REAR WINDOW (1954)

  • Director: Alfred Hitchcock
  • Writers: John Michael Hayes, based on the short story “It Had to Be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich
  • Starring: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr, Judith Evelyn, Ross Bagdasarian, Georgina Darcy, Sara Berner, Frank Cady, Jesslyn Fax, Rand Harper, Havis Davenport, and Irene Winston
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#48), 2012 Sight & Sound Top 100 list (#53), Shown at Venice International Film Festival, 4 Oscar nominations (Best Director – Alfred Hitchcock, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

I think what unlocked Rear Window for me, to some degree, was when I realized that it’s supposed to be weird that Jimmy Stewart can’t quite concentrate on Grace Kelly. She is like literally one of the most beautiful humans of all time. It goes (1) my wife, (2) Idris Elba, (3) Grace Kelly. That is objectively true. In this movie Kelly is literally a smart supermodel who shows up in an $1,100 dress on a Wednesday to bring him take-out lobster from the fanciest restaurant in town, for the apparent purpose of convincing him to make out with her. Yet he does not seem to be able to tear his eyes away from what’s going on in the windows across the courtyard as this insanely perfect woman begs for his attention. At first I went “what the hell is WRONG with you?” Eventually I realized, the movie wants to know the same thing. Here is Stewart, getting obsessed with all these different women he sees framed in rectangles instead of what’s in front of him. It’s Alfred Hitchcock going, “Yeah, I don’t know why I’m like this, either.”

For all that it feels like a movie based around an extremely simple gimmick, Rear Window becomes incredibly elaborate based off of that gimmick. Stewart plays a news photographer who can’t leave his apartment because of a broken leg. With no Facebook or Instagram, he passes the time by watching the other denizens of his New York apartment building through their windows around a central courtyard. He gives them nicknames like “Miss Lonelyhearts” (Judith Evelyn) and “Miss Torso” (Georgine Darcy). He eventually begins to suspect that one neighbor (Raymond Burr) may have murdered his wife (Irene Winston), a suspicion that spirals into obsession. Though his theories are pooh-poohed by a detective friend (Wendell Corey), he eventually ropes his girlfriend (Kelly) and even his cynical nurse (the great Thelma Ritter) into his investigation.

Hitchcock actually had basically a full-on apartment building constructed for purposes of this movie. There are several shots that track from apartment to apartment. To achieve the degrees to coordination at a distance, Hitchcock would speak into radio earpieces worn by the various actors, telling them what to do at specific times. The set had a full drainage system because it had to rain, and lighting to make it seem like whatever time of day they needed it to. Given this crazy set, Hitchcock is very smart in how he uses it. There are no shots in the movie from any perspective other than from inside Stewart’s apartment. When, in one sequence, Kelly breaks into the supposed murderer’s apartment to look for clues, Hitchcock never gives in to the temptation to follow her with the camera. We stay in Stewart’s point of view, watching the bad guy get closer and closer to returning to his apartment while also seeing Kelly through the window, oblivious to the danger that she’s in.

For a movie that Bosley Crowther off-handedly said at the time was “not significant,” Rear Window has so much to unpack, and that has been unpacked by critics and scholars over the years. Because of the way Hitchcock keeps us inside Stewart’s perspective, he implicates the audience into the voyeurism. What is a watching a movie but voyeurism? And he centers this misanthropic man, who views the world through a lens even in the best of times. It’s not clear if Stewart’s character learns anything over the course of the movie, except maybe that he should pay more attention to Grace Kelly, but we the audience maybe do learn something. We start out seeing these characters as Stewart does, as a bunch of body parts and stereotypes. But over the course of the movie, and with the help of the other characters coming into the story, we start to see them more as people. If Hitchcock famously breaks down the icy blondes of his movies, this is the movie where he starts out with them as objects and then lets them talk a little bit more.

Consider “Miss Torso,” a ballet dancer who we start out watching bop around her apartment in skimpy work-out clothes and lean over her fridge, ass in the air. She is the personification of the projected male gaze, that constant presence of Hitchcock’s movies. Stewart later comments on watching her holding a party with a bunch of men, cynically noting that she picks “the most prosperous-looking one” to go out on the balcony with. But Kelly notes that she’s just doing what all women have to do, “fending off wolves.” In her final scene, we watch her welcome home a boyfriend who has been off in the army, lending a whole different air to what we saw previously. By this time, Stewart is no longer paying attention.

You wouldn’t think that the concept of Rear Window could possibly lead to what’s basically a perfect movie, but it does. As always Hitchcock shows himself an absolute master of using the elements he has to create suspense. He knows what to tell the audience but not the characters, and what to tell the characters but not the audience, and what to tell some characters but not others. But more than that, here he uses those tools to tell what feels like a more complete human, emotional story than in most of his movies. There are some Hitchcock movies where he indulges his own obsessions. Here he interrogates them. Hitchcock doesn’t know why Jimmy Stewart would rather look out the window than make out with Grace Kelly, but he suspects that he might be the same, and wonders if maybe some of us are that way, too. 

One thought on “REAR WINDOW (1954)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: