Photographer L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies (James Stewart) has been recovering in his apartment for several weeks, with one leg in a cast after breaking it on the job. To pass time between visits from his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), he spies on his neighbours. These include ‘Miss Torso’, a young dancer who in between stretching and reading invites distasteful suitors to her cramped apartment; ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’, a hopeless romantic who lives on the ground floor; Lars and Anna Thorwald, wed in what appears, less than harmony; a ‘Songwriter’, who not only provides the soundtrack to New York City life but also for all his neighbours to hear; and the young newlyweds, who despite having their blinds permanently down are rest assured more than awake. However, as Jefferies enters his final week of solitude and becomes more engrossed in his newfound recreation, he believes he’s witnessed the planning and carrying out of a shocking crime. The question is, did it really happen or was it a concoction of his imagination?
Whatever I choose to write about 1954’s Rear Window will not do it justice, I’m not an experienced enough writer. I’m not going to provide an analysis of the film nor am I going to delve into voyeurism. Instead, I’m going to highlight its best qualities and what consequently makes it one of my favourite Alfred Hitchcock films.
What better place to start, than performances? Stewart, Ritter and Kelly each carry out their respective parts to great effect. I’ve written this before but what Hitchcock achieves with a stationary Stewart in one room is remarkable. The logistics of ensuring that the viewer remains engaged throughout the runtime, given the location restraints is no easy feat but Stewart and Hitchcock take this in their stride, using it as an advantage. For me the main character is not Jefferies but the location, a masterful example of production design in service to story. The score for example is dynamic, evolving throughout the 112-minute runtime as Ross Bagdasarian’s ‘Songwriter’ hacks out his next piece in between hot, lifeless days and party-filled evenings. The world which Hitchcock presents feels so large and that is the magic of it. He takes the mundane, presents his vision and in the process keeps you hooked. Ritter also deserves praise for adding a comedic touch, offsetting Jefferies theories and ensuring that the viewer’s tension is released. Those who have seen Hitchcock’s body of work will know that humour plays an important, often underappreciated role. Upon rewatching Rear Window, it is perhaps never better utilised. But for me the star of the ensemble is Kelly, turning in the strongest of her three collaborations with the director (Dial M For Murder, Rear Window and To Catch a Thief). There is this underlying tone of post-war modernity that runs throughout John Michael Hayes screenplay and Kelly poignantly captures and amplifies this. I have no reservations as to why Hitchcock viewed her as his favourite leading lady. It goes without saying it’s a shame we didn’t see more of her on screen.
Consequently, Rear Window is an engrossing experience. Not because of the way Hitchcock hijacks your heartbeat with his mastery of suspense. Not because of how cinematographer Robert Burks hijacks your eyes with his lens. Not through the way Franz Waxman seduces you with his music. No, Rear Window is an engrossing experience because it’s a sum of its parts. Like 2019’s Parasite, (a film heavily influenced by Hitchcock, even including a cameo of the director) it’s a film that works on all levels because everyone is working at the top of their game. I’ve not read the short story by Cornell Woolrich, which the film is based on, but Hitchcock’s film oozes with life, down to the smallest details. When a world is so richly envisioned, it helps to reel the viewer in. Everything feels as if it’s in service to putting the viewer into the mind of Jefferies, and it works.