Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: John Michael Hayes; based on"It Had to Be Murder" by Cornell Woolrich
Cinematographer: Robert Burks
Producer: Alfred Hitchcock
by Jon Cvack
I probably haven’t seen this movie in over eight years, though it’s always been one of my favorite Hitchcocks. It’s rare cinematic perfection - serving both as an engaging story and technical masterpiece, from how it’s told to the immediate plot to the subtext and broader meaning. It’s the kind of movie that I think film school ruined for a while; as up to revisiting all I could hear were ideas about impotence and voyeurism. Yet for the first time I grasped them beyond an academic concept and more as what contributed to a complete experience.
The film opens in the apartment of action photographer L. B. "Jeff" Jefferies (James Stewart) who’s bedridden with a broken leg. We learn the cause as Hitchcock moves the camera across the apartment, in which we see a photograph of a race car jumping up toward the camera; leading us to wonder how it could have possibly done and exactly what would happen to the photographer, which we learn. His leg is smashed and he’s more or less bedridden.
It’s a hot day, drifting up to the high 80s and low 90s. His apartment overlooks a courtyard surrounded by apartments; each building and unit distinct from the other. There’s one lone window where a newly wed couple arrives, quickly shutting the window shade. Another is a type of glass wall, showing a pianist (Ross Bagdasarian) as he composes his latest piece for Hitchcock’s cameo, standing, completely disinterested. Right to that is the gorgeous Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy), stripped down to her underwear who is constantly stretching and exercising and showing off her every curve. Above her are an older couple Frank Cady and Sara Berner who own a small dog which they lower down via pulley so that it can play in the courtyard below; they’ve also been putting their mattress on the fire escape to keep cool. Below Miss Torso is Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn), either as a widow or someone who’s yet to find a partner; cooking dinner for two, going so far as to pour two glasses of wine, waiting, for no date to arrive. And to the building to the right on the second floor is the gruffy Lars Thornwald (Raymond Burr) who’s caring for his bedridden wife Anna (Irene Winston).
Jeff is anxious to get back to work and feeling particularly impotent, struggling to scratch the slightest inch with the cast that goes up to his groin. He’s dating one of New York’s most popular socialites Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly) who’s hoping that Jeff could give up his adventures and settle down into the seemingly safer territory of marriage. Jeff is uninterested, far more hungry to get back into traveling around the world.
However, a significant portion of this has to do with his impotence. With a cast that goes up to his groin, it’s clear that even if he wanted to have sex he’d struggle to. Given his “manly” profession and that he’s now sleeping in a wheelchair, we’re unsure whether it’s the humility sex would demand or that he couldn’t perform altogether.
It’s what makes Grace Kelly the perfect casting, serving as what most would likely position as one of Hollywood’s top ten most attractive actresses; both for her stunning beauty and undeniable charm. Counter to her usual righteousness and innocence, Kelly’s voracious taste for sex appears infects each interaction between her and Jeff; whether in what she’s wearing to allure Jeff, or to when she’s fallen into his lap and the two make out while exchanging suggestive commentary. Hitchcock worked closely with costume designer Edith Head on Kelly’s wardrobe specifically, knowing that it required capturing her character’s high society while also showing enough to heat things up.
Cut between the leads is Jeff’s no nonsense caretaker, Stella (Thelma Ritter), who’s also been pushing Jeff to settle down and marry Lisa. Without so much as a wink at the idea, Stella seems to understand the end Jeff might face. For a man that was run over by a race car, how much longer could he possibly last as a middle aged man?
And so with all this subtext in mind, Jeff watches his neighbors’ lives; particularly drawn to Miss Torso who provides far more a fantasy of his ideal life than anything actual. In his mind, her carefree demeanor means he’d go over there, they do their business, and he could resume traveling the world. On the other hand, he could look to Miss Lonelyhearts as a person who seems to have missed out on her chance for love; forever doomed to live alone. To the older boring couple who won’t even leave each other’s side while on the fire escape. To the newlywed couple that has just gotten married, determined to break the records of intimacy. And, of course, to Lars Thorwald who seems to have tired of his marriage and ailing wife, deciding to kill her to be free of the burden.
This last point is particularly Hitchcockian; serving as both voyeuristic and psychologically. If all the other couples, or lack thereof, are possible avenues in life, it seems Hitchcock is at least nodding at the fantasy of a man killing his wife and achieving freedom, which isn’t to say Jeff wants to kill Lisa so much as fears what he might do if their life achieved a similar drudgery.
