Rear Window (1954)
D: Alfred Hitchcock / 112m
Cast: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr, Judith Evelyn
I guess it was inevitable that there’d be a Hitchcock movie in my Top 10, but while the likes of Psycho (1960) and Vertigo (1958) are more highly regarded, for me it’s Rear Window any time and all the time.
I first saw Rear Window in the early Nineties. It was shown on TV, and while I was more than familiar with Hitchcock – and by this time had seen most of his sound features – this particular movie, along with Torn Curtain (1967) and The Trouble With Harry (1955), had evaded me until then. My favourite Hitchcock movie at that stage was Foreign Correspondent (1942), followed very closely by Strangers on a Train (1951). I was looking forward to seeing what Hitchcock would do with the “has he or hasn’t he?” style plot, and how Kelly would be treated, being the first of his blonde heroines (with all that that entailed).
I must admit to having a mixed reaction at first. The movie’s opening, with its slow, voyeuristic peering into the apartments and lives of L.B. Jefferies (Stewart)’s neighbours seemed like an extended piece of scene setting, audacious in its camera moves but serving no discernible purpose (bear in mind I had only a faint idea of the movie’s plot). As each neighbour was introduced I couldn’t help but wonder how much of what we were seeing was relevant to the plot, and which characters were going to prove more important than the others. It seemed obvious Miss Lonelyhearts (Evelyn) would be given a fair bit of screen time, as well as the creepy salesman Thorwald (Burr) with the nagging wife, but how these characters would interact I really didn’t have a clue. (I should admit at this point that I watch a lot of movies where I don’t have any idea of what’s going to happen or what the movie is about; I’m looking for the movie to surprise me.)
Now, this being a Hitchcock movie, I knew there must be some kind of skullduggery about to be committed, and I knew that James Stewart’s character would likely be the hero, and Grace Kelly his romantic interest, but what I wasn’t prepared for, at all, was the movie’s master stroke: that up until the final scene, the whole movie doesn’t stray from Jefferies’ apartment. Everything you see of his neighbours’ activities, and his girlfriend Lisa’s sleuthing, is seen from Jefferies’ perspective. As it dawned on me that Hitchcock wasn’t going to take the camera any further than Jefferies’ window, it also dawned on me that, far from being a cinematic parlour trick, this was one of the cleverest set ups I’d ever seen. Like Jefferies, the audience was confined to that small apartment, and again like Jefferies we too were helpless bystanders (he’s in a hip cast the whole time), involved in the action but removed from it at the same time.
This realisation made so much difference that I found myself agonising over what was happening as much as Jefferies. When he was unable to convince his friend Doyle (Corey) of the likelihood of Thorwald’s guilty behaviour, I was there urging Doyle to see the sense in what Jefferies was saying. And when Lisa appeared in Thorwald’s apartment, I was on the edge of my seat, knowing with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that Thorwald was bound to return home and find her. And then, the worst moment of all, when Thorwald turns and sees…
Rear Window was the first thriller that gripped me, both physically and emotionally, and left me feeling wrung out to dry at its end (where Jefferies suffers a fitting punishment for his “professional” voyeurism). Other movies have had a similar effect since – most recently, Captain Phillips (2013) – but I guess you never forget your first time. The simplicity of the set up was terrific, and full marks should go to John Michael Hayes for building such a mousetrap from Cornell Woolrich’s short story (if you’ve never read Woolrich you’re missing out; his prose leaves you breathless). Between them, Hayes and Hitchcock constructed a movie where watching other people’s lives becomes a litmus test for our own happiness, and where one man’s rescinded involvement provides an unwitting source of redemption for both himself and those he spies on.
I always get the feeling that Hitchcock is regarded as just a purveyor of thrills, and that people miss the psychological elements in his films. Those elements are there in the majority of his movies, but when you mention Hitchcock most people are likely to remember scenes such as the shower murder in Psycho, or the crop duster attack in North by Northwest (1959), or Tippi Hedren under attack in a phone booth in The Birds (1963). But for me, it’s the darker elements that make watching a Hitchcock movie so rewarding. And if you want darker, then watch Rear Window, and see just how much Jefferies is put through the wringer; it’s torture, pure and simple. And that’s just where Hitchcock wants us, and puts us. And for myself, I was glad to be there.
Rating: 9/10 – one of the most memorable thrillers ever filmed and a testament to Hitchcock’s genius and creativity; excellent performances added to a perfectly coiled script and a wonderfully threatening score by Franz Waxman all go together to make Rear Window an absolute masterpiece.