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.”
I don’t know how I could have been so dense, not realizing, as you point out, Jeffries could have read a book or watched tv. His voyeurism is the more reprehensible when one realizes this. You are correct in saying that the end does not justify the means. It’s wrong to be a voyeur, but in this instance understandable.
For me, this film also benefits from its demonstration of what Hitchcock calls “pure cinema,” the use of the subjective camera (seeing what a character see and then his reaction so the view knows his thoughts) and camera angles and, primarily, montage, that is, editing pieces of film together to create meaning. This film is not as broad and sweeping and daring as some of the work the Master did in successive years, but it’s a tidy example of using film to create suspense. I’m happy you pointed out that Raymond Burr lends a note of compassion for his character with the greatest economy. Isn’t it interesting that Hitchcock, a man so many accused of dealing in stereotypes and not at all understanding human nature, so consistently got the most vivid performances of the greatest insight and depth from actors?
Thanks for such a revealing review, John. I love reading your evaluations. After all, film is the greatest art form of the 20th century. I have my reservations about this new century.
I would say Jeffries voyeurism becomes understandable after the fact; still it is hard to justify. Without the murder here is this guy invading the privacy of everyone in the neighbor. For me, what makes it palpable is James Stewart who always (at least mostly always) comes across as such a decent guy (Mr. Smith, George Bailey) that you are not offended by what he is doing.
“For me, this film also benefits from its demonstration of what Hitchcock calls “pure cinema,” the use of the subjective camera (seeing what a character see and then his reaction so the view knows his thoughts) and camera angles and, primarily, montage, that is, editing pieces of film together to create meaning.”
Absolutely agree with this! The reactions of the characters, the editing is superb. Within a confined space he keeps it all very visual. Thanks again, Dave for some very thoughtful comments here.
Tremendous essay John. One of your very best. Films don’t get a whole lot better than this. Hitchcock basically maintains the point of view of Stewart’s character. He can’t leave the apartment, and neither can we. We can’t know more than he does, although I think there is a moment where he falls asleep even though “we” get to keep watching. I can still see all those apartments in my mind. What a wonderful set, and the sound editing is just magnificent. I like everything that you said about voyeurism and very true as it relates both to this film and filmwatching in general. Wonderful stuff.
Thanks for the kind words. I agree with you about this film. It is one of my favorites. As Dave mentioned above, it’s “pure cinema.” The set is tremendous and was built inside one of the soundstages on the Paramount lot, Amazing to say the least!
This is truly a stupendous essay John, one of your all-time best! And the subject of it is most deserving, as REAR WINDOW is indeed named regularly at the top or near the top of Hitch’s achievements. It was voted greatest film of the 1950’s in a decade poll last year at WitD. It is a seminal work in so many ways, and you did a great job discussing it’s themes with the sud topic heads and the film’s historical and artistic aspects.
It’s a master-class for a masterpiece.
Thanks Sam, all I can say it this is one of my all time favorite films ranking somewhere in my top ten.
Immense review. I always think of Rear Window as the very embodiment of the passive cinematic experience. Minimalist, overtly voyeuristic and asking you to do very little leg work. Compared to other Hitchcock masterpieces its the most restrained and possibly the most tightly constructed. As I’ve said before though, I still prefer the overblown psychological confrontation of Vertigo.
I love VERTIGO but I favor this film a bit. Probably just personal taste. I agree with what you say about it being his most restrained yet it is so cinematic and beautifully constructed. Thanks!!!
John, I always enjoy your reviews, but since REAR WINDOW has long been one of my favorite Hitchcock films (I was even lucky enough to see the restored version — at the Film Forum in NYC, if I remember correctly — when it came out several years ago), I knew you’d have fascinating insights about RW. Sure enough, you had me thinking about the characters and visuals in entirely new ways! I particularly liked what you had to say about Jeff’s voyeurism resembling channel surfing. Indeed, I’ve often thought that each of the characters Jeff watches would make for intriguing stories in their own right.
I’ve often said that although RW is based on one of Cornell Woolrich’s short stories, I can’t imagine this story being told so compellingly in any medium but cinema. Bravo on a truly superb blog post, my friend!
P.S.: In case you’re interested, I blogged about RW last year. Feel free to compare and contrast. 🙂 While I think I did a decent job, I must say your version really wowed me! Again, bravo!
I read Woorich’s short story years ago and it is good but i admittedly think the film is better. Like you, it is one of my favorite AH films and actually on of my all time favorites period. Thanks much again and I will check out your Rear Window post!
Must agree with everyone else that this is one of your best pieces, John. I saw this film for the first time within the last year or so (I’m catching up with Hitchcock in middle age!) and was impressed by how visually striking and gorgeous the colour cinematography is – I suppose this could be part of the idea of cinema viewers themselves being voyeurs, which you bring out here.
I hadn’t really thought about Stewart’s watching of his neighbours being as disturbing as you rightly show here that it is – I suppose because he is Jimmy Stewart and, as you put it here so perfectly:
“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.”
Of course, neighbourhood watch schemes etc do encourage us all to keep an eye on others to some extent, but Stewart’s character goes way beyond this!
Also interesting points about his character being impotent and afraid of marriage – do you think there are some similarities here with the start of ‘Vertigo’ where Stewart has a bad back (and the vertigo, of course) and has the old girlfriend who keeps an eye on him but who has never got him to the altar, though we are told she was the one who called it off?
On other films influenced by this, there’s also ‘Sex, Lies and Videotape’ with the hotel guy spying on guests… and there’s a sort of spoof on ‘Rear Window’ in ‘Last Chance Harvey’, with Eileen Atkins jumping to the wrong conclusions about her neighbour storing meat in his shed! Anyway, great stuff, John!
