I’ve always been a huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies. “Vertigo“ is probably the ultimate expression of his recurring themes of mistaken identity and the ultimate unattainable female. “The Birds” and “Psycho” are both terrific horror movies, depicting monsters from without and within. But “Rear Window” is not only a great artistic achievement, but it is also one of his most entertaining films.
The blatant voyeurism in “Rear Window” is the perfect metaphor for what it is to go to the movies. Hitchcock’s hero, Jimmy Stewart, plays L. B. (Jeff) Jeffries, a photographer who specializes in far-flung travel and exciting assignments – the more remote and dangerous the better. But after deciding to shoot a high-speed auto race from within the track (and being hit by a race car and sidelined with a broken leg), the itinerant photographer is stuck, going stir crazy in his New York City one-bedroom apartment, during a long hot summer with nothing to do. He begins passing his time by spying on his neighbors for entertainment, through the zoom lens on his camera.
His visiting nurse Stella, played by Thelma Ritter, tells Jeff, “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms.” She is initially bothered by Jeff’s curiosity, but luckily for the audience her own desire to know what’s happening across Jeff’s courtyard matches ours. She joins Jeff in watching the neighbors and even gives them nicknames, like “Miss Torso” and “Miss Lonelyhearts”. Tuned in regularly to everyone’s daily routines, Jeff begins to notice that one of the couples, a middle-aged husband and his bedridden wife, may be acting in a peculiar manner. “I’ve seen bickering and family quarrels and mysterious trips at night, and knives and saws and ropes, and now since last evening, not a sign of the wife. How do you explain that?”
Stella and Jeff’s girlfriend, Lisa Fremont, played to the hilt of 1950s allure by Grace Kelly, at first try to persuade Jeff that he is imagining things, but they can’t help looking and getting caught up in all of the rear window dramas. It’s all fun for Jeff, Lisa and Stella to play a guessing game of unraveling the mysteries of their neighbor’s lives – until they realize that they have stumbled upon a murder, and then the game becomes deadly serious.
Hitchcock captures the close quarters that come with city living – the proximity, the curiosity, and the assumptions we make about our neighbors – the feeling that we “know” people that we have never spoken to simply because we see them every day. He created the entire apartment complex in a single set, complete with action on the street beyond Jeff’s camera’s line of sight. It’s an amazing achievement. As he told François Truffaut, “It was a possibility of doing a purely cinematic film. You have an immobilized man looking out. That’s one part of the film. The second part shows what he sees and the third part shows how he reacts. This is actually the purest expression of a cinematic idea.”
Jeff’s summer is spent sweltering while he watches his neighbors in the heat and intimacy of their lives. Lisa gently presses him to heat up their own relationship, while he continues to push her away, afraid of commitment and losing his life of adventure. In Jeff’s eyes Lisa and he are completely mis-matched. Anyone looking out their rear window and in at them would see that she is perfect for him. Stewart and Kelly have wonderful chemistry.
The movie could be viewed as simply a suspense thriller with a romantic subplot and it would still be top-notch. But I see “Rear Window” as an elaborate mating ritual between Lisa and Jeff, with the emphasis on their romance and Jeff’s fears about their future. I think Hitchcock is most interested in the interplay between all the couples, with the thriller plot a perfect structure to tell their stories of loneliness and search for love. Jeff is not only watching his neighbors from his window but trying on each of their identities as a possible outcome with Lisa.
“Miss Torso” and “Miss Lonelyhearts” are two extremes of the lives led by single women. A male songwriter and a female sculptor are each channeling their romantic energies into their art. There are three couples – the young sex-crazed newlyweds; a couple, not far from the age of Jeff and Lisa, but whose lives are distinctly less glamorous, with a dog they treat as their baby; and Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) and his nagging, bedridden wife – the couple no one would want to become but Jeff fears he and Lisa might.
As Jeff tries to decide which of these scenarios best fit his romance with Lisa, she decides to toss out all of Jeff’s potential relationship stereotypes, and goes into action. She enters his view by leaving the apartment and their theorizing behind and crossing the courtyard to actually investigate. “Why would Thorwald want to kill a little dog? Because it knew too much?” She proves herself as adventurous and risk-taking (if not more so) than Jeff, by sneaking into Thorwald’s apartment and stealing Mrs. Thorwald’s wedding ring, helping to prove Jeff’s theories about the woman’s murder and symbolically securing a ring for herself and Jeff.
Jeff becomes so wrapped up in watching the drama being played out, so excited by her audacity, that even when Lisa puts herself in an extremely dangerous situation, he can’t keep himself from looking. And neither can we. The only thing that finally breaks his view out the window is when Thorwald himself comes over for a visit …
“Rear Window” is just as thrilling to watch today as it must have been when it was initially released in 1954. Hitchcock uses the murder mystery format to tell deeper stories about loneliness, city life, fears of intimacy, and the good and bad places where love might lead. No matter what your views are on “rear window ethics” as Lisa refers to them, the viewer will be immensely grateful that Alfred Hitchcock created this glimpse into others’ lives, before the neighbors got wise and pulled the curtains.
François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock, Helen G. Scott, “Hitchcock”, Google Books