“Rear Window” (1954) is shot on one of the most intricate sets ever created for film, and is so much fun I’m surprised someone hasn’t re-created it as a theme park. The set itself, a courtyard showing the backs of several multi-level apartment buildings, is its own character in the film. It has moods and secrets.
Director Alfred Hitchcock allows the audience to become, much as L.B. Jeffries, played by James Stewart has become, a voyeur sneaking glances into the private worlds of his neighbors. Their private worlds are not just the tangle of fire escapes and studio apartments and kitchenettes, but the rejection and disappointment, the loneliness and troubles they face.
In a swift opening shot we see the backdrop of apartments out Jeffries’ windows, his wheelchair and leg cast, his smashed cameras and photographs, and a stack of Life Magazines which tell us he is a man of action, and already a sort of voyeur as a professional photographer. The first shot we see of Grace Kelly, who plays his girlfriend Lisa, is stunning, with an almost slow-motion feeling of her leaning over the camera and leaning over him for a kiss while he is sleeping. We soon learn, despite this sensual encounter, that there is trouble between them. She is trying to change him into something he is not; and he does not want to be tied down in marriage.
The dialogue in the film, written by John Michael Hayes is reflective, sometimes overlapping, deceptively simple and spare. There is as much conveyed in a camera glance into one of the apartments, or a facial expression from James Stewart as is revealed through the spoken word, though the insurance company nurse, played by Thelma Ritter, gets some good lines.
“We’ve become a race of peeping Toms,” she says, and one wonders what her character would think of today’s camera cell phones.
She senses impending trouble for Stewart, disapproving of his spying on his neighbors, including the nubile dancer dubbed “Miss Torso,” with his telephoto lens, and when he scoffs at her foreboding, she tells him she also predicted the stock market crash of 1929 based on her observations of her patient, an executive at General Motors.
“Kidney ailment they said. Nerves, I said. And I asked myself, what’s General Motors got to be nervous about? Over production, I says. Collapse. When General Motors has to go to the bathroom ten times a day, the whole country’s ready to let go.”
When the lonely woman who lives by herself, dubbed Miss Lonelyhearts, pretends to entertain in a candlelight dinner for two, she raises her glass of wine, as Stewart, wryly and condescendingly observing her, raises his own glass and toasts her, playing her imaginary partner from a distance. We hear street sounds, car horns and sirens, the distant muffled voices of the neighbors, and music as if from a distant radio.
When he begins to suspect his neighbor Thorwald, played by Raymond Burr, of killing his invalid wife, Jeffries’ boredom with his neighbors and his sarcasm toward them changes. He becomes fascinated, and with the help of Kelly and Ritter, tries to prove to his detective friend that a murder even happened. His relationship with Kelly changes as well, and his face lights up with admiration as she reports back on her spying attempt to get information. The audience becomes conspirators, as if, like children, excitedly ringing doorbells and then running away, in an attempt to get the goods on the murderer from a safe distance. In the end, however, his apartment is not Stewart’s haven anymore than his neighbors’ apartments are theirs. Thorwald comes to get him, and Stewart’s only protection is the flash device on his camera, where he pops in the bulbs one at a time into the enormous flash reflector, like a long-ago soldier using a percussion musket that can be fired only once before it must be reloaded each time.
For a guy who spends the entire film in his jammies in a wheelchair, James Stewart has one of the most interesting roles of his career, in part due to his reactions displaying his changing attitudes towards his neighbors. He and Thelma Ritter disgustedly watch a distasteful scene of Miss Lonelyhearts fending off an aggressive date, and later fear her attempted suicide. His attitude towards this neighbor, and the others, has moved from bored disinterest, to fascination, to compassion. Her suicide attempt is stopped suddenly by the rapture she feels at the music coming from the bachelor composer’s apartment (played by Ross Bagdasarian, who later gave us Alvin and the Chipmunks).
Lisa, sneaking into Thorwald’s apartment is also transfixed by the music, but the music that saved Miss Lonelyhearts is Lisa’s doom. Thorwald catches her, and Stewart is trapped by his helplessness, in a black hole of panic when Lisa screams and the lights are turned out. After she is rescued by the police, Stewart broods on his own danger when he knows Thorwald knows he has been watching, and we see the eerie glow of a cigarette in Thorwald’s darkened apartment.
The magnificent set, so intricate despite appearing so ordinary, gives us all these moments. “Rear Window” is perhaps one of Hitchcock’s best-told stories of murder and suspense because it is played out in such an ordinary setting, and at times with ironic humor. That a grisly murder could happen under such every day circumstances and missed by all the neighbors is creepy. The aura of normality is deceptive, which is a creepy thought by itself.
Rear Window [DVD](1954) DVD