Rear Window (1954), written by John Michael Hayes, is Alfred Hitchcock’s self-proclaimed masterpiece. It’s one of our favourite classics and it was great fun to do a Rear Window review for what would’ve been Hitch’s 122nd birthday. If you haven’t seen the film start with our preview blog and podcast.
Jimmy Stewart, as we affectionately know him, plays L.B. Jeffries. ‘Jeff’ is a renowned photographer and, due to a broken leg is now a full-time voyeur. Hitchcock shot almost the entire film from within Jeff’s apartment, making sure we’re right there with him as he observes (read spies) on his neighbours.
Jeff is joined by his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) as his cabin fever and commitment issues convince him that his neighbour Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) has murdered his wife.
The acting performance of Stewart, Kelly, and Ritter are individually outstanding but the back and forth between them is what makes their performances so great to watch. The tight ensemble combined with the tight setting is captivating and from the very start, we’re on this journey with them. The acting performances across the courtyard are
Hitchcock is a master of directorial storytelling. Before a word is spoken we’re taken through the courtyard to meet Jeff’s neighbours: the songwriter; Miss Lonely-Hearts; the salesman and his ill, nagging wife; the happily married older couple; the happily single sculptor and then Miss Torso the dancer and the apartment on which Jeff’s binoculars are often trained (despite the fact that he’s dating soon-to-be royalty). In case the additions to that scene (open windows, kids playing in the fire-hydrant spill, or Jeff’s sweaty forehead) aren’t enough to establish that its hot Hitch does give you a close-up of Jeff’s thermometer stuck at 105 degrees. Even Hitch has to give something for the lowest common denominator of viewers.
Stella’s entrance makes it clear she’s the comic relief and it’s what Thelma Ritter does well. She berates Jeff about his issues in marrying Lisa saying “It’s not normal.” She’s pretty blunt about it. Lisa is, in her words, “Perfect for any man with a heartbeat and one eye open.” And then Lisa (Kelly) enters and you’re reminded that she really is. It’s not surprising at all that she got snapped up by a Monacan prince. Less surprising than a Danish prince marrying a lady from Hobart. Not that we don’t love ladies from Tasmania.
The suspected murder happens early. The story makes it so that everyone in the surrounding apartments is out for the night. Miss Lonely-Hearts on a rare date, Miss Torso and the musician are out at respective parties and we know from the opening sequence that the sculptor has hearing issues. From there the suspense is built on mystery, the pieces are put together by Jeff and we’re on board. Just as he convinces Lisa and Stella we’re convinced. The limited view from Jeff’s window prompts us, along with Jeff, to make assumptions about the character across the courtyard. Some are obvious, like the out-of-breath newlywed husband. Some less so, like the actions of Thorwald.
It’s a different kind of thriller from what we’d see today. If this was made today there’d be a mystery killer working its way through the apartment complex. And all of Jeff’s photos would be on Instagram.
We can’t help but wonder if Jeff’s commitment issues contribute to his ideas about Thorwald. After all, if a husband has murdered his wife it wouldn’t be a very good idea for Jeff to marry Lisa, would it? He ignores the newlyweds and the happily married couple upstairs, becomes fixated on the unhappy marriage, and convinces himself of Thorwald’s nefarious activities.
Despite Jeff’s detective friend trying to convince the team that there are other alternatives the case of The Dog Who Knew Too Much. From there Jeff enlists Lisa as his legs and the more she risks her life for him the more he falls for her. Some long-overdue respect and maybe he’s seeing her as more than the beautiful woman in the $1100 dress ($1100 is about $12000 now). She knocks on a murderer’s front door, digs up a garden, climbs into a second storey window, and, despite being caught red-handed, manages to acquire some key evidence.
From there we get really tense. While Lisa is breaking into Thorwald’s apartment we notice Miss Lonely-Hearts dosing up her sleeping pills. Thorwald returns and catches Lisa. The police arrive. The songwriter is attempting to bash out the last chords of his opus. Those attempts increase the tension. Until he finds the tune, Lisa is saved by the police and Miss Lonely-Hearts is saved by the love song that’s just been written. This is lucky because Stella and Jeff quickly forgot about her suicide attempt.
But we’re not done. Thorwald visits Jeff. If it wasn’t for his quick thinking and his flashbulbs he’d be done for. That and the fact that he fell out of the window. That scene unfortunately doesn’t quite stand up to modern filmmaking. That and the weird thing old movies do where they speed up the film rather than make the actors run as they rush out of their apartments to see Jeff fall.
Other than that scene it’s a movie that holds up. The suspense, the tension, and the incredible storytelling. While it has been remade neither Brett nor Lee has seen the 1998 Christopher Reeve version so can’t really comment. Only this and Psycho have been hit by Hollywood’s obsession with the reboots and none in recent years. That’s probably an indication of the respect for Hitchcock’s filmmaking. Movies like Disturbia, where they take the storyline and modernise it. Like we’ve seen with Shakespeare’s stories, like 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s The Man.
Hitch’s commitment to storytelling is legendary and that’s evident in the making of Rear Window. He spent almost the entire time in the set of Jeff’s apartment, communicating with the actors across the courtyard via radio earpieces. Pretty big tech on a set for 1954. He only left Jeff’s apartment for his traditional cameo. We see him in the songwriter’s apartment early, setting his clock for daylight saving time for the summer. Taking it even further, the apartments in the courtyard were built for the film, complete with working plumbing and electricity. They were fitted out so well that the actress playing Miss Torso lived there during filming. Here’s a deep analysis of the design of the apartments for the movie.
It really is Hitch’s masterpiece and one of our favourites. Our full review is on our podcast.