Published on September 1st, 1954 | by Padraic Coffey0
Rear Window (1954)
“You asked for something dramatically different. You got it”, quips a temporarily disabled James Stewart at the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Though a defence of the dangerously intimate methods which have landed Stewart’s photographer L.B. Jefferies with a broken leg, this line could also be seen as a statement of intent from Hitchcock. Certainly, Rear Window is dramatically different from much of the director’s filmography. Whereas The 39 Steps (1935) and North by Northwest (1959) had its protagonists flit effortlessly across Britain or America, Rear Window is confined entirely to one setting, Stewart’s New York apartment, from which he spies on his unusually indiscreet neighbours with a telescopic camera lens.
Having maintained a globetrotting career as a freelance photographer, Jefferies is reluctant to marry his wealthy socialite girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), for fear her well-heeled lifestyle would hinder his international pictorial scoops. Mulling over this relationship, while itching – both figuratively and literally – to return to the journalism field, Jefferies satisfies his inquisitive nature by spying on apartments across from his own. Initially little more than an illicit hobby, Jefferies soon convinces himself he has witnessed a murder, and tries to persuade Lisa, his opinionated nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and cynical army buddy Doyle (Wendell Corey) of the same.
Much has been written over the years on Rear Window‘s pedigree as an essay in voyeurism and the appeal of film to our inherently prying nature. Arguably more than any art form, film allows us to sit, undetected, and examine the lives of others. That these lives are dramatically fabricated is the only justification for such behaviour. Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes – adapting Cornell Woolrich’s short story “It Had to Be Murder” – do not skimp on questions of morality over Jefferies’ actions. In one peripheral but quite moving subplot, a neighbour deemed ‘Miss Lonely Hearts’ has an awkward, groping encounter with a younger male companion, which Jefferies witnesses. “I wonder if it’s ethical to watch a man with binoculars and a long-focus lens”, Jefferies muses. “Much as I hate to give Thomas J Doyle too much credit, he might have gotten a hold of something when he said that was pretty private stuff going on out there.”
In the film’s now famous climax, Jefferies makes the leap from spectator to participant as Lisa volunteers to search the ostensibly murderous neighbour’s apartment. When the man returns home prematurely, Jefferies is forced to watch helplessly as Lisa is cornered. This unbearably tense scene is one of the most suspenseful in Hitchcock’s formidable canon. More than simply a thriller, Rear Window is also a witty satire on relationships and marriage in particular. Just as Jefferies is unsure of his future with the implausibly glamorous Lisa, he witnesses a newlywed couple deteriorate from bride-being-carried-over-the-threshold to all too brief moments of reprieve in the guise of cigarette breaks. The murder at the centre of the plot is between a husband and wife, and the much spied upon neighbourhood blonde – dubbed “Miss Torso” – deflects the attention of various suitors in favour of her stumpy army sweetheart who returns in the final scene. “Maybe one day she’ll find her happiness”, Stella says of the perpetually forlorn ‘Miss Lonely Hearts’. “Yeah, and some man will lose his”, Jefferies shoots back.
Stylistically, the decision of Hitchock to use almost no incidental music, bar whatever emanates from a neighbouring songwriter’s apartment, is an unusual but successful technique. Known for his frequent collaborations with Bernard Herrmann, which would actually commence the following year with 1955’s To Catch A Thief, Hitchcock jettisons unnecessary orchestral gimmicks here, favouring Stewart’s skill as an actor, and indeed Hitchock’s own skill as a director, in conveying the mood throughout Rear Window. Parodying and homaged in equal measure, Rear Window remains – unlike Psycho or Vertigo – one of the least divisive films of Hitchock’s career. It holds up as a thriller nearly six decades after it first appeared, and may be the English director’s finest achievement.