In the mid 1980’s I was studying at Leicester Polytechnic and would fairly frequently go to the fabled Phoenix Arts Centre. Much brouhaha was created by a triple bill showing of three of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘lost’ masterpieces that had not been screened for some decades due to various rights ownership shenanigans. Suddenly they’re showing ‘Vertigo’, ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ (1955) and ‘Rear Window’. I went along to see ‘Rear Window’, obviously loved it and so stayed for ‘Vertigo’ – wow, a total knocked-for-six double bill! I had to leave for whatever spurious student based reason (probably alcohol related) and in retrospect am glad that I went out on an amazing high, as ‘TMWKTM’ is clearly the inferior of the three (but what good company it keeps…)
‘Rear Window’ remains my favourite Hitchcock movie. I can try to fight it and at times will maybe suggest it’s ‘Vertigo’ or ‘Notorious’ but really it’s always ‘Rear Window’. The film is so simple, so subtle and so enjoyable that it really does repay multiple viewings and is always entertaining. The cast are flawless and the film presents them as very real and interesting characters. Hitchcock’s direction is clever, witty, intelligent and dynamic throughout.
The director loves a simple setup, whilst it being simultaneously a challenge. A cameraman (L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jeffries here portrayed by the indomitable James Stewart) has broken his leg and sits in his apartment in high summer keeping a watchful eye (ok, peeping) on his neighbours who he can view comfortably (or not so) from said window.
Noting some suspicious activity involving an apparently disappearing wife by one neighbour – Lars Thorwold, played by Raymond Burr – he spies further and gets his very beautiful model girlfriend (Lisa Fremont – Grace Kelly) and his chattering home helper Stella McCaffery (Thelma Ritter) involved in his theories also. They are at first cynical and dismissive of his delusional theories but then become enraptured by the idea – ultimately involved in trying to capture the ‘murderer’ with potentially lethal consequences.
The opening shot is classic Hitchcock – it gives you all the information you need within one very succinct shot. The camera slows drifts across a broken camera, a shot of a racing car crashing, a negative then positive image of Lisa (the latter in the cover of Life magazine) and then a big closeup of the leg cast. Straightaway we know where we are and what’s been occurring. He summarises the neighbours in just the same way – the just married who rarely open the blinds, the bountiful young woman exercising, the lonely spinster, the composer/piano player, the elderly married couple bedding down on the fire escape due to the heat. Jeff gives these neighbours shorthand names to identify them: ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’/ ‘Miss Torso’ / ‘The Newlyweds’ etc.
I liked the helicopter buzzing overhead, a bit of a creaky effect but funny that the leering pilots are attempting to snap photos of the topless babes sunbathing on their roof. It’s a perfect little example of harmless Hitchcock cheekiness that is so often present in his films.
The first appearance of Lisa is often feted, and justifiably so. She appears at night, Jeff asleep in his chair, and moves face on to camera to plant a wonderful slow motion kiss on her man.
It’s the kind of slo-mo effect seen in the ‘dog licking hand’ shot in ‘Strangers on a Train’ – unusual and unexpected but in this case really sexy and effective. It perfectly introduces her and what a nice way to wake up from a kip. Her candy floss sunniness, her meringue shaped dress, contrast with the grouchiness, and pyjamas, of Jeff but still you feel their chemistry. I like them both a lot, and they come across as a believable couple.
Stewart is great throughout the film, really a signature role by him as he sits in his wheelchair but still manages to build a great performance. He portrays the frustration and discomfort of the heavy plaster cast in the heat very well – at one point frustratedly trying to scratch an impossible itch with a back scratcher. His expression of slight guilt at his endless gazing is also very well presented, at times feeling the shame of his prying eyes into others lives. When he first starts getting interested in Thorwold’s nocturnal excursions, there’s a lovely moment when he realizes his binoculars are not powerful enough, getting out the biggest zoom lens he has in order to see closer – it positioned tellingly on his crotch area before being raised up for action – all subtle and interesting business.
As Tom comes in once again and spies Lisa’s petite overnight bag, Jeff gives him a wry look and a gentle ‘careful Tom’ line which is superb – two men respecting each other with an unwritten and unspoken code, it’s a lovely moment – unnecessary to the plot but full of character.
Grace Kelly, as evinced in her performance in ‘Dial M for Murder’, really delivers here also – she is undeniably stunning to look at but has a steely side to her character that not only allows her to deal with the cynical and sarcastic nature of her loved one but also gives her the cojones to enter the wolf’s den of Thorwold’s apartment to boldly go where Jeff cannot. Jeff treats Lisa with a kind of resentment that, with all her perfection, he doesn’t see himself settling down with her in that classic bloke thing of assuming that life is over once a long term commitment is made. Far from being just an airheaded model, Lisa is in fact intelligent, long suffering and in love with Jeff, and in the later scenes, especially when Thorwold returns and catches her, brings out Jeff’s love for her as he is impotent to stop him or save her.
I loved the moment that Lisa. previously skeptical herself, is suddenly suspicious as she sees Thorwold sweating with a large rope bound trunk, and the camera slow dollies to her: ‘Let’s start from the beginning again, Jeff – tell me everything you saw’.
