Tell me exactly what you saw and what you think it means.
Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
Runtime: 112 minutes
Starring: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr
If you look back at the volume of films Alfred Hitchcock made you will notice that his busiest period was between 1930 and 1940. During this time, he directed 14 feature films, as well as some shorts too. By the time, the 1950’s rolled along, the number of films he directed had declined slightly (1940 – 1950 = 12, 1950 – 1960 = 11), but for me, the quality of the films was better than ever. Greats like “Strangers on a Train” (1951), “Dial M for Murder” (1954), “To Catch a Thief” (1955), “Vertigo” (1958), and “North by Northwest” (1959). It is this period that the film I am reviewing here comes from – to be specific, 1954, the same year as “Dial M for Murder”.
Considered one of the best films that Hitchcock directed, “Rear Window” is a crime thriller which was written by John Michael Hayes and based on a 1942 short story by Cornell Woolrich called “It Had to Be Murder”. The film is an exploration of voyeurism, with the fascination of crime and wrongdoing taking a central seat. It would be easy for me to write in excess a study of the film and some of the meaning and metaphors behind it, but I am going to refrain (for now) and try to be as straight forward about it as I can from an entertainment point of view.
L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart) is a professional photographer that is housebound in his New York apartment due to a broken leg. His housekeeper Stella (Thelma Ritter) keeps the apartment clean, and his high-society fashion consultant Lisa Freemont (Grace Kelly) keeps his spirits up. Fascinated by the world outside of his window, Jeff spends his time watching his neighbours. When he suspects that one of his neighbours (Lars Thorwald, played by Raymond Burr) has committed a heinous crime, Lisa and Stella are on hand to do a little snooping for him, after all, with his broken leg, all he can do is watch from a far.
…or… Here’s a summary in 180 characters or less
Hitchcock’s film about a peeping tom who thinks he has witnesses a crime and sends his girlfriend and housekeeper to investigate.
The acting in this film is great. James Stewart leads the line as the voyeuristic photographer Jeff. He acts his way through a range of emotions well and really brings the character to life despite the confinements he is stuck in. Jeff is fed up and angry at being a prisoner in his own home, he is more accustomed to the freedom of being able to “up and go” any where, and at any time. Jeff develops an addiction for the fascination of the world beyond his window, like any addict he needs more and more of his chosen drug. By the final act though, he is horrified; not just with what he may have seen from his window, but at what he has become – especially in sending his girlfriend and housekeeper into a dangerous situation to snoop. James Stewart’s performance as an “any man” he is authentic and engaging, something that really allows the audience to connect with him as a voyeur.
Like Stewart, Grave Kelly’s performance is fantastic in this film. Her character is a headstrong woman that is as intelligent and independent, and she is daring and ready for action. She is also gorgeous too of course! Hitchcock is known for liking strong women in his films, if they are not playing the femme fatale, they are often the untouchable Madonna’s that are there to be worshiped from afar. Grace Kelly’s character, Lisa, enters the film like a dream. She seems to know already what she wants at the start of the film, but regardless of Jeff’s doubts. She spends the entire film trying to get close to Jeff and convince him she is right. Once she buys into what Jeff has seen she finds another way of trying to convince Jeff that she is the right person for him despite his initial doubts; with actions rather than spending money on him, expensive food, looking good, or even just convincing words.
Grace Kelly and James Stewart show some great chemistry in this film, they bounce off each other easily, and it is especially noticeable during moments of intimacy. It looks like Grace Kelly really is fond of James Stewart, and as they embrace there is some real tenderness seen. For their on-screen presence, their backstory isn’t really explored in detail, but with how connected and at ease they are with each other, I didn’t find this to be an issue. They know each other, and they are comfortable with each other.
In a supporting role, Thelma Ritter as housekeeper Stella provides some great input. Her humour is dark and cutting at times, but she generally comes across as a nice ‘salt of the earth’ type who you would be happy to have a drink with, or work alongside. The whole cast do well – even Raymond Burr who only features initially for small snippets but still manages to come across as menacing while only being illuminated from the glow of a cigarette.
Fun Fact: In case you are curious, Hitchcock’s cameo is winding a clock up in the songwriter’s apartment.
The clever dialogue throughout really drives this film at times. It is mixed with touches of comedy and romance to relieve the tension, but it is never too far away from the suspense. Jeff is the “any man” and the situation he is in is something anybody watching the film could find themselves in. Having had a broken foot myself, I know how frustrating it can be to be stuck at home in the same chair for hours on end. Jeff has his window to watch rather than a TV, but it is the in-between times that need to be jazzed up – and that’s where the dialogue that the characters have been written with really makes sure the film doesn’t suffer staleness.
The location used for the film is great – yes, it is pretty much all done at Paramount Studios (a replica of a Greenwich Village courtyard was constructed, complete with working drainage), but that is not what I mean. The cinematography construct by Robert Burke and Hitchcock is great. The confines of an apartment make the film feel claustrophobic. The only time we see the outside world it is through the same window as Jeff. As much as he is a voyeur in the film, Hitchcock turns the audience into one too. It is fair to say that as film goers the audience is already a voyeur, but here there is an extra layer of it. Having just one apartment for Jeff to watch would have made a boring film, thankfully here he has a collection of apartments all inhabited by people that you could easy find yourself living nearby. To further humanise Jeff’s neighbours, they all have nicknames, much like would happen in real life. Here we have “the songwriter”, “Miss Hearing Aid”, “Miss Lonelyhearts”, and “Miss Torso”. It becomes a mini-soap opera, but with the variation of characters it is like channel hopping too.
At nearly 2 hours this film is quite long for a film of the 1950’s, but the pacing keeps it interesting. The first act sets up the story nicely, transforming Jeff and the audience into a voyeur. The second act brings the suspicion of a crime to mull over. By the third act, actions are being planned to bring the crime to justice. It never feels like the film drags and even the quieter moments have something to offer.
The sense of suspense is carried all the way through this thriller. With the excellent cinematography, great camera work, and splendid acting – this is a film which is carried off well. I am a fan of this film, I was the first time I watched it in the 1990’s, and I have enjoyed it every subsequent viewing since then too. “Rear Window” is a masterpiece in storytelling and excellently explores the voyeuristic psychology hidden in everyone. Having watched this recently (2021), this is still a film that does not feel that old – sure, a mobile phone would have made life easier for the characters being shown, but that aside it hasn’t aged terribly (other than a lot of people not liking or speaking to their neighbours these days). The film is still great fun and enjoyable to watch, and despite there being remakes by different names over the years, none have captured the feelings that this film gave.
If you haven’t seen this film, you absolutely should. It isn’t just something for cinephile’s to adore, this film won plenty of industry awards, it has been entered into the National Film Registry by the American Library of Congress, and it features on many a top 100 list – including the American Film Institute (AFI). It is a beautifully crafted and enjoyable film that I’m giving a solid 8 out of 10 for.