Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for TIFF’s Dreaming in Technicolor. For more information on this TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Only Alfred Hitchcock, The Master of Suspense, could take a story essentially set in a single room with a protagonist bound to a wheelchair and make it not only interesting, but at times downright nerve-wracking. Hitch understood how to make the confined space of that small, two bedroom apartment translate to a large theater and make the audience feel as constrained as Jeff (the often imitated but never duplicated James Stewart) did in that wheelchair with his leg in a cast all the way up to his waist.
This is a masterwork of filmmaking and not only one of Hitch’s best, but one of the best films ever made.
The story is that of action photographer L.B. Jeffries, Jeff to his friends, who has been laid up for 7 of 8 weeks with a broken leg, obtained by standing in the middle of a race track to get a shot and being hit by a car. His only company is his caregiver Stella (the always fantastic Thelma Ritter) and his girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly, never better or more stunning) and the people whose rear windows face the courtyard his does. He takes to staring out the window incessantly out of sheer boredom. He’s given names to all the people he regularly spies on and updates Stella and Lisa when they come. There’s Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy), a shapely ballerina; Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn), a woman so lonely that she play-acts having a boyfriend over for dinner and routinely drinks herself to sleep; a songwriter who isn’t given a nickname (Ross Bagdasarian) whose composing is heard by everyone facing the courtyard, a couple who lives on the third floor so they lower their dog down to the courtyard with a pulley and a basket, a pair of newlyweds who draw the shade right after moving in and only occasionally does the man raise it for some air, only to be beckoned back immediately by his new wife, lowering the shade again.
Then there is Lars Thornwald (Raymond Burr, best known for his television work as Perry Mason) and his wife Emma (Irene Winston). Emma is sickly and rarely out of bed and is always yelling at Lars. One day, Jeff notices that Mrs. Thornwald is missing from the apartment, which is odd because she never leaves. Mr. Thornwald is tying up a large trunk and Lisa notices him going through his wife’s handbag. They, along with Stella, decide Thornwald killed his wife. Jeff gets his old war buddie, who is also a police detective Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey) to look into it. Doyle is convinced everything is on the up and up, but the trio is not and they set about to prove Thornwald killed his wife.
There are books to be and have been written on the voyeuristic commentary this film is showing and how Jeff’s peeping is really us in the movie theater, so I won’t get too far into that here. What I will note is the surprising absence of televisions in an era when they were new and starting to become commonplace. It could be argued that Hitch didn’t want to give credibility to ‘the enemy’, but he dived in headfirst into the medium the very next year, so planning for his show must have been in process while this film was being made. The events could still have taken place, given that there wasn’t a great deal of programming at the time and Jeff being the character he is, he would have tired of it quickly and turned to the windows anyway.
James Stewart gives one of his finest performances as the wheelchair bound bored photographer. Limited in his ability to use his physicality, which he always does so well, he has to rely only on some hand gestures and his voice to do the work, and he excels.
That aside, this is a masterwork of filmmaking and not only one of Hitch’s best, but one of the best films ever made. Hitch uses his camera freely, moving in and out on his characters giving a sense of how little room Jeff actually has to move around in, wheeling in a manner that suggests Jeff’s point of view, never leaving that sitting/bedroom while other characters came and went and go into other rooms. We, like Jeff, never leave that small area that accommodates his wheelchair. We see what Jeff sees, making this film quite possibly the most successful film ever shot from a singular point of view (the Raymond Chandler adaptation Lady in the Lake, Robert Montgomery’s directorial debut from 1947, uses the camera as the main character so we literally see what Marlow sees, only showing Montgomery once in a mirror, but that didn’t work out as well as Ladd had hoped and while it was completely one POV, it wasn’t very successful). It’s also one of only two Hitchcock films that actively shows the process of detective work, the other is Stewart’s other great Hitchcock role in Vertigo four years later. Hitch lets everything develop gracefully and lets it build to a very tense climax, even by today’s standards.
James Stewart gives one of his finest performances as the wheelchair bound bored photographer. Limited in his ability to use his physicality, which he always does so well, he has to rely only on some hand gestures and his voice to do the work, and he excels. Grace Kelly is no slouch either. She was the epitome of Hitchcock’s cool blondes and he spent the rest of his career trying to find someone that could succeed her after she retired from acting following her marriage to the Prince of Monaco. Her Lisa was smart, successful and ran in the upper circles and she handled the role with perfection. Thelma Ritter was brilliant as always, earning an Oscar nomination for her Stella but the real standout is Raymond Burr. Known for his booming voice, his challenge was to do his part nearly completely silently, since he’s seen from across a courtyard for the majority of the film, only speaking a few lines near the end when he enters Jeff’s apartment. Leave it to Hitch to cast an actor known for his voice and not let him use it, while still getting one of the actor’s most nuanced performances out of him. Maybe that’s why he’s so good here, he doesn’t get to go cartoonishly over the top like his D.A. in George Steven’s A Place in the Sun.
What you end up with when all of these elements are combined is a film that is at once funny, tragic and suspenseful and even terrifying in parts. Hitchcock knew how to inject humor into a tense situation without diffusing the tension, which is something few directors ever learned how to do. Along with screenwriter John Michael Hayes (who would work with Hitchcock three more times after this and whose writing process with Hitchcock is documented in the great book ‘Writing with Hitchcock’), Hitchcock managed to take a short story and pull it into a genuinely great 2 hour film. His cast was perfect, the script flawless and his camera work and use of color with shadows was exemplary. Rear Window wasn’t the first time he’d made a tense situation out of a confined space, he’d done so with Lifeboat and Rope before, but this was his greatest example of it and one of the finest achievements of American film.
Rear Window wasn’t the first time Hitchcock made a tense situation out of a confined space, he’d done so with Lifeboat and Rope before, but this was his greatest example of it and one of the finest achievements of American film.