Released: August 1, 1954 (U.S.)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock; Screenplay: John Michael Hayes based on the short story “It Had to Be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich; Cinematography: Robert Burks; Studio: Paramount Pictures; Producer: Alfred Hitchcock; Music: Franz Waxman
Cast: James Stewart (L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies), Grace Kelly (Lisa Carol Fremont), Thelma Ritter (Stella), Wendell Corey (Det. Lt. Thomas J. Doyle), Raymond Burr (Lars Thorwald), Irene Winston (Mrs. Anna Thorwald), Judith Evelyn (Miss Lonelyhearts), Ross Bagdasarian (Songwriter), Georgine Darcy (Miss Torso)
As I’m sure happens to everyone who shows a passion for films, I am constantly asked the loaded question, “What is your all-time favorite movie?” Answering such a question is hopeless, as it's one that is impossible to give a valid response to. There are just too many factors that are constantly shifting. The answer at any given point in time is dependent on things such as which films I’ve watched most recently, what kind of films I have been into, what my mood is at that time – basically, a change in any of these elements is likely to produce a different response to the question. Now, with that being said, I could likely draft a list of 10-15 films from which an answer at any given point is likely to be chosen. If forced to narrow things even further, I would venture to say that if someone were to have the time or inclination to track my answers to this question over an extended period (and I pity the person who would even be interested in trying such a thing!), that there is a film that would likely pop up more often than any other. To this day, after countless viewings, I still find Alfred Hithcock’s Rear Window thrilling and exciting every time I watch it.
The amazing thing is that 1954 is such a monstrous year that it has to be a movie that I love this much in order to be chosen as my top film. While there are not quite the volume of contenders that I dealt with in years like 1939 or 1950, those at the top of are magnificent. This year is like a small tournament of heavyweight directors, pitting the likes of Hitchcock, Kazan, Mizoguchi, Kurosawa, Fellini and Ray against each other. So for me, this is another banner year for cinema.
If Alfred Hitchcock is not my favorite director, he’s certainly on the short list. With Rear Window, the director was in the middle of a ten-year run of classics that can be matched favorably against the best decade-long run of any other director to ever work in film. When watching this film, it’s abundantly clear that you are observing a genius at work – a director who feels like he can do whatever he wants to on the screen and make it work. Forgetting about the reputation and acclaim that it has acquired over the years, think about describing this film to someone at the most basic level. Here is a major motion picture that takes place on one set, and for the most part in just a single room. It is a murder mystery in which the audience never sees the crime or any other violence take place. The story unfolds by viewing a number of seemingly innocuous events, watching them from the rear window of an apartment. Even further, the events that the audience does see transpire take place from a distance, well out of earshot.
To think that a film described in this fashion manages to become one of the most thrilling movies ever made is mind-blowing. And while it is not due solely to the efforts of Hitchcock – there are many other collaborators that contribute to the film’s success – there is no question that it took a personality like Hitch to achieve the greatness that Rear Window does. Only Hitchcock, with this personal interest (and some would even argue paranoia) concerning voyeurism and its place in society could elevate the movie from the bland description given above to the suspenseful masterpiece it is.
I’ll start the meat of this review in the same way that the movie itself begins, exploring the stunning set constructed at Paramount Studios. The base description given earlier saying that the film takes place on a single set is somewhat misleading, because that single set is spectacular. At the time, it was the largest set Paramount had ever constructed, allowing Hitchcock to accurately depict the setting of the Greenwich Village apartment complex and the open-air courtyard at its center. Every apartment that we see through Jeff’s window is like a world of its own, each with its own individual characters and personalities. In Miss Torso’s room you see a blond bombshell, constantly dancing and stretching in skimpy clothing and always being wooed by young men. Miss Lonelyhearts is the middle-aged woman seen in her very domesticated looking apartment, longing for a companion. She is portrayed in the most sympathetic light. The Songwriter lives in an apartment that looks like an artist’s loft, with his piano situated at the center of his room so that he can try to write his first hit song. In the newlyweds that move in early in the film, Jeff and the audience watch as the love struck couple progresses from the bliss early in their marriage to more difficult times that loom ahead. Then of course, there is the apartment of the Thorwalds, where Lars is said to have murdered his invalid wife. Each room is its own world, with those in Jeff’s apartment acting as something of an “all-seeing eye.”
And all of this is shot in beautiful Technicolor, which creates an interesting contrast. There are vibrant colors on display, whether it is in the gorgeous costumes designed by the famed Edith Head or outdoor shots in the quad. Yet many vital scenes hinge on darkness and subtle uses of light. The ability to be seen across the courtyard is dependent upon lights, or lack thereof. Thus, Jeff and Lisa are constantly scrambling to cut off the lights of his apartment, to make it impossible for Thorwald to see them spying on him. There are numerous scenes where Jeff or Stella are stepping (of in Jeff’s case wheeling) back into the shadows to remain unobserved. The same is true for conditions in Thorwald’s apartment, which allow Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks to create the chilling images of his living room in complete darkness, the only visible thing being the cherry of his lit cigarette. It is dazzling stuff, reinforcing the fact that it is not just Hitchcock who deserves praise for the look of the film. Robert Burks photographed many other Hitchcock films (among them Strangers on a Train, Vertigo, and North By Northwest) but his accomplishment here is as good as anything else he ever did.
