Review: Rear Window (1954)

After another long break (blame university) Girl on Film is back with the movie that graces the header of our beloved site…Rear Window (1954).

It tells the story of a magazine photographer, L.B. Jeffries (played by James Stewart) whom after breaking his leg in a reckless and dangerous photographing accident, is bound to a wheelchair in his two-room apartment in New York for several weeks. Whilst confined for this period of time, his boredom leads to a peculiar interest in his neighbours who occupy the courtyard of city apartments which can all be seen from his window. In particular, he becomes intrigued by the suspicious behaviour of the occupants of the apartment directly opposite, whose mysterious activities lead Jeffries to believe that a husband has brutally murdered his wife. Along with his beautiful socialite girlfriend, Lisa (played by the stunning Grace Kelly), his wise visiting insurance company nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter) and his cynical ex-army friend now police investigator, Detective Doyle (Wendell Corey) they begin to investigate what really happened. Through this we delve into the private lives of the strangers who live alongside him, inviting us to question the legitimacy of being a voyeur and the enduring fascination with other people’s business.

The film was generally very well-received by critics and Hitchcock fans, and is often regarded as the perfect example of Hitchcock’s technical genius and ability to craft an effective suspense thriller. However, after attending the premiere in August 1954, The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther noted: “Mr. Hitchcock’s film is not “significant.” What it has to say about people and human nature is superficial and glib. But it does expose many facets of the loneliness of city life and it tacitly demonstrates the impulse of morbid curiosity. The purpose of it is sensation, and that it generally provides in the colorfulness of its detail and in the flood of menace toward the end.” In the end, Crowther still gave it a 4 out of 5 rating and the film continued to impress critics even thirty years later. Roger Ebert reviewed the film after its re-issue in 1983 and said that the film:  “develops such a clean, uncluttered line from beginning to end that we’re drawn through it (and into it) effortlessly. The experience is not so much like watching a movie, as like… well, like spying on your neighbours. Hitchcock traps us right from the first… And because Hitchcock makes us accomplices in Stewart’s voyeurism, we’re along for the ride. When an enraged man comes bursting through the door to kill Stewart, we can’t detach ourselves, because we looked too, and so we share the guilt and in a way we deserve what’s coming to him.”

It is this instant affinity with the characters of Jeffries, Lisa and even the killer Thorwald which makes Rear Window one of the more perfectly realised of Hitchcock’s films. The film features a cast that share just as much screen time as the main speaking cast and prove integral to the film’s atmospheric, even claustrophobic feeling which the audience experiences just as much as the wheelchair-bound Jeffries. The sophisticated screenplay by John Michael Hayes (a young writer who wrote four of some of Hitchcock’s most celebrated and distinctive films) is a huge part of this; a true team effort in terms of real technical ingenuity and artistic creativity. As Steven DeRosa describes in his book “Writing with Hitchcock: The Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes” (2001): “Hayes loaded the script with crisp, witty dialogue that included some typically Hitchcockian black humour during a meal. As Stella serves Jeff breakfast, she thinks aloud: ‘Now just where do you suppose he cut her up? Oh- of course, in the bathtub. That’s the only place he could wash away the blood.’”.This is a great example of how Hayes completely understood Hitchcock’s quirky sense of style and sense of dark, macabre humour from their very first collaboration. Hitchcock himself was known for his interest in real-life English crime, and it is believed that the famous case of Dr Crippen especially inspired Hitchcock with DeRosa adding: “Hitchcock was always fond of the Crippen case and enjoyed constructing Rear Window so that the chief piece of evidence incriminating Thorwald was the jewelry left behind by his wife, particularly her wedding ring.”.

Visually, Rear Window is a stunning film to watch. To be able to produce a film which is set entirely within the confines of a small apartment and yet still manage to convey the vast possibilities of the outer world from a window was an impressive feat. As a viewer we too feel imprisoned like Jeffries in his “plaster cocoon” and the sophisticated camera work manages to allow us to travel down the lens of his camera and explore the world just beyond him which at first seemed morally out of bounds. The sets were all constructed at Paramount Studios, with the entire courtyard and all the apartments fully furnished and built to the exact measurements of real apartment buildings. This attention to detail pays off as the real claustrophobia of city living is inextricably felt by everyone who encounters the film, and even more so when experienced in a darkened cinema theatre. Hitchcock’s understanding of an audience’s cinematic experience played a part in his camera shots and angles: we see ‘Miss Torso’ from Jeffries point of view which instantly implicates us in the voyeurism of the lewd and to the dangerous (‘Lars Thorwald’). As Stella explains to Jeffries, “We’ve becoming a race of peeping toms”. Writer Robin Wood in the documentary Rear Window Ethics: Remembering & Restoring a Hitchcock Classic- Making Of, explores this idea further, saying “Jeffries, and at times, other characters, use the apartment as a kind of cinema screen. And they do what I think most of us do when we watch movies, they partly identify with other people, they partly compare their lives to the other people’s lives. They use these lives to talk about their own lives in various ways.”

