Up to a point, Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window looks and feels like a handsome adaptation of a stage play. After all, it's set almost exclusively within the confines of a single apartment, has only a small handful of speaking roles and contains more than a few extended dialogue scenes. However, it doesn't take long to realize that the film Hitchcock is making could never be duplicated on stage, because so much of the film's power comes from Hitch's distinctive (and exclusively cinematic) visual storytelling. Watching Hitchcock transform this setting and premise into something both visually and narratively gripping is akin to watching Houdini break free of one of his Chinese water torture cells.
The film spotlights a few days in the life of L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart, It's a Wonderful Life), a veteran photographer who recently broke his leg while attempting to shoot a horse race. As a result, he's stuck in his apartment until he gets his cast off. He passes the time by watching his neighbors through his rear window, a hobby aided by the fact that it's hot outside and everyone is leaving their windows open. From his well-placed vantage point, he's able to witness a nubile young belly dancer (Georgine Darcy), a lonely spinster (Judith Evelyn, Giant), a talented composer (Alvin and the Chipmunks creator Ross Bagdasarian), a middle-aged married couple who sleep on the fire escape (Frank Cady, Ace in the Hole and Sara Berner, The Naked Street), a pair of amourous newlyweds (Havis Davenport, A Star is Born and Rand Harper, Sea Hunt) and more. Jeff isn't able to hear what most of these people say to each other, but he sees enough to form a strong impression of who they are and what they're like. It becomes almost like watching a soap opera, as various small-scale dramas play out in front of him on a daily basis.
Jeff receives occasional company from his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter, All About Eve) and his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly, To Catch a Thief). Both disapprove of his peeping tom tendencies, but eventually find themselves caught up in the drama when Jeff begins to suspect his surly neighbor Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr, Perry Mason) of murdering Mrs. Thorwald (Irene Winston, Bury Me Dead). Jeff's pal Tom (Wendell Corey, Sorry, Wrong Number) – who conveniently happens to be a police detective – looks into the matter and insists Mrs. Thorwald is fine. She's just out of town visiting relatives. Jeff must be imagining things... right?
Hitchcock makes us complicit in Jeff's voyeurism by allowing us to see and hear things exactly as he sees and hear them. The neighbors are generally presented in long shot, so we see what they're doing but not well enough to read their lips or see the nuances of their facial expressions. The camera follows Jeff's eyes and his interests – he gazes on the belly dancer's backside a little too long, and doesn't pay too much attention to some of his less active neighbors. In one typically clever shot, Hitchcock spends a lengthy amount of time surveying the neighborhood, then pans back to Jeff... who's fast asleep in his chair. We've been spying on people all by ourselves. Later in the movie, the images get a little tighter as Jeff pulls out his camera and binoculars for a better view of potentially important moments.
Are Jeff's activities immoral? The film leaves that question to its viewers, but it certainly suggests that his behavior is unhealthy. This isn't just a passing distraction for Jeff, it's an obsession that consumes his whole life. In one scene, Grace Kelly – looking as radiantly beautiful as she ever looked – walks into the room and kisses Jeff passionately and repeatedly. Rather than responding with any sort of mutual affection, he keeps staring out the window and mulling over the pieces of evidence he's gathered. His behavior nearly wrecks his relationship, until Lisa suddenly becomes just as enthralled with the maybe-murder mystery (just one hit of grade-A voyeurism and you're hooked!).
Hitchcock had a knack for drawing riveting performances out of Stewart, and Rear Window is among the actor's finest turns. Stewart doesn't remove his easy-going charm so much as curdle it, delivering a character a good deal pricklier and moodier than the ones he often played. He seems particularly unpleasant when interacting with Kelly, casually ignoring every effort she makes to endear herself to him. Kelly doesn't have nearly as much screen time, but she plays the quiet disappointment of her early scenes and the Nancy Drew enthusiasm of her later scenes rather beautifully. Plus, she gets one of the great entrances in Hitchcock's filmography. Thelma Ritter is a delight in her handful of scenes, and Raymond Burr manages to project just the right level of ambiguous menace.
It often gets overlooked, but the film's use of sound is nearly as creative as its memorable visual ideas. A traditional piece of orchestral music by Franx Waxman opens the movie, but afterwards the majority of what we hear is produced organically. The composer bangs out a melody on his piano, a peppy tune floats across the courtyard from someone's radio, a dog barks cheerfully, someone shouts a few words of greeting. Dialogue between neighbors is often muffled and quiet, and we find ourselves leaning forward in an effort to make out what's being said.
Rear Window was a big hit when it was released in 1954, but it's hard to imagine such a film finding similar success today. Part of it is due to the fact that today's audiences are less patient (recall the unofficial 2007 remake Disturbia, which took the same basic premise but amped everything up with more action, more characters, aggressive music and faster editing), and part of it is due to the fact that no modern filmmaker has Hitchcock's knack for eliciting the trust of the general public. Many suspense thrillers and mysteries are marketed with the same basic subtextual promise: “Just you wait.” When it came to Hitchcock films, viewers learned quickly that the wait would be worthwhile. The director not only benefitted from this reputation but exploited it, tossing one self-imposed narrative obstacle after another in front of himself and leaving the audience to wonder whether he could find a way to leap over those obstacles. When The Master of Suspense succeeds (as he does in Rear Window), we're reminded of why he earned his title.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Year: 1954