IT ONLY TAKES ONE WITNESS TO SPOIL THE PERFECT CRIME.
This masterpiece from Alfred Hitchcock reunited the director with James Stewart from Rope (1948), another thriller that was set entirely in one apartment. This film has the same set-up, albeit with one big difference: the apartment is primarily the place from where we look into the lives of other people. The action that propels the story takes place in the apartment block on the other side of the courtyard. One of Hitchcock’s strokes of genius is having his audience and main character essentially blend into one voyeur.
A smothering, warm summer day
When we meet news photographer L.B. Jeffries (Stewart), he’s bored out of his mind. He spends every smothering, warm summer day in his New York apartment confined to a wheelchair after breaking a leg. He’s got one week left until the cast comes off and he’s taken up a potentially disturbing hobby. He’s getting to know the neighbors across the yard, but not in a very social way; he’s using his telephoto lens to spy on them. He’s learnt a lot; there’s a couple who spends most days arguing, a woman who’s so lonely she prepares dinners for herself and an imaginary man, a couple of newlyweds who stay in the bedroom 24/7, an attractive lady who entertains many suitors, etc.
Jeffries gets regular visits from a nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter), who tells him to stop watching his neighbors and pay more attention to his girlfriend, socialite Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly). They are lovers, but Jeffries has serious doubts about marrying Lisa. After all, she does lead a social life that is pretty foreign to a man who makes a living traveling to third-world countries, depicting conflicts with his camera. Jeffries also sees marriage as an institution that will force him to give up everything he holds dear, his job in particular. Lisa patiently waits for him to see reason and make a commitment. Then one night Jeffries witnesses a fight between the arguing couple; he falls asleep in his wheelchair, but wakes up a few hours later and sees the husband leave his apartment with a bag, not once but several times.
Jeffries realizes that the man’s wife has disappeared and starts thinking that the husband, Thorwald (Raymond Burr), may have killed her and dispensed with the body.
Making us doubt
Those occasions when the viewers learn something that Jeffries doesn’t know are very rare; part of the attraction is that we realize things when Jeffries does and are never allowed (until the final sequences) to know for sure that Thorwald has done anything wrong. We expect foul play, but Hitchcock still makes us doubt what we have seen with our very eyes. It’s very easy to sympathize with Jeffries because of Stewart’s performance, as the good guy in a tale about murder, as someone who does something we all enjoy doing (gossiping about people in our proximity) and as a person who is afraid to grow up and promise another human being to be a faithful and devoted husband.
Kelly is absolutely enchanting as his girlfriend, the socialite who is eager to get drawn into Jeffries’s world but also wants him to abandon it. She’s fascinating as a woman he is attracted to, but also a person who threatens his way of life (which Hitch illustrates in an interesting slo-mo shot). Ritter provides comic relief and gets some of the funniest lines.
Part of this film’s success is the way the director tells many different stories, including the ones in the apartment block, which turns into a dollhouse to us and the wheelchair-bound photographer; some of them even mirror and influence Jeffries’s own situation. You can analyze this film to death, but the beauty of it is that you can also just enjoy it as a simple thriller.
Rear Window 1954-U.S. 112 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay: John Michael Hayes. Novella: Cornell Woolrich (“It Had to Be Murder”). Cinematography: Robert Burks. Music: Franz Waxman. Cast: James Stewart (L.B. Jeffries), Grace Kelly (Lisa Fremont), Wendell Corey (Tom Doyle), Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr, Judith Evelyn.
Trivia: Allegedly inspired by the 1924 Patrick Mahon murder case. Remade as a TV movie, Rear Window (1998).
Quote: “Preview of coming attractions.” (Kelly showing Stewart her nightgown)
Last word: “The idea of adding the Fremont character was mine, and it was based upon my wife, Mel, who was in fact a high fashion model herself. The love interest is a requirement, or at least it was at the time and place in which the story was crafted. My opinion was, and still is, that we all fall very hard in love sooner or later, and can clearly relate to the concept of peril brought upon those that we strongly care about. As well as the simple fact that having a headstrong, yet imperiled, female character could add a great bounty to the story. As for Jefferies, it was necessary simply due to the relative brevity of the original work. That much was clearly visible by all from the beginning of the project.” (Hayes, Screenwriter’s Utopia)