Jeff’s only defence when the villain finally appears in silhouette in his doorway is to flash bulb him into stunnation until he can yell for the cops – all he has is photography to save his life.
The theme of impotence (his nether regions clearly completely hindered by being encased in debilitating plaster) runs through the picture and is another source of his extreme frustration. He’s a man of (in)action paralysed by his broken leg and only able to get through the interminable boredom and heat by entertaining himself (as it were) with people-watching.
Thorwold himself is a wonderful villain, he has the bulk of a man who could have chopped up his missus and shoved her in a trunk and even with next to no dialogue comes across as dangerous and threatening. His wife, harping on endlessly at him, is the kind of woman who would tip a guy over the edge and cause him to take drastic action. When we first see them, they are just part of the neighbourhood view, but as Thorwold rudely dismisses his deaf old neighbour lady early on, we see hints at a darker character.
The film is extremely cinematic, playing with sound and vision and in many cases runs as a virtually silent movie. Jeff observes Miss Lonelyhearts having a quiet dinner with an imaginary partner and we cross cut between her raising her glass and Jeff doing the same – perfectly and silently expresses her frustration as her shoulders finally sink in resignation. Robert Burk’s photography has a wonderful 1950’s look to it, the colours rich and attractive. He was now Hitchcock’s DoP of choice and you can see why. Franz Waxman’s score is sparing and used where needed in a very disciplined manner – the opening theme jaunty and jazzy to entice you in as Jeff’s blinds rise under the opening credits.
It’s interesting that at one point Jeff is bemoaning that Lisa wants to marry him and that the pair of them are not suited – he a ‘camera bum’ who nomads his way around the world, she a sophisticated Park Avenue girl most comfortable at cocktail parties. He’s kind of snobby about her lifestyle and the people who are obsessed with ‘the latest scandal’ – whilst all the time becoming obsessed himself with the gossip and potential scandal going on in his own backyard. The excitement they both feel at the ensnaring and capture of Thorwold brings them closer than ever – there’s a lovely shot of Jeff as Lisa comes back from illicitly delivering a note to the nasty neighbour – she flushed with excitement and breathless, he looking at her with unabashed love for the first time.
The only vaguely unsatisfactory part of the film is when Jeff finally leaves his apartment – via being dropped out the window by Thorwold – it has that classic 1950’s shot-against-bluescreen effect to it which looks a bit cheap and artificial – but this is a small detail in the exciting finale to the picture.
Edith Head supplied the costumes and has a fine old time with Grace Kelly who looks magnificent throughout (handy she’s playing a model). Good that at the end she is dressed down in a man’s style workshirt and reading a book about the Himalayas – then noting that Jeff has nodded off and swapping this for a copy of Bazaar magazine.
The neighbours’ stories in most part have neat happy endings. Miss Torso, after welcoming a myriad of men into her place, welcomes her soldier beau with a big kiss – he’s a little fellow with some kind of special appeal, we assume. Miss Lonelyhearts finds herself drawn to the piano composer whose gentle theme (developed through the course of the film until it becomes an actual record by the end) and compliments him in his studio – he happy that he has found someone who appreciates his music and isn’t just up for a big old part-ee. The newlyweds settle into their first argument, seemingly the reality of marriage. These are all neat little vignettes and add fantastic texture and interest to the main plot – unusual in a film to have so many little stories going on with sketched but believable characters – none of whom really has any dialogue. They are amply assisted by a genius set on the Universal backlot, all the apartments backing onto a central area, a street occasionally glimpsed through an alleyway, vehicles driving by. What absolute fun must Hitchcock have had to dream up all this stuff and then have the budget to create what he had in mind, marvellous.
The film has a universal appeal, everyone at one time or another quietly watching/listening to others and imagining what is going on between them or behind closed doors or windows. It is one of the great ‘voyeur/cinema’ movies – those films that regardless of storyline are in essence about cinema itself: Antonioni’s ‘Blow Up’, De Palma’s ‘Blow Out’ (which I like a lot, unusual for the great Brian), Michael Powell’s ‘Peeping Tom’, Coppola’s ‘The Conversation’, Soderbergh’s ‘sex, lies and videotape’ and many others. Of all these, it’s one of the absolute best and hence its enduring appeal and entertainment value. The direction is endlessly interesting and clever (whilst not being intrusive and too ‘flashy’), the performances are all wonderful (including all the supporting players in the apartments Jeff watches) and the whole thing adds up to a marvellously clever and well crafted triumph. If you only see one Hitchcock movie in your life (you saddo) then book a seat at the ‘Rear Window’. For me, this is the peak of The Project, but it’s not all downhill from here…
Hitchcock pops up as a guest in the piano playing composers apartment, off to Jeff’s right, about 25 minutes in.
The film was remade loosely in 1998, starring Christopher Reeve. I haven’t seen this version but kind of consider remaking stone cold classics a bit of a shambling idea – see Tim Burton’s risible ‘Planet of the Apes’. Why remake something that’s brilliant? Find something that didn’t quite work the first time around, but was essentially a good idea, and do it well second time around.
Raymond Burr later found great fame, ironically, as the wheelchair bound cop ‘Ironside’.
Hello out there somewhere to Mike O’Shaughnessy – my film tutor at Leicester.