Tomorrow is the 60th anniversary of the release of Rear Window, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest films. It is not only extremely entertaining, but it is technically brilliant, and contains many of the themes that Hitchcock would use again and again in his career, but in a fresh way.
I’ve seen it now several times, but the first time was in 1983, in a re-release in a double feature with Rope at the now gone Cinema Studio. It had been held from public view for over ten years until Hitchcock’s estate had been settled.
Rear Window was based on a short-story by Cornell Woolrich, but greatly expanded by John Michael Hayes. It’s a doozy of an idea: a photojournalist (James Stewart), accustomed to traveling to danger zones and an active life, is apartment-bound due to a broken leg. Out of boredom, he starts looking out his rear window and observing the neighbors around him (clearly this film is unique to its time period, before the ubiquity of television or the Internet). He starts to become suspicious of the activity of a salesman (Raymond Burr) and comes to the conclusion that he has killed his wife (and cut her up to boot). He enlists the aid of his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) and nurse (Thelma Ritter) to bring the man to justice.
Of course nothing is simple in a Hitchcock film, even if the premise sounds so. For one thing we have the set. It was shot entirely on a soundstage at Paramount, which meant ripping up the floor and utilizing the basement. Stewart, looking on his neighbors, is immediately identifiable to the audience, for he is looking on something cinematic, as are we. Hitchcock’s primary pacing of shots is to show Stewart looking, what he is seeing, and his reaction, and this is usually what we are feeling. He will look at newlyweds pulling a shade, and smirk at what is going on behind them, or watching whom he has dubbed Miss Lonelyhearts having an imaginary dinner date, and toasting to her.
There is also the sense of the voyeur. Cinema is an act of voyeurism in itself–we are watching the private behavior of characters, but Stewart is watching real people. All through the film the ethics of the situation is questioned, especially by Stewart’s detective pal (Wendell Corey) who rightly states that what people do in private is often unexplainable to others, and Stewart shouldn’t leap to conclusions. But Stewart is right, of course.
The genius of the script is that it gives life to the various people Stewart watches. In addition to Miss Lonelyhearts and the newlyweds there is Miss Torso, a dancer who is the apple of many a man’s eye, and a songwriter, struggling with a piece of music. Many of these relationships, along with Stewart’s to Kelly, is seen with a somewhat gimlet eye by Hitchcock.
Kelly, never looking more alluring, is introduced by a close-up as she moves into the camera to give Stewart a kiss. That hooks everyone, male and female, I suspect, into her charms. She is a society girl, a fashion director who likes dinner at 21 and Park Avenue. Stewart chafes at marrying her, because he sees his craving for rugged adventure at odds with her lifestyle, and doesn’t think either will change. Somewhat ghoulishly, we see the effects of a bad marriage with Burr and his wife, or with the newlyweds, who emerge from their honeymoon quarreling.
As for technical qualities of the film, they are breathtaking. A few scenes stand out. When Kelly (who has impressed Stewart with her daring-do) breaks into Burr’s apartment, Stewart and Ritter are distracted by Miss Lonelyhearts, who seems to be about to kill herself. Therefore they don’t notice, but we do, Burr coming home. Stewart is impotent (another comment on the relationship–Kelly does all the heavy lifting) while she is confronted by Burr until the police come. Then, in a fantastic shot, Kelly, from across the courtyard, shows Stewart she has a wedding ring (an important piece of evidence). Burr notices this, and looks straight at Stewart, the first time the two men have looked directly at each other. It’s chilling.
Then comes the climax of the picture, when Burr comes to Stewart’s apartment. Stewart has nothing to defend himself except flashbulbs, which is to say he uses the tools of his profession–the photographer, or professional voyeur (one thing that is unexplained is why, even though Stewart hears Burr coming, he doesn’t lock his door). But Stewart can’t stop Burr, he can only delay him, and he loses the struggle as Burr throws him out the window. But still, a happy ending, as Kelly lies beside Stewart, dressed not in a frock but in jeans, reading a book about the Himalayas. Until she notices he is asleep, and then she picks up a Harper’s Bazaar.
I should add the film has a few racy moments, at least for 1954. There is a shot of two women on a rooftop and the suggestion is that they are sunbathing topless, with a helicopter hovering above them. There are the newlylweds, who keep the window shade drawn, at least until the husband pokes his head out for fresh air, only to be plaintively called back by his apparently insatiable wife. Most funny to today’s audiences is the scene in which Kelly arrives and announces she’s spending the night, and Stewart makes a big hullabaloo about how there is only one bed, or that he has no pajamas for her. Unmarried people didn’t share living quarters in those days, at least not in the movies or on TV.
Rear Window was a big hit and sits at 100 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. I’ve never heard a bad word about it. Stewart is at his most Jimmy Stewart-ish, stammering and making wisecracks, and Kelly is one of the most beautiful women who have ever been filmed. Ritter is a hoot, the comic relief of the picture (and one of the few older women in Hitchcock films who aren’t portrayed as gargoyles). This is certainly in the top ten of Hitchcock films, and perhaps the most entertaining, right there with North by Northwest.