Rear Window (1954) Director: Alfred Hitchcock
The plot for Hitchcock’s brilliant 1954 film, Rear Window, is based on a 1942 short story by Cornell Woolrich called “It Had To Be Murder” (the screenplay was written by John Michael Hayes, a Hollywood screen-writer who wrote a total of four Hitchcock screenplays: To Catch A Thief, The Trouble With Harry, and The Man Who Knew Too Much). The film stars Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly (amazingly Grace Kelly was not nominated by the Academy for erotic portrayal of a lavishly beautiful woman in Rear Window).
The film is brilliantly shot mostly within the confines of one room, with large open windows gazing out onto a studio set designed to be an apartment complex in New York City. L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries is recuperating from an injury he sustained on the job abroad. He is a photographer who enjoys an adventurous life traveling the world and risking his life for the perfect shot. As a result of his broken leg, the audience is confined to see things from his perspective. As viewers, we are limited in our perspective, just like Jeff. Outside his window, he watches various characters, gaining a voyeuristic glimpse into their personal lives. He sees a young, attractive woman “miss torso” who fends off the advances of several different men, but later in the film it is revealed she was only doing so to get ahead in her career, and she is actually unexpectedly dating a military man, short and stout. There is also a newlywed couple who moves in and mostly keep their shades drawn. An older married couple who sleep out on their terrace due to the heat. A young woman who is desperate for love: “miss lonely-hearts,” who later tries to commit suicide due to depression and loneliness, however her circumstances are far less interesting to Jeff than the murder which he believes took place above her. A piano player who is writing his song throughout the film (for whom Hitchcock appears beside him in his only scene of appearance in the film). Lastly, there is a salesman whose wife stays home, an invalid, but she mysteriously disappears one day and Jeff cannot escape from the thought that a murder has happened. Jeff has a girlfriend, Lisa Fremont, who comes from the upper-crust of New York society, an heiress and socialite. She is “too perfect” for Jeff, but she loves him. He also has a physical therapist come by once a day from the insurance company to help him recover.
One theme that runs throughout the film is the topic of marriage. Jeff does not want to be married to Lisa Fremont (shockingly!) yet is incapable of taking care of himself and dependent on the women in his life. His sexual impotence is also a strand that runs in the film. In the absence of real adventure in his life, he discovers new points of intrigue through his voyeurism. About midway through the film he engages with his friend and former fellow military veteran, in a conversation regarding the limits and goodness of voyeurism. When is it good or bad to gaze into people’s lives? Is there a point at which is becomes excessive? Here, Hitchcock explores the boundary between the cinematic obsession with titillating gossip, and a work of art that is also beneficial, edifying. The dark side of the voyeur is that he is secretly, at heart, desirous for the most dark and awful thing to happen – like murder.
In the end, Jeff and his girlfriend devise a plan but the culprit realizes who he is, in a truly terrifying moment when Lisa is caught in the villain’s apartment, and he slowly looks upward to see Jeff’s apartment with the lights on. Suddenly, the voyeur is exposed, his ultimate nightmare. Jeff manages to hold him off for a time by temporarily blinding him with flash bulbs in his camera but he is eventually thrown from his balcony, breaking his other leg. In the end, he continues to sleep in his wheelchair by the window while his girlfriend is dressed and ready to join him on adventures, implying that their differences have been resolved for a time.
There is remarkably little music in the film, considering other famous scores like Psycho or Vertigo. The primary sounds in the film are the echoes from across the courtyard -people’s voices, a dog barking, the piano man playing his song. The set design for this film was incredibly impressive, as a huge 32 room apartment building was constructed at Paramount Pictures to mirror a fictional Manhattan address (125 W 9th Street).
Rear Window is an amazing film that gets better and better each time you watch it. It is one of Hitchcock’s best movies, rife with allegory and themes worth deeper exploration. the entirety of the film is a contemplation on the voyeurism and often titillating nature of the cinematic art and experience. All throughout the film, the audience shares the inquisitive and somewhat intrusive perspective of Jeff as he sits in his apartment. In addition, each of Jeff’s neighbors represent a different aspect of human relationships and romance: from “miss lonelyhearts” to the popular girl, the young married couple, and the old married couple, and others. The only missing relationship is Jeff’s romance with his girlfriend, for which he appears to be somewhat impotent and uninterested, though upon which he is wholly dependent. Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly deliver wonderful performances, despite the unbelievability of their relationship (mainly due to Jeff’s unlikability, and Grace Kelly’s impossibly high-class perfection). Many films have paid homage to Rear Window. It is truly one of the greatest films of all time.