I would be shocked if everyone reading this is not at least vaguely familiar with the plot of the film, but for the sake of completeness I’ll at least offer a brief summary. L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart) is a celebrated freelance photographer who has been recently injured while filming a car race. With his left leg in a cast up his midsection, Jeff is confined to a wheelchair in his apartment. Combating boredom, and without the ability to go out to find something better to do, Jeff finds himself people-watching from his back window and observing the various idiosyncrasies and habits of his neighbors. Over the course of his spying, Jeff comes to suspect that Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), whose apartment is directly across the courtyard, has murdered his ailing wife. After hearing a pained scream in the early morning hours, Jeff sees Thorwald, said to be a traveling jewelry salesman, quickly leaving his apartment at 2:00 AM carrying a suitcase. From that point on, Mrs. Thorwald is never observed again. Jeff then attempts to convince his friends that a murder has taken place. The first skeptic is his insurance agency nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), who is constantly scolding him for his peeping tom antics. His girlfriend and notable socialite Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) is also initially skeptical, but is slowly convinced. Eventually, Jeff calls in an old army buddy, Lt. Det. Thomas Doyle (Wendell Corey) to investigate Thorwald. Doyle remains unconvinced right up until the finish, but Jeff will never let him completely disregard the possible murder.
Whereas many mysteries might lose some appeal in repeat viewings, Rear Window manages to stay interesting no matter how often it is watched. The reason is that it can be experienced and enjoyed on a number of different levels. Due primarily to the tight script of writer John Michael Hayes, the interaction between the small core of primary characters manages to add a lighthearted element. Just witness Stella’s constant scolding of Jeff for his spying or her straightforward values, such as when she declares to Jeff, “What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change. Yes sir. How's that for a bit of homespun philosophy?” and then admitting to copping it from Reader’s Digest. Although discussing the murder and dismemberment of a helpless woman, it’s impossible not to chuckle or smile at some of the exchanges. The best example is when the trio of Jeff, Lisa and Stella are watching Thorwald scrub down his apartment and Stella suddenly blurts out, “Must’ve splattered a lot” as matter-of-factly as possible. Lisa squirms as Stella explains, “Come on, that’s what we’re all thinking.” Jeff is the ultimate cynic, sparing no one from his sharp wit. Lt. Doyle, someone who he obviously cares for, is a constant target of Jeff’s dry humor as he tries to goad him into investigating the supposed murder. At times, all of this repartee plays like a light comedy.
At the same time, the film looks at the nature of relationships, using the views into various rooms to explore the different ways that the relationships between couples can progress. In peering into the apartments, you see how different people cope with their own relationship situations. Miss Torso constantly has callers, to the point of having to beat them away, but misses her true love, a soldier who is away. The married couple above the Thorwalds seems to be the model of domesticity, sleeping together on their balcony along with their pet dog. Miss Lonelyhearts desperately wants someone to be with, reaching the point of suicide when she is unsuccessful. Contrast this with Lars Thorwald, who has someone to be with but may have become so fed up with her that he kills her. Jeff, taking all of these scenarios in, has all of this to process as he contemplates his own relationship with Lisa, which appears to be at a crossroads. Arguably the central issue of the entire story is the relationship between Jeff and Lisa. Lisa wants a permanent commitment, while Jeff is unsure whether the two would be able to survive his nomadic lifestyle. To a certain degree, the unraveling of the Thorwald murder can be seen as the vehicle that brings the two of them together for the long-term. While engaged in the various plans to solve the case, Jeff begins to see Lisa in a different light and starts to believe that she would be able to survive his assorted assignments around the globe.
The obvious, and most interesting level in my opinion, is the issue of voyeurism. Exactly what judgment Hitchcock is passing on the innate human desire to watch something one is not meant to see is open to interpretation, but there are some key things that I think can help to craft an explanation. For the entirety of the film, the audience is viewing the action from Jeff’s apartment, with much of our view being the exact same as the leading character. When Jeff picks up his camera and looks through the high-powered lens, Hitchcock gives the audience the exact same vantage point. Is he implicating the audience in whatever trouble is stirred up by Jeff’s actions? Or is he making the point that the viewers would act similarly to Jeff if they were in the same situation? It’s hard to give a definitive answer to those questions, but they are interesting to ponder. The fact that in many cases Hitchcock frames shots that literally give the impression that you are viewing things through Jeff’s eyes are meant to make everyone watching feel that it could be them in this scenario.