Thanks Judy – Well I hope you do your homework and catch up on your AH films (LOL). He really is a must and i actually envy you since you will be getting to see these films fo the first time which is always a treat.
I never really thought about there being a connection between RW and VERTIGO. I always felt Stewart’s character just kind of lost interest in the old girlfriend except as a just a friend,.
LAST CHANCE HARVEY is a film I have wanted to see and it just continues to slip by. I will have to push it up on my list.
Thanks, John – I promise to keep up with my homework! I probably just thought about a connection with ‘Vertigo’ because I only saw that one very recently. I found the old girlfriend quite a poignant character because I thought it seemed as if she still loved him, but he completely shut her out. Hope I haven’t spoilt your enjoyment of ‘Last Chance Harvey’, but I don’t think Dame Eileen’s neighbour is really a major mystery in it!
no problem with LAST CHANCE HARVEY – I always enjoy Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson!
John – A perceptive and fascinating reflection on REAR WINDOW and definitely one of my favorite of your reviews. You touch on many interesting points.
Your reference to the film’s marriage theme reminded me of another Hitchcock film with Grace Kelly. I’ve always thought it interesting that in both REAR WINDOW and TO CATCH A THIEF, Kelly is the pursuer – she is after James Stewart in one, Cary Grant in the other. Both men are reluctant. And both films end on a note of irony related to love/marriage. At the end of REAR WINDOW, Kelly has proven herself to Stewart and lounges in his apt. seeming to read about sports ( while actually perusing a fashion magazine. At the end of TCaT, she has proven herself to Grant and, having won him over and being taken to his villa at last, she exclaims, “Mother will love it here!” (to Grant’s dismay).
I have godson, now in college, who as a young boy sometimes visited on weekends. He was about 6 when I decided to try to encourage his interest in quality movies. Where better to start than Hitchcock? REAR WINDOW was the movie I chose. He loved it. Kept asking me to rewind (was still the VHS era) the scene in which we hear a glass break and a woman’s cry from Thorwald’s apt. Who but Hitchcock could mesmerize a 6-year-old boy with a film concerning a man in a wheelchair looking out his window?
Thanks Eve! Kelly was so great looking, it makes me wonder what was wrong with both Stewart and Grant that they were reluctant to hook up with her.
Nice story about your godson, thanks for sharing and I hope he continued to be interested in the “classics.”
Congrats on a nicely written appreciation of my favorite Hitchcock film.
However . . .
“Future TV prosecutor, Raymond Burr . . .”
Perry Mason (Burr) was a criminal defense attorney. However, Burr played the prosecuting attorney in “A Place In the Sun.”
Ouch! I messed that up! Where is my proofreader? Oh, that’s me. Seriously, thanks for the correction I am going to fix that. And thanks for the kind words!
[…] John Greco, writer extraordinaire, has penned one of his greatest pieces at Twenty Four Frames on Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”: https://twentyfourframes.wordpress.com/2011/12/02/rear-window-1954-alfred-hitchcock/ […]
[…] John Greco, writer extraordinaire, has penned one of his greatest pieces at Twenty Four Frames on Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”: https://twentyfourframes.wordpress.com/2011/12/02/rear-window-1954-alfred-hitchcock/ […]
“Rear Window” is one of my favorite classic movies. Jimmy Stewart, was wonderful in his dark comical role. No one could have replaced him as L.B., except maybe Hitchcock himself. Grace Kelly, playing Liza, I loved her character so much. You can tell she loves him so much and is willing to do anything for him , including putting herself into danger to win his heart.
I really enjoyed reading your well written review.
REAR WINDOW is one of my all time favorites too. It’s visually stunning, darkly humorous and smartly written. Stewart’s nice guy persona go a long way in accepting his bad behavior of peeping in on his neighbors. Kelly is stunning and her character has guts. I also think Thelma Ritter was terrific in her role. Thanks so much for stopping by.
Your reviews are always great but this one…well please submit it for the next CIMBA Awards please! : )
I love how you hit on every thing (some the casual viewer might not have ever picked up on) that made this film at the top of a Hitchcock list. (for me anyway)
It does speak volumes to Hitch as a director that he accomplished so much, suspense but just a top notch film with only a cramped apartment and a window view.
Fantastic John and I hope you don’t mind my featuring it on my sidebar so my blog followers don’t miss it!
Thanks very much, I am glad you enjoyed reading it and I am honored that you have featured it on your sidebar. Thanks again so much!
WOW John! What a New Years Day 2012 treat to find both your site and this exceptional essay on RW! I will be visiting regularly as I am also very impressed with the comments. This is my Hitch favourite as well as James Stewart and Grace Kelly fav.Grace Kelly seems to let down her inhabitions in this role. She is more playful and less restrictive than in some other roles. I enjoyed this immensely. Thank you from Canada.
Welcome to 24frames and happy new year! Glad you’re a fan of Hitchcock and REAR WINDOW which one my all time favorites. Stewart and Kelly were wonderful together and let’s not forget Thelma Ritter. Thanks again and hope to here from you again.
I have seen 20+ Hitchcock films,and this one remains my fav.This is the ideal PURE CINEMA movie.It happens that I just wrote a post “Fashions in Rear Window”,here is the url in case you might be interested in reading it: http://www.tasteofcinema.com/2012/fashions-in-rear-window/
Sorry for the late response…had some computer problems yesterday. Anyway, welcome to 24 frames and like yourself REAR WINDOW is one of my top Hitchcock films. I will check out you blog and your posting on this great AH film.
This is one of my favourite films of Hitchcock, I think it’s fantastic because it uses only one set to create suspence and atmosphere and it succeeds.
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