Highly regarded director Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” has to be one of my all-time favorite Hitchcock films (as it is for many people). What makes this film so ingenious is not only the unique cinematography employed but also how Hitchcock utilized a single set to tell nine smaller stories within one film, some in more detail than others.
The inimitable James Stewart sinks deep into his role as L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies, a well-respected photojournalist who is on the mend from a broken leg. Relegated to his cramped Greenwich Village apartment during a sweltering New York summer, Jeff has become afflicted with a bad case of boredom.
His boredom is somewhat eased by spying on the various urban denizens—their windows open because of the stifling heat—who occupy the various funky tenements across from his own, through his rear window.
One of the tenants (whom Jeff refers to as “Miss Torso”) is a well-built dancer, as well as an exhibitionist, who sashays around in her underwear; Jeff watches her with fascination. Another apartment is occupied by “Miss Lonelyhearts,” a single woman who sets her dining table for romantic dinners and goes through the motions as if she’s entertaining a date—except for the fact that no one is there. And then there’s the gifted pianist-songwriter who has a drinking problem, evidenced by his staggering into his apartment late at night, barely managing to pour himself into a cushy chair before passing out.
Each of the tenants has their own interesting idiosyncrasies, which are highlighted even further once Jeff decides to break out a pair of binoculars in order to get a closer view of these quirky folks.
Jeff’s only guests are his doting, uptown girlfriend, Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly), and his nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter). Stella knows about Jeff’s relationship with Lisa and routinely implores him to go ahead and marry her. But although Jeff is in love with Lisa, he considers her to be too upper-crust for his more roguish lifestyle. He routinely travels throughout the world to cover assignments in dangerous regions. He even tells Stella that he’d rather Lisa find someone else who is more accustomed to her lofty station in life.
Both Lisa and Stella consider Jeff’s peeping-Tom ways an unhealthy preoccupation. So, when he points out that a particular tenant is acting strangely, they write him off as imagining things that aren’t there. The tenant in question is a traveling salesman (Raymond Burr) who lives with his bedridden wife. His wife constantly nags and belittles him, and Jeff sees the man storm off angrily on more than one occasion.
One night, Jeff watches as the salesman leaves and returns to his apartment several times, and he is always carrying his large work case that is big enough to pass for a suitcase. Later, he witnesses the man wrapping up long knives and saws, as well as handling some frayed rope. From these ominous details, Jeff gathers that the salesman has killed, and probably disposed of in brutal fashion, his wife.
Eventually, he not only convinces both Lisa and Stella that something foul is afoot but also intrigues his good friend, Thomas J. Doyle (Wendell Corey), who happens to be a detective lieutenant with the New York Police Department.
As the investigation into this murder mystery commences, we also get to see how everyday life progresses for the characters that Jeff enjoys spying on. For instance, at a certain point, “Miss Lonelyhearts” manages to bring a man back to her apartment, and what unfolds isn’t exactly what she had planned (no spoilers here).
But there are big questions to be answered: Will Jeff and his cohorts get to the bottom of what happened to the salesman’s wife? When one of the ladies is put in grave danger, will Jeff—still immobilized in his wheelchair—be able to save her life, let alone his own?
Hitchcock at His Best
Hitchcock, of course, is at the top of his game here. The film showcases some of the director’s unusual shooting techniques and also delivers some extremely tense scenes, mainly toward the end of the film’s one hour, fifty-two-minute runtime.
Stewart and Kelly turn in some versatile acting performances—emoting everything from high drama to witty mirth, and everything in-between.
But I’d have to say that Ritter, already a seasoned character actress, is truly magnetic. Her zany wit and charm allowed her to steal every scene she’s in, and we want to see more of her hilarious character.
“Rear Window” is a fascinating look at the nature of invasive surveillance and the all-too-timely issues surrounding personal privacies—and the limits thereof. It’s also packed with extremely tense scenes that will stay with you long after the film’s ending credits roll.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Release Date: Sept. 1, 1954 (USA)
Rated: 4.5 stars out of 5