Over just one hour and fifty minutes, we are witness to all walks of life. ‘Miss Lonely-hearts’ is a lonely, unmarried woman prone to drinking and taking pills, the songwriter and composer struggles to make ends meet or find inspiration, the married couple who sleep on their fire-escape during heat waves and whose dog meets a fateful end and the newly married couple who spend most of their time with the blinds drawn and seemingly in bed, amongst others. Much can be said in comparison between Jeffries and his relationship with Lisa and the lives of his neighbours whom he sees daily from his window. It is clear that Jeffries is frightened of the commitment and compromise that comes with marriage, and the horrors he imagines of married life is laid out right in front of him. Of course during 1950s America in which the film was set and made, marriage was seen as the bedrock of society and an institution that all respectable people should enter at some point of their lives. But also during this time, new ideas about the right reason for marriage and true compatibility were beginning to emerge, and Jeffries’ conversation with his editor at the very beginning of the film is rather telling of the conflicting attitudes of the time.

Jeffries does not want to be tied down to the mundane of married life and can only imagine himself as the adventurer that his job has required him to become. Even his serious injury has not persuaded him to reassess his life and consider settling down. Lisa has a more traditional ideal of 1950’s marriage and respectability, saying: “I could see you looking very handsome and successful in a dark blue flannel suit.” It is clear that Lisa loves him very much, and we expect he returns this love, but is unwilling to give up a lifestyle for one that would be more conducive to married life. He views Lisa’s work as frivolous and excessive, and their inability to see eye to eye is a strain on their relationship:

Lisa: Well, if there’s one thing I know, it’s how to wear the proper clothes.
Jeff: Yeah, yeah. Well try and find a raincoat in Brazil, even when it isn’t raining. Lisa. In this job, you carry one suitcase; your home is the available transportation. You don’t sleep very much, you bathe less, and sometimes the food that you eat is made from things that you couldn’t even look at when they’re alive.
Lisa: Jeff, you don’t have to be deliberately repulsive just to impress me I’m wrong.
Jeff: Deliberately repulsive! I’m just trying to make it sound good. You just have to face it, Lisa, you’re not meant for that kind of a life. Few people are.
Lisa: You’re too stubborn to argue with.
Jeff: I’m not stubborn – I’m just truthful.
Lisa: I know, a lesser man would have told me it was one long holiday – and I would have been awakened to a rude disillusionment.
Jeff: Oh, well now, wait a minute. Now wait a minute. If you want to get vicious on this, I’ll be very happy to accommodate you.
Lisa: No, I don’t particularly want that. (She rises and moves away.) So that’s it. You won’t stay here and I can’t go with you.
Jeff: It would be the wrong thing.
Lisa: You don’t think either one of us could ever change?
Jeff: Right now, it doesn’t seem so.

At this point in the film, Jeffries and Lisa seem incompatible, but during the events of the film, we see them become a formidable team, with Lisa revealing a more adventurous and valiant side, and Jeffries realising just how much Lisa means to him just as Thorwald puts her in gravest danger. Robin Wood believes that the conflict between men and women “seems to be one of the absolutely central themes of Hitchcock’s work….the terrible incompatibility of male and female positions as they’ve been defined and have evolved within our culture….I think Hitchcock’s view of romantic love is sceptical to say the least.”

As mentioned earlier, Rear Window is a crime and suspense thriller at its best which includes some of Hitchcock brilliant and best-loved actors and is truly a film that proudly belongs as part of his golden age in Hollywood. It is a perfect example of Hitchcock’s artistic ability to manipulative and thrill visually. ” This respect for true craftsmanship has continued right up to the film’s recent restoration which has seen the film being restored faithfully to the original film-maker’s wishes over 50 years later. Rear Window is a film of rare perfection, class and sophistication that many regard as a yardstick against which films of a similar genre should be measured against. It is still an exceptional film made by some of Hollywood’s greatest directors, actors and film crews. Such great talent has produced a film dealing with the terrible flaws of humanity and yet continues to conjure up such a warm fondness years later. Rear Window succeeds in this time and time again.

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