Rear Window (1954)

D: Alfred Hitchcock
S: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter

Rear Window is one of the cinema's great guilty pleasures. From the opening image of a curtain rising in an apartment window which mimics the curtain rising in the movie theatre, the film revels in demonstrating to the audience that they are at heart as much a voyeur as photographer L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) around whom the film world revolves.

Though based on the story by Cornell Woolrich, Rear Window is pure cinema. It begins with a beautiful expositional shot where Hitchcock glides around Stewart's apartment and tells us the name of our central character, his profession, the reason for his accident and establishes his frustration simply by the placement of items and the camera's movement.

When the dialogue begins, there are references to the dangers of prying into other people's lives and a warning that there will be trouble. We wait in breathless anticipation. With the instincts of a master storyteller and the playful sadism of a great cinéaste, Hitchcock does not disappoint.

Yet much is left to our imaginations. Like Jeffries himself, we may be victims of our own fantasies. Did a salesman murder his wife, mutilate the corpse and bury the evidence in his own front garden? Or is it something we wish would happen to relieve our boredom with mere reality?

The miniature movie screens through which Jeffries views events in his neighbours' apartments do not show everything, and Hitchcock delights in exposing the details bit by bit, and often by inference. He makes his audience willing co-conspirators in a plot to pry into a world in which we have no right to be.

Not only is there the murder, but there are the goings-on elsewhere in the complex: a lonely spinster on the verge of suicide; a frustrated musician trying to write a hit song; a middle-aged beatnik sculptor moulding a strange, phallic object in full view of her neighbours; a childless couple devoted to their dog; a ballerina who exercises by the open window courted by ravenous men; and, in one of the film's many cheeky assaults on the sexual standards of the day, a newlywed couple whose shade remains firmly closed for three days.

Juxtaposed with these is the story of Jeffries and his society girlfriend Lisa Freemont (Grace Kelly). Their relationship is under strain due to what he perceives to be fundamental incompatibilities. But in the course of the film, she becomes part of his ideal world by participating in the action; breaking into the villain's apartment on a search for vital evidence. There she becomes more interesting to him (and to us) as an object to be viewed than she is in real life as a person.

The most terrifying moment in the film comes when the villain, Raymond Burr, looks straight across the courtyard at the wheelchair-bound Stewart. He stares directly into the camera, and, effectively, at us, bound to our cinema seats in the same fashion. We are caught. We've been naughty. We've been prying, and we love it.

But punishment there must be and punishment there is, only this time, Stewart takes the fall for us (literally). Hitchcock was only too aware that pushing the self-reflexivity of the experience too far would alienate his viewers, and he deals out a cheerfully vicious poetic justice to our on-screen simulacrum.

The voice of morality is Jeffries' former war buddy Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey), a skeptical detective who frequently confounds his conspiracy theories and for whom the film's final verbal punchline is spared. He is supported by a more wavering moralist, the hard-nosed insurance company nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) who frequently provides the doubtful inner voice of the audience, but eventually succumbs to curiosity herself.

Not surprisingly, the film received much negative criticism on its first release for its sordid characters and unrealistic tone. But when the great French film critic François Truffaut came to its defence, he said that while he might not know much about Greenwich Village, he knew about the cinema, and that is what Rear Window ultimately is.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.