The exact statement on the voyeurism is also left a bit ambiguous. Is Jeff’s spying justified by the fact that he is able to call in Det. Doyle and solve a murder? It would be easy to say yes, but the fact that Jeff doesn’t exactly come away unscathed seems to point to the fact that he at the very least was the recipient of some kind of karmic backlash. After all, it wasn’t just Thorwald that Jeff was spying on. He also invaded the privacy of many other oblivious tenants. While certainly a “happy ending” for the main characters, it is far from the Hollywood fairytale conclusion. For his trouble, Jeff ends the movie with a cast on both legs, guaranteeing many more weeks of life in the wheelchair. Sure, he has the gorgeous Lisa nearby to comfort him, but he did not come away scot-free.
The performances have been lauded by far better writers than me, but it’s still worth pointing out how incredible the interaction is between the three amateur gumshoes of Jeff, Lisa and Stella. James Stewart has far too many memorable performances to choose a best one, but L.B. Jefferies certainly ranks alongside any other accomplishments. Rather than portraying the usual All-American image for which he has become so beloved, Stewart plays Jeff differently. He is still likable, but he seems to have a restless streak about him. While the audience always identifies with Jeff, it can never be forgotten that we are watching a peeping tom at work. I’ll go on record now and say that Grace Kelly is as beautiful as any woman who ever worked in Hollywood and I would use this film as Exhibit A to back up my argument. Kelly took home the Oscar for Best Actress in 1954 – but not for Rear Window! She won it for her role in George Seaton’s The Country Girl. I’m in no way suggesting that Kelly’s role as Lisa was worthy of an award, but she certainly shows why she remained one of Hitchcock’s favorite leading ladies (and on a personal level, one of the few actors or actresses he seemed to genuinely like). She looks the part of a debutante and plays the role without exaggerating it. Lisa is a socialite with a taste for material things, but Kelly’s performance doesn’t stress this to the point of making it a caricature. And finally there is Thelma Ritter, who to me is like the female Walter Brennan of this era. By this I mean that in whatever supporting role she plays, she manages to very nearly steal the spotlight from those that are top-billed.
I’ll close in reiterating how the suspense created by Hitchcock, writers Hayes and Woolrich, and all other principals involved is the best I’ve ever seen. The reason is that the suspense is not dependent on any parlor tricks. Nothing has to be faked; there is no need for suspension of belief in order for the tension to feel very real. Everyone can relate to situations like when Jeff is forced to watch helplessly as Lisa scrambles to hide from the returning Thorwald. What can he do? If he calls out to her, it will only lead the potential murderer to her even quicker. A call to the police would likely bring help too late. The audience has no choice but to squirm along with Jeff as he can hardly bear to watch. I think that the fact that we are seeing all of the action from a distance only adds to the anxiety created. Since things are not as up close, you’re never able to make complete sense of what is happening. For me, there is no worse feeling than knowing that things are far removed from your control and there is nothing that can be done but to sit and watch what happens. Hitchcock plays on this fear in such simple, yet effective ways.
Every time I put on Rear Window, it rekindles my love of both the film itself and movies in general. There is no better compliment that I can pay to a film than this.
Other Contenders for 1954: As I said, this is an incredibly top-heavy year, with many films that have just as strong a claim to the top spot as my personal favorite. If creating a complete list of rankings, there would be three films that would be tied for second place. First is the touching Kenji Mizoguchi film Sansho Dayu (also known as Sansho the Bailiff). The visuals are stunning and the story truly is moving. It is not hyperbole at all to say that this movie is just devastating. I prefer this one to Mizoguchi’s other recognized masterpiece Ugetsu, and would probably go so far as to say this is the best movie in Japanese cinema history -- again, no hyperbole at all. The winner of Best Picture of 1954 was Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. This is a prime example of a film that manages to take outstanding individual pieces (director, actors, etc.) and bring them together to create a superb film. This sounds like this should always happen with great individual parts, but this isn’t always the case. The Budd Schulberg screenplay has nearly attained mythical status, as has Marlon Brando’s lead performance. It’s my definitely my favorite Kazan movie. While I chose Jacques Becker’s Casque d’or as my top movie of 1952, my favorite Becker film is actually this year’s Touchez pas au grisbi. Jean Gabin is perfect as the aging gangster, struggling to maintain control in a changing underworld. It is among the best French gangster films ever made. Outside of these three, I see something of a drop off, but that is more an affirmation of there greatness rather than shortcomings of other films.
There are two other movies from this year that I would classify as outstanding films, and that many would call great, but that never really contended in my choice for #1. Many reputable critics and film fans cite Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai as the greatest film ever made. I don’t quite place it that high – and in fact there are two other Kurosawa films that I like more – but it’s still cinema at its finest. The other is Nicholas Ray’s western noir Johnny Guitar. It took me a long time to finally track this one down, but when I did I was not disappointed. It has the feel of noir dialogue set in the West and works very well.
I also expect some support for Federico Fellini’s La Strada. This is another instance of my being able to recognize a film’s importance but not enjoying it. In fact, after my first viewing, I was somewhat shocked at the status that it had acquired. I’ve softened on that stance since, but it’s still one that falls short for me.