L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart), a photojournalist for a big time magazine is confined to his Greenwich Village apartment in a leg cast due to an accident during a photo shoot when he got a little too close to the action on a race track. His long period of convalescence is stifling. Use to being on the move, traveling to exotic places around the world, Jeffries is bored and frustrated by his inability to get around. A brutal heat wave with temperatures hovering around 100 degrees only adds to his aggravation. Bored out of his mind, Jeffries spends his days and nights, voyeuristically spying on his neighbors whose apartments are visible from his window facing the courtyard of his housing complex. The tenants are a diverse group of New Yorkers whose lives he becomes fleetingly acquainted with. They include a newlywed couple, a struggling songwriter, a lonely woman, he dubbed Miss Lonely Heart, a young beautiful dancer he nicknamed Miss Torso, and some married couples, one with a dog, another who sleep out on the fire escape, and especially one unhappy couple, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) and his ailing wife.
Jeffries girlfriend, Lisa Freemont (Grace Kelly), a high fashion model, is pushing him to settle down and get married, a concept Jeffries reacts to as if it were allergenic. Jeffries begins to focus on the Thorwald’s when he notices Mrs. Thorwald, who was always in her bedroom, has seemed to have disappeared and Mr. Thorwald, a salesman by trade, began to be going out at odd hours of the night with his sample case in hand.
At first, no one believes Jeffries suspicions that anything has happened, neither Doyle (Wendell Corey), his police detective friend, nor Lisa or Stella (Thelma Ritter), Jeffries visiting home nurse and physical therapist. But soon the ladies are convinced some sort of foul play has occurred and they become Jeffries legs as the trio attempt to collect enough evidence to support their theory and convince Doyle that Thorwald has indeed murdered his wife and disposed of the body.
As a lifelong film enthusiast, there have been times, like Woody Allen’s character in “Play it Again, Sam,” I have been accused of being one of “life’s great watchers,” living vicariously through fictitious on screen characters, instead of participating in life. For anyone who is an avid filmgoer, it is no great revelation that watching movies is an extension of voyeurism; after all, what are we doing but looking into the lives of others, observing in a socially acceptable way, as opposed to peeping into the windows of neighbors or strangers. We are all, to an extent, curious to know what other people are doing, it’s human nature, however most people can keep these voyeuristic tendencies limited to the socially accepted variety. Alfred Hitchcock was well aware of this trait in humans and he suckers us into compliance right from the beginning with the casting of James Stewart. Who better than Mr. Nice Guy, Mr. Straight Lace to lure you into peeping in on your neighbors and making you think there is nothing weird about it.
“Rear Window” is based on a short story called, “It Had to be Murder,” by William Irish aka Cornell Woolrich, originally published in 1942. Hitchcock preserved much of Woolrich’s story though as expected, some changes were made, for example the Grace Kelly character, Lisa Freemont was a new addition. Screenwriter John Michael Hayes, in the first of four films he would write for/with Hitchcock, was hired. Stewart and Kelly were selected early on to be the leads, so even before writing the script Hayes knew who the leads would be and could shape their character traits accordingly.
Generally considered one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces, “Rear Window” manages to create nonstop suspense despite the limited mobility of its hero. The film remains a prime example of Hitchcock’s style of unremitting tension, building a nerve-racking situation upon situation with little or no let up. There are no bold cinematic moment’s just pure suspense built upon suspicions and actions of the characters involved.
There are at least three recurring motifs that run through the film; marriage, sexual tension and voyeurism.
Throughout the film, Lisa is constantly pushing a reluctant Jeff to get married. Jeff however, cannot see himself fitting into Lisa’s world of glamour and high fashion, nor can he visualize Lisa, who dresses in her personal life just like the stylish 5th Avenue model she is, fit into his living out of a suitcase existence traveling from one forsaken place to another. On a certain level, Jeffries dissatisfaction with Lisa’s marriage demands mirror Thorwald’s frustrations with his wife, both men feel cornered and trapped. The marriage theme is also evident with the young newlywed couple whose sexual activity behind closed shades seems to be never ending, and apparently exhausting for the young man. We also see Miss Lonely Heart who sadly pretends one evening to have a male suitor for dinner. When she finally gets the courage to go out and meet a man, he turns out to be a creep who quickly attempts to force himself on her. And of course, there are the Thorwald’s whose marriage disintegrates into murder.
