Our reviewer Helen Tope revisits Hitchcock’s classic.
Sitting in Alfred Hitchcock’s creative high-point, Rear Window is a textbook thriller. While it doesn’t have the psychosexual drama of Vertigo, Rear Window (released in 1954) treads tonally between the rooftop capers of To Catch a Thief and the nail-shredding tension of North by Northwest. In Hitchcock pitching it here, Rear Window raises the cinematic game of cat and mouse to extraordinary heights.
Hitchcock’s scene-setting begins wordlessly. We are in a Greenwich Village apartment; it is high summer New York. The camera pans to a thermometer pushing 90, moving across to a sleeping James Stewart. Sat in a wheelchair, clearly sweating from the heat, we travel down to his plaster-cast leg. The shot takes in the rest of the apartment – camera equipment, photos – daring, reportage style – are framed and carefully displayed. This is a man married to his work.
Stewart plays freelance photographer L.B Jefferies – on hiatus after an accident chasing the latest story. With little to do except sit and recuperate, Jefferies turns his photographer’s gaze on the apartments opposite. Hitchcock presents Jefferies’ neighbours as a series of vistas; unshuttered windows and open doors. The newly-married couple; the musician struggling to write that elusive hit; a lithe ballet dancer fulfilling the Hitchcockian quota for affable blondes. Jefferies’ neighbours are a mix of the workaday and bohemian: across the hall from the ballet dancer lives a jewellery salesman and his sickly wife.
As Jefferies waits for his visit from Stella, the insurance company nurse (a great performance by Thelma Ritter) he watches his neighbours with interest. The arguments and tantrums escalate as the thermometer rises higher.
As she arrives, Stella warns Jefferies about the dangers of looking too closely at – what is essentially – a private world. Jefferies scoffs – it’s a harmless interest, he’s doing no harm. Leaving him to snooze the afternoon away, Jefferies is woken again later that evening by his girlfriend, Lisa Fremont (played by Grace Kelly). Elegant, refined and dressed in Fifth Avenue couture, Fremont works on a fashion magazine and lives the life of a New York high-flyer. They are, on paper, very much the odd couple. It’s intimated that Fremont earns more than Jefferies; who treats his home like base camp. As he finds himself stuck indoors, Fremont seizes her opportunity and goes about trying to civilise her man. She surprises him with a food delivery from the chicest restaurant in town; she suggests swapping his beat-up cigarette case for one in silver, beautifully engraved.
But for all their differences, Jefferies and Fremont have chemistry. As she leans in to kiss him awake, Hitchcock creates a tantalising, slow-motion build up. It is the perfect blend of gossamer sensuality, and the hint of something deeper, that is fundamentally Brand Kelly. Kelly was always Hitchcock’s ultimate blonde, and here, she fleshes out a role that goes beyond ‘Girlfriend’ and into ‘Joint Lead’. Fremont is clever, intuitive and not afraid to disagree with Jefferies. It is by no means certain he will get the last word. Their arguments about what will happen once Jefferies’ cast comes off, is brilliantly scripted by John Michael Hayes and Cornell Woolrich. Fremont wants Jefferies to get a studio and become his own boss. Jefferies doesn’t want to let go of the freewheeling existence he’s lived since the war. The key seems to be compromise – but both think the other should make the first move. Rear Window’s take on sexual politics, particularly within Fremont and Jefferies’ relationship, feels quite contemporary, especially when you compare it to the brilliant but troubling Vertigo. With both partners enjoying busy careers, neither is reliant on the other. As Lisa, Grace Kelly’s interpretation of the city girl is in direct opposition to Kim Novak’s enigmatic trophy wife, Madeleine. Vertigo appeared in cinemas four years later, but Rear Window reads as the younger film. Jefferies and Fremont are already flouting social convention – she brings an overnight case with her later in the film, and Jefferies’ is a one-bedroom apartment. Hitchcock ditches his usual primness; here sex is not used to elevate or debase: it is part of the everyday lives of the characters. We totally buy the Fremont-Jefferies dynamic – theirs is a modern relationship, both in public and behind closed doors.
As the film unfolds, our (and Jefferies’) interest is taken by one of the flats opposite his building. Looking in through the windows, we see salesman Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) as he interacts with his wife, Emma (Irene Winston). This is not a happy marriage – she is bedridden, clearly unwell. They bicker and argue. Jefferies watches as the arguments intensify. Jefferies wakes up the next morning and Mrs Thorwald has disappeared.
L.B, with years of experience sniffing out a story, watches Thorwald as he makes several trips out during the night, lugging a heavy suitcase. In the day, Thorwald makes long-distance phone calls as he paws through his wife’s handbag. In it is some of her jewellery, twisted and knotted together. Jefferies relates his findings to Lisa and Stella. Their conclusion is a dark one: no woman would leave home without her handbag or jewellery. But a handbag is not sufficient in itself – they need evidence. Ringing Thorwald, Jefferies creates a diversion, getting him out of the apartment and heading into the city. Lisa and Stella take on the job of reconnaissance, as Jefferies has no option but to sit in his wheelchair, observing through the lens of his camera. Lisa climbs up and gains entry into the Thorwald apartment. She finds the handbag, but it is empty. Thorwald comes back, earlier than expected. Lisa, scrambling to find another exit, finds none. She is trapped.
The notion of privacy in Rear Window has been extensively discussed, and on re-watching the film, it is interesting to see how Hitchcock adds layers to a story where, let’s face it, not a lot happens until the final act. Peering through windows is one thing; but as LB weighs the probability of his neighbour committing murder, we become the voyeurs in Jefferies’ life. The audience watches him argue with his girlfriend, doze though a sultry afternoon, eat a sandwich – these are banalities, but they are banalities Jefferies would want to retain sole and exclusive rights to. Hitchcock not only lets us play the game; we become the invisible eye; a role Jefferies believes he has reserved for himself. As we observe the observer, Hitchcock is moving the pieces around the board, unattainable and unapproachable. Privilege is a tiered concept in Rear Window – and in the way the film is constructed, Hitchcock reminds us of his auteur status. The director, as always, gets final cut.
Rear Window is, in many ways, Hitchcock’s most complete film. Hitchcock does best with a simpler narrative, and in confining the majority of the action to Jefferies’ flat, we get undiluted character and plot. Told in linear style, and stripping back outside stimulus, Hitchcock concentrates our attention on what is happening in front of us. We are asked to consider the extent – or likelihood – of a man’s guilt by spying on him in his most private moments. It is an uneasy balance, but Hitchcock exploits our curiosity and turns it into sublime cinema. Whether you consider it to be a thought-piece on the issue of privacy, or a genre-defining thriller, Rear Window continues to age well. A film that rewards loyalty as richly as the first-time viewer, this is a classic that welcomes a closer look.