One evening while sleeping in his wheelchair, Jeff hears a woman’s scream, waking up and finding all the windows dark. The next day he finds Lars Thornwald alone in the apartment; his bedridden wife now gone. Later that evening, Thornwald leaves the apartment with a small suitcase and the next day he makes another late night trip with the same suitcase.
He expresses his suspicions to Stella, Lisa, and later his friend and war buddy Detective Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey) who agrees to look into the matter; later discovering that, in fact, Anna had been confirmed as taking a train to some far off city. She is alive and Thornwald seems to be taking care of their home affairs. Jeff’s only convinced until he finds Thornwald cleaning two massive handsaws in the sink and later receiving a large trunk which he covers in rope.
One evening while Jeff lies asleep, the fire escape couple’s dog shrieks, waking his parents and the wife then screams, soon discovering the dog dead with its neck broken. Jeff wakes, finding Lars smoking a cigar in his room; the cherry glowing with each puff.
Lisa is the last to believe Jeff, soon demonstrating the lengths she’d go to in order to uncover the truth. And yet meanwhile, Jeff and Lisa continue their conversation about the future, with Lisa failing to understand why Jeff can’t let go of his adventurous profession and Jeff then flipping the conversation and asking whether Lisa would want that kind of lifestyle; giving up her expensive clothes, jewelry, and status to travel to exotic locations abroad. She demonstrates her willingness for danger when offering to drop a note under Lars’ door, accusing Lars of killing the dog, all in order to see Lars’ reaction.
Up until this point, Hitchcock doesn’t provide any proof of Lars’ guilt. All we’ve seen has been from Jeff’s perspective, including a large trunk, a couple saws, the dead dog, and his absent wife who was confirmed by the Detective to have arrived in a different city. None of it proves anything, and it’s this doubt that creates the tension. We feel the heat, horniness, and absolute boredom and want to believe there’s something exciting going on. Every time I watch the film, I seem to forget whether Lars did it or not, so doubtful I am any definitive proof.
When Lars reads the notes nearly two-thirds into the movie, we finally get the first objective act that shows guilt; as he picks up the note and is washed with fear. Still, it’s not quite enough to prove anything. Suspecting that he buried parts of Anna in the court yard garden (which is why he killed the snooping dog), Jeff calls him and says he knows what happened and demands they meet at a bar; all in an effort to buy time so Lisa and Stella could go down and search in the garden.
They find nothing, and as Stella returns Lisa runs off to Lars’ apartment; finding a locked door and using the fire escape to break in. It’s a thrilling sequence as Jeff gazes through his massive telephoto lens, as much a practical device for both Jeff and Hitchcock, while also giving a fairly unsubtle nod to Jeff’s performance problems. He finds Lars returning up the staircase and unable to contact her, he watches as Lars arrives back to the apartment. Jeff calls the police and reports the break in as Lars reaches his floor and enters, finding and pouncing at Lisa. Just as it looks as though he’s about to kill her, the police arrive, arresting Lisa for breaking and entering and saving her life.
Stella then goes to bail her out, Jeff calls Doyle and begs him to come over, and the whole scene seems created for the very purpose of getting us alone with Jeff and Lars, and yet it’s Grace Kelly’s commitment that makes us buy it; transforming from socialite to adventurer and never for a moment making us think the switch is fake or in bad faith.
For the final sequence, after Lars catches Jeff spying, he heads over. It’s one of the best sequences from a thriller. We wait for the feet to appear within the front door crack and then he enters. Jeff grabs his bulbs, and although the effect could use an update, the intention is effective enough. In a dark room, he pops off his single use bulbs which creates a blinding effect, though still Lars approaches, eventually pushing Jeff through the window, falling down where both of Jeff’s legs then crash to the ground as Doyle and the police arrive at the scene.
Rear Window is a timeless and perfect movie, in which craft and story operate at the highest and broadest level of the spectrum; appealing as much to the general moviegoer as to the most erudite. It is the film most directors aspire to make - taking a simple idea and chiseling out a brilliant and extraordinary amount of detail; achieving the rare accomplishment in having mastered the plot. As I have doubts any gangster movie could stand alongside The Sopranos or what Scorsese and Coppola achieved, no one has yet beaten Hitchcock’s chamber drama, and off the top of my head, only Disturbia came close to replicating the plot (though still miles away). To think that in over fifty years no one has even come close to remaking this film goes to show how perfect it is. There is no need to revisit the format because it’s been perfected. It’s the culmination of Hitchcock; taking all that made him great and pouring it into a story that allowed it all to shine.
BELOW: Master class in exposition
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