“We’ve become a nation of peeping toms,”
L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies (James Stewart) is a professional photojournalist used to a life of adventure. When he breaks his leg filming a crash at an auto race, he is confined to his small apartment. Bored, he tries to amuse himself by spying on the neighbors in nearby apartments. Naturally this growing (and quite frankly anti-social) obsession bothers his fiancée, Lisa (Grace Kelly) and nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter).
When Jeff begins to think one of his neighbors, salesman Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), may be a murderer, he is drawn into a high stakes cat and mouse game that may endanger himself and his friends.
Rear Window is a film widely considered to be one of director Alfred Hitchcock’s masterworks. A classic tale of accidental voyeurism, obsession, murder and suspense. It seems like everything aligned perfectly for this film. Cast, cinematography and directing are all excellent.
One of the elements of Rear Window that I find interesting is that it raises questions about privacy and the dehumanizing aspects of high density urban environments. The characters in the film live practically on top of each other and can be observed like they were subjects in a zoo. Yet the protagonist doesn’t really know any of them. Some he names after their habits. Miss Lonelyhearts, the lonely, isolated woman. Miss Torso, the amateur dancer. The man known as the Songwriter. Jeff and the audience observer their daily routines in an uncomfortable level of detail, yet we never really meet them. Everything we know about them is either through direct observation or Jeff’s musings about their lives.
Unlike To Catch A Thief, the romantic tension takes a secondary role to the primary storyline.
The progression of this film is best described as a rollercoaster. I know the term Is overused (and misused) in film reviews, but in this case it fits perfectly. In the first part of the film we are discovering the setting and the characters, the first, ascending part of the coaster. Next, we get drawn into their story, the frustrations of wheelchair bound Jeff, Lisa’s frustrations with him, the ethical and moral issues with Jeff’s spying and the growing sense of wrongness with the neighbor. This is when the film hits the top of the coaster and slowly, inexorably tips over into the full suspense mode. At this point your patience is rewarded as the film pulls you into an increasingly intricate cat and mouse game between Thorwald and Jeff and his friends.
An interesting aspect of this film is that it was one of director Hitchcock’s many experimental projects and one of his more successful. In my review of To Catch A Thief, I mentioned that Hitchcock like to control every aspect of his more suspense oriented films. Rear Window is a great example of this.
While Rear Window looks like a location shoot at a group Greenwich Village apartments and a central courtyard, the entire film was shot on a single massive soundstage. A great deal of it from the apartment window of the main character.
One of the largest of its time, the set is a masterpiece of design, overhead were over 1000 massive studio lights with the ability to simulate different times of day from twilight to bright, mid-day sunlight. Thousands of other lights provided additional fills and point lighting for different elements of the sets.
One of the “buildings” actually had livable apartments in it. Completely furnished with running water and electricity. The set was so massive that the studio building it was built in, had to be gutted to the basement in order to accommodate the many stories of apartment buildings.
This article in dangerousminds.net shows the massive scale of the set.
While certainly spacious, this set-bound design definitely adds a sense of claustrophobia to the film. Especially in the latter half. Limiting the viewers perspective to what Jeff can see from his apartment window intimately connects the audience to the character and you rapidly find yourself drawn into the story.
Assisting this is the diegetic nature of the soundtrack. Aside from the opening music, every sound in the film is distinctly part of the world of the film. This “natural” sound, ironically carefully and artificially crafted to sound natural, greatly enhances the real world feel of the film.
Verdict: 4.5 Gavels out of 5 Classic in the suspense genre that also brings up questions about voyeurism and the decline of privacy in modern urban environments. While some may find it a little slow at first, it builds up nicely. This is Hitchcock at his creative peak.