Jeffries broken leg sidelines him from any kind of activity, sexual or otherwise. He makes up for his inadequacy with the constant use of binoculars and a long telephoto lens he uses to spy on his neighbors. The camera and lens rest in his lap ‘rising’ when needed providing him with a sense of potency lacking while stuck in a wheelchair. Still, this feeling of power can only go so far. Later, when Lisa goes across the courtyard and enters the Thorwald’s apartment in search of evidence, Jeffries is completely helpless, impotent to warn her of the danger that soon arises; Thorwald coming home. Toward the conclusion of the film Jeffries is helpless again when Thorwald invades his apartment and almost kills him.
Jeffries courtyard view can be seen as one large big screen TV with him channel surfing between each window, a separate story going on in each one; the struggling songwriter, Miss Lonely Heart, Miss Torso, the married couple who sleep out on the fire escape to relieve themselves of their apartment’s oppressive heat and the Thorwald’s. At first Lisa is repelled by Jeffries spying on the private moments in his neighbors’ lives but as she becomes more convinced that Thorwald murdered his wife, possibly chopping her up into body parts, a look of sexual tension builds in her eyes and face. She has become visually stimulated, “turned on” by it all to the extent that in an attempt to uncover evidence on Thorwald as a murderer she crosses over from viewer to participant when she goes down to the courtyard, climbs up the fire escape and enters Thorwald’s apartment looking for some confirmation of the murder.
So is Jeffries a reprehensible nosey body prying on unknowing neighbors or are the final actions of Jeffries voyeurism “almost entirely admirable” as critic Robin Wood writes in his landmark book, “Hitchcock’s Films.” He goes on to explain, “If he hadn’t spied on his neighbours, a murderer would have gone free, a woman would have committed suicide, and the hero would have remained in the spiritual deadlock he had reached at the beginning of the film.” Basically, I believe Wood is saying here, the ends justify the means. Wrong is right if the end results are morally acceptable. I am not sure I agree with that position. Jeffries is bored and he spies on others not for any “admirable” trait but out of a desperate attempt to escape from the tedium of being stuck in a wheelchair. Why not read some books, watch TV?
Though restricted to a wheelchair for the entire film, James Stewart still manages to give a gripping performance despite his confined position. His only time out of the wheelchair comes when Thorwald invades his apartment and tosses him out the window. We then get a long shot of him hanging on to the window sill before eventually falling to the ground below. Stewart’s character was supposedly based on legendary photojournalist Robert Capa. Grace Kelly is fine though her role is not especially demanding, but Hitchcock’s camera just drools all over her whenever she is on screen, and I can’t say I blame him. Thelma Ritter is acerbically charming as Stella who berates Jeffries for using binoculars and long lens as tools for spying in on his neighbors. Future TV defense attorney, Raymond Burr, still in the evil role stage of his career, manages to add a touch of compassion to his pathetic character.
“Rear Window” opened on August 1st, 1954 at the Rivoli Theater on Broadway in New York City (1). It was a gala benefit premiere for the American-Korean Foundation as noted in the newspaper ads (see above). Coincidently, one week later another film opened just a few blocks further down on Broadway with the similar theme of voyeurism at the less auspicious Globe Theater, Richard Quine’s “Pushover,” (2) which officially introduced future Hitchcock blonde, Kim Novak (3) to screen audiences. Her co-star in that yet to come Hitchcock work, “Vertigo” would be James Stewart.
(1) After a ten year hiatus, “Rear Window” was re-released in theaters by Universal in 1983 along with four other Hitchcock films owned by the Hitchcock estate. The other four films were “Vertigo,” “Rope,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and “The Trouble With Harry.”
(2) Other films that have been influenced by “Rear Window” include, Brian DePalma’s “Body Double” and “Disturbia”
(3) Novak’s credit for “Pushover” read introducing Kim Novak despite a previously uncredited bit part in “The French Line.”