress more dramatically: first Lisa breaks into Thorwald’s apartment trying to get her paws on some evidence — only to get caught by the latter and nearly become his latest victim. Then Thorwald happens to see Jeff looking at him through a pair of binoculars across the way, setting off one of cinema’s great thriller finales.
These sequences have the potential to be too theatrical, borderline hysterical, to be in tune with the relative downplaying seen in the rest of the movie. But Hitchcock’s a puppet master who never goes for the obvious. Even though Rear Window is without a score (music and sounds from neighbors act as the soundtrack), these adrenaline-baiting misadventures are unusually quiet and carefully dragged out — so much so that we have to stifle a squeal just as much as we have to keep ourselves from falling out of our chairs when the peril’s unusually imminent. The finale is a particular kicker. Years after my initial viewing, it is still the minute of Rear Window I remember the most.
But so much about the film is unforgettable anyway. The image of Stewart peering nosily through a pair of binoculars. The sound of Ritter’s voice animating a wisecrack. The thought of Kelly being jostled by Thorwald as Jeff helplessly looks from his apartment. Burr’s death stare. Stewart’s pajamas. Kelly’s gowns. It is an extraordinary thriller, one that finds a director in command of his powers and a set of stars at the peak of their appeal. It comes together seamlessly, streamlined from beginning to end. Suspense, it seems, does not have an expiration date. And neither does Hitchcock’s license to thrill, apparently. A+