Alfred Hitchcock loved screwing with his audience. From the many Macguffins scattered throughout his works to killing off protagonists halfway through and making us doubt our own perceptions, he used pretty much every twist and trick in a skilled director’s arsenal. In REAR WINDOW, he uses a simple but effective idea to rack up the tension and make your story more interesting: just limit your main character’s usefulness. It’s a pretty unusual thing to see for a male protagonist in a Classic Hollywood movie as well, appropriately our atypical is James Stewart who specialises in slightly askew masculinity.
Photographer LB Jeffries (James Stewart) is bored. It’s the longest and hottest of summers and a broken leg has confined him to a wheelchair. His only entertainment is daily visits from his straight-talking nurse (Thelma Ritter) and his glamorous girlfriend (Grace Kelly), and the tedious daily routines of his neighbours witnessed outside his window. Then one day Jeffries witnesses, or thinks he witnesses something horrific in an apartment across the way…
The staging of the action in Rear Window is ingenious, with the massive set’s construction on multiple vertical levels and layers going backwards, allowing for little peaks into other lives but also using the visible space to build tension and hide information. It’s theatrical and deliberately stagey to an extent, limiting both Jeff and the audience’s field of vision and drawing attention to the fact that it’s doing just this to make the story more interesting. That’s not a criticism, by the way, just noticing a prime example of Hitch effectively using film language to enhance storytelling.
This is arguably the finest film ever about voyeurism (a Hitch specialty) but unusually it promotes its virtues. Jeff starts out watching others out of mere boredom, to escape his confinement, but he ends up using his snooping to uncover murder most foul (he thinks). We’re all drawn into Jeff’s pastime, voyeurism becoming our obsession as it becomes his. Both Lisa and Stella are quick to tell him off for sticking his nose into other people’s lives but end up being carried along by the amoral excitement of it all as the mystery unfurls. His cop friend Doyle (Wendell Corey) warns Jeff to stay within the confines of the law but in his capacity as a police detective still does odd jobs for his friends to dig up evidence, and even has a quick gander himself at one of the more attractive neighbours (“How’s your wife Doyle?”).
Like most of Hitchcock’s movies, it’s the gender politics that have aged the least well. Never mind how “Miss Torso” (Georgine Darcy) is filmed throughout, the way all the women characters, even Grace Kelly, Grace Kelly are patronised by the men when they dare to express an opinion or act under their own initiative really is something else.
The main way I think Rear Window has aged so well is as an example of efficient visual storytelling, as prime case of show, don’t tell, what film can and should do better than any other medium. We very quickly get to know so much about Jeff’s neighbours from the briefest of glimpses into their lives, like you’re watching about five different soap operas at once. Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn) and her acting out of the perfect romantic dinner to an empty apartment; Miss Torso filling the void left by her boyfriend away at sea with a succession of besotted admirers she will never reciprocate affection with; the local eccentric couple (Sara Berner and Frank Cady) who sleep under the stars on their fire escape and who let their dog out to do its business using a little basket and a winch.
Rear Window is an economic little thriller; witty, tense and full of pleasing little details. It’s also one of Hitch’s very best, and probably the most eminently re-watchable of them all. SSP