More than just being the undisputed Master of Suspense, legendary director Alfred Hitchcock was a master craftsman; and nowhere is that more apparent than in his 1954 masterpiece Rear Window. Although I still claim Psycho as my favorite Hitchcock film, Rear Window is closing the gap.
The entire movie takes place in the apartment of a magazine photographer named L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart), or “Jeff” to his friends. As a result of standing in the middle of a raceway to get a remarkable shot, Jeff is stuck sitting in a wheelchair with a giant plaster cast that goes all the way up to his hip. To pass the time away, Jeff begins looking out his rear window, watching the neighbors who live in the various apartments surrounding the courtyard.
Since the entire movie takes place from the one apartment, we are forced to view the film strictly from Jeff’s point-of-view. The basic structure of the film comes in three parts: Jeff looks at something, we see what he is looking at, and then we see his reaction. In a way, Jeff is like a member of the audience and what we see through his eyes—and binoculars, and zoom lenses—are various little plays acted out in the windows across the way. Each window has its own story: the piano player struggling to finish his record, the lonely woman in desperate search of a beau, the ballet dancer with more suitors than she can handle, and the newlyweds whose marriage seems to be off to a rocky, but amorous, beginning.
The window that Jeff—and we—take the most interest in is that of a salesman (Raymond Burr, before he became Perry Mason) and his nagging, bed-ridden wife. One morning, after a series of odd middle-of-the-night trips by the salesman, the wife has mysteriously disappeared. After piecing together the clues—a saw, knives, a giant trunk, a wedding ring—Jeff comes to the conclusion that the salesman has murdered his wife.
The murder plot is what Hitchcock would call the MacGuffin; meaning that it exists merely as a gimmick, or device to carry on the plot’s main focus. In Rear Window, the main focus is the relationship between Jeff and his socialite girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly). Lisa wants badly to marry Jeff, but he is worried that marriage might force him to settle down and leave behind the life of travel and adventure his photographer job granted him.
Watching the film today, one really has to wonder how anyone would not immediately jump at the opportunity to marry Grace Kelly’s character (I’m sure audiences in 1954 thought the same thing). I still contend that Kelly is the most beautiful woman ever put on screen (the young Elizabeth Taylor would be a close second) and this performance is her most glamorous. Of course, it helps that she is given one of Hollywood’s most memorable character entrances. Leaning down to kiss Stewart, the camera takes his point-of-view, making it appear she is leaning in to kiss the audience. She then continues to introduce herself while turning on the lights, first illuminating her head and shoulders, followed by her upper torso and finally her complete figure dressed in a glorious gown created by legendary costume designer Edith Head. It may take Stewart the entire movie to catch on, but the audience is won over from the very beginning.
The rest of the performances are all top-notch as well. As Jeff’s nurse Stella, Thelma Ritter proves once again that she was one of Hollywood’s top character actors and she gets all the best lines (“when two people see each other and like each other, they ought to come together. Wham! Like a couple of taxis on Broadway”). All of the actors who play the neighbors across the way are all quite convincing, a tough job, especially considering they took most of their direction via a small earpiece.
In the middle of it all is Stewart, delivering once again another for-the-ages performances. In the humble opinion of this critic, Stewart is the best actor ever to grace a Hollywood screen. One needs only to look at Rear Window, as well as It’s A Wonderful Life, The Philadelphia Story, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Harvey, Vertigo and Anatomy of a Murder for evidence. According to those who worked with him, Stewart the person was very much the same as Stewart the actor and he pretty much got along with everyone. Hitchcock liked working with Stewart because he felt he represented the average guy and that audiences would easily identify with him.
One of the most impressive elements in Rear Window is the incredible set. Stewart’s apartment, the entire courtyard, the neighboring apartments, as well as a small section of the street were all built on one of Paramount’s giant sound stages. In fact, the set was so big that they had to cut out the floor of the sound stage and use the storage space below as well. Hitch’s daughter Pat said that the set was like a “big old doll house that he was playing with”; placing the people in the windows and having them act for him. One of the most interesting things about the set is that they had set up the lighting so that all you had to do was flip a switch and the lights would change from day to dusk to night to dawn and back again, so that the crew would not have to sit around while they changed all the lighting.
One of the things that I noticed upon this latest viewing is how much action Hitch had going on in the background at all times. For instance, there is one scene towards the beginning in which Stewart and Kelly are having an important discussion about where their romance is heading. The scene is shot from the inside of the apartment with the two actors in the foreground. In the background, we see the ballet dancer going about her everyday routine. What an amazing amount of planning and improvising that must have went into this film.
Still, with all the technological skill that went into the making of the film, it would all be for not if the movie were not entertaining. The innovative techniques may turn this film into art, but the good old-fashioned Hitchcock thrills are what make it a classic. It gets an A+.