Let’s Take a Look in the Rearview Mirror at Rear Window, a Cinematic Classic
Film: Rear Window (1954)
Starring: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter, Wendell Corey, Raymond Burr
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
Produced by: Alfred Hitchcock
Written by: John Michael Hayes (based on the short story “It Had to be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich)
Music by: Franz Waxman
Running Time: 112 minutes
Note: I don’t really feel like this disclaimer is necessary given that this film is 58 years old, but there will be spoilers in this post.
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic, Rear Window, is a film that was instrumental in influencing (the alliteration here is indubitably intentional) the suspense genre and later films that prominently featured voyeuristic motifs (David Lynch, anyone?).
I finally got around to seeing it and found myself locked in for a smooth, enjoyable ride. The suspense wasn’t quite as hard-hitting as the type we see in the R-rated films of today, but I imagine that back in 1954, this was pretty cutting edge. More importantly, however, is that despite a lack of brutal intensity, Hitchcock — in quite innovative fashion — was able to create a fair level of suspense by putting the audience in the protagonist’s shoes. This is a technique that has undoubtedly been employed over the years to various extents and in various ways, but Hitchcock was a trend setter.
The story of Rear Window sees a photographer named L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) confined to his apartment in Greenwich Village with a broken leg. With nothing to do, he finds himself often looking out of his rear window, through which he can see several of his neighbors. He spies on them to keep himself occupied. Jeff’s nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter), disapproves of his voyeuristic habits, remarking that the world’s population is becoming a bunch of “Peeping Toms.” For a film to be exploring the ideas of voyeurism and escapism in 1954 had to be pretty novel.
Jeff is also somewhat dissatisfied with his relationship with his girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly). Lisa is wealthy and is mostly interested in the ideals of romance and social status. Jeff, meanwhile, wants to do something meaningful and extraordinary in his life and dreams of traveling the world (just like his character in It’s A Wonderful Life). Thus, his visions and dreams do not mesh with the notion of marrying Lisa, so he comes across as generally disinterested in the relationship.
The core of the plot develops when Jeff notices one of his neighbors, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), making several late-night trips to and from his apartment with a suitcase and eventually a large box that he employs moving men to take away. He then realizes that he no longer sees Thorwald’s wife, who had been bedridden, in the apartment. Adding to the intrigue is Thorwald’s possession of a large knife and handsaw.
Half-curious and half-seeking-some-excitement, Jeff quickly becomes obsessed with a theory that Thorwald murdered his wife. He tells Lisa, Stella, and his police detective friend Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey), and all are skeptical (especially the latter). Soon, however, more and more clues present themselves and point to the possibility of Jeff’s theory.
Rear Window is one of the few stories I can think of where the protagonist’s seemingly crazy theory is 100% correct. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel like a more traditional story structure tends to involve either an intriguing twist on the character’s theory or a complete downplaying of it when the truth is exposed. Other times, we’ll even find out that the character is mentally insane and/or is hallucinating. In Rear Window, Jeff is actually correct, which is unique to me. This straightforward storyline actually made the film a little less predictable to me.
Getting back to how Hitchcock portrays suspense in Rear Window, he does so most effectively by putting us in Jeff’s shoes. Many of the camera angles are from Jeff’s point of view and feature extended shots that slowly pan across his line of vision through his rear window. The suspense may not be utterly intense, but it builds gradually as we fear that not only Jeff will get caught spying, but that we will as well. The legendary James Stewart’s effortlessly effective acting also makes it easy for us to empathize with him, and in so doing makes the transition from the idea of him spying to us spying that much smoother. This idea and style of filming — along with the associated themes of voyeurism and escapism — could also be a representation of the general public becoming caught up in films and television, gleaning excitement from the goings-on of other people, be the events real or fictional.
What’s also interesting about Jeff’s obsession with everything external to him — namely, the idea of traveling the world and his interest in what’s going on outside his rear window — is how it affects his relationship with Lisa. As was discussed, their visions do not really match up and he finds himself disinterested. However, at one point in the film, when Lisa goes to Thorwald’s vacant apartment to investigate, Jeff suddenly becomes more passionate and scared for her. Of course, with Thorwald returning, we would assume that the perilous situation in which that places Lisa would spark some emotion and fright in Jeff, but nevertheless, his passion for Lisa increases when she becomes part of the external story he is consuming.
There is a lot more to Rear Window than what we see on the surface, and that is what helps make it such a big-name classic. These are some of the things I took away from the film, but I’d love to see what anyone else has to say about it (hint hint…leave a comment), because I think it’s almost impossible to have a completely exhaustive discussion about it.
Loaded with thought-provoking themes and motifs and innovative film-making styles, Rear Window is a treat for any fan of cinema. The presence of James Stewart, Alfred Hitchcock’s smooth direction, and an interesting surface plot (that, even without hard-hitting intensity, holds up pretty well for a 58-year-old movie) only add to the effectiveness of this film. I can’t believe it took me this long to see it, but I’m glad I finally did. If you haven’t seen it, A) you’ve probably decided against reading this post after seeing the spoiler warning, so what I’m about to say might be irrelevant, and B) I highly recommend it.
Tommy D’s Score:
3.75/4 Tommy Ds
Posted on February 7, 2012, in General Movie Discussion, Reviews and tagged Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, Grace Kelly, It's A Wonderful Life, James Stewart, movies, Raymond Burr, Rear Window, Thelma Ritter, Wendell Corey. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.