Alfred Hitchcock is one of cinema’s most influential directors. He was a pioneer in the thriller genre and Rear Window is a perfect example of his directorial skill. The film is layered with tension throughout, built principally through excellent writing and the film’s voyeuristic style as well as being aided by the unforgettable performances. An indispensable film for lovers of the thriller genre, one can see how Hitchcock earned the moniker “The Master of Suspense”.
Greenwich Village, New York; the city is in the midst of a sweltering heatwave forcing residents to keep their windows open at all hours just to cope. L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart) is a photographer who’ll go to any lengths to get the best possible shot, to which his broken leg is a testament. Stuck in a wheelchair, Jefferies’ only pastime is watching his neighbours go about their business, from the youthful ballet dancer “Miss Torso” or her downstairs neighbour, a sculptor, to the jewellery salesman with a bedridden wife. One rainy night (I know, I know, but it wasn’t a cliché back then) the suspicious activity of one of Jefferies’ neighbours piques his interest and sets him, as well as his glamorous, tenacious girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) and sceptical nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), on a dangerous path to a dark secret. This dogged pursuit of the truth culminates in one of the most gripping conclusions in film history.
From the very outset of the movie it is clear that you’re in the hands of a master. The opening few minutes establish the personalities of all the neighbours despite only observing them through the view from Jefferies’ window. All the more impressive is that, in the same sequence, we get insight into the main character despite him being asleep in a wheelchair. This pace is unbroken as we’re introduced to Stella, the insurance company nurse, who’s confidant and opinionated, then Jefferies’ girlfriend Lisa Fremont. Lisa is an impressively progressive female character given that the film was released in 1954; she is intelligent, generous, and independent, and when she acts it is as much for herself as for Jefferies. While today’s screenwriters could learn a thing or two from Stella and Lisa, occasionally it is painfully clear that this is a movie from the 50s. Lines such as “Why, a woman going anywhere but the hospital would always take makeup perfume and jewellery,” are a bit conducive to eye-rolling but the film quickly immerses you again afterwards so the experience isn’t too jarring.
The performances of James Stewart and Grace Kelly contribute to the voyeuristic feel of the film. When not viewing the neighbours through their window we are a fly on the wall looking into the relationship of Jefferies and Lisa as they try and negotiate their relationship. Stewart every bit embodies the gruff photographer who has no qualms about putting himself in danger to get to a picture and Kelly is an unashamedly wealthy socialite with a brain, and a heart of gold. I found Grace Kelly’s acting all the more compelling because if I looked like her I’d probably just go and be Princess of Monaco or something. The give and take in scenes between Kelly and Stewart strikes a nice balance and both characters come off as having genuine concern for the other even when they have a difference of opinion. This is most evident when they have a dispute over their future; Lisa wanting Jefferies to stay in New York and Jefferies wanting to continue travelling the world. Both are concerned for the other’s wellbeing and happiness in a rational way even if that’s not what the person in question thinks is best for them.
One of my favourite aspects of this film is how it manages to juggle the main story while also showing us the stories of each neighbour without any of them feeling rushed or shoehorned in, as so many subplots do (take your pick from any romantic subplot ever). This is achieved by the use of the heavily voyeuristic style which makes it feel as though the viewer is watching people live their lives as opposed to characters acting out plot points. The neighbour’s stories rarely overlap or interfere with the main plot which mirrors the interaction of neighbours with each other in the film, and real life. In my opinion, that is part of what makes the film timeless, that and a lack of hilariously dated special effects; the film has a theme which applies today as much as ever, especially with social media making cyber voyeurism possible, popular even, where we’re all living our lives overlapping with others, commuters, co-workers, strangers on the street, yet so rarely do they ever collide.
Rear Window is a classic which will continue to serve as a benchmark for thrillers and film in general. I attribute this to the captivating filming style; the suspense-filled story; and the film’s universal, enduring theme which still finds its place with modern sensibilities (and an absolutely marvellous ending). All in all, watching someone watch other people has never been more thrilling.