You may say Psycho or Vertigo.
But for me, Rear Window is Hitchcock’s magnum opus.
Made on the heels of Dial M For Murder, it is the second of the three films Hitchock made with Grace Kelly. (If he’d had his way, he would’ve kept making films with Kelly until he died or ran out of ideas, but a Prince from Monaco was a plot twist even the Master of Suspense couldn’t see coming.)
James Stewart stars as L.B. Jefferies (Jeff), a daredevil photographer who’s been holed up in his sweltering New York apartment with his leg in a cast for the past seven weeks. His street smart nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and sophisticated girlfriend “reading from top to bottom” Lisa Carol Fremont (Kelly) check in on him daily, but his real company are the neighbors he spies upon.
Like a man hooked on the cliff hangers of a soap opera, Jeff has become engrossed in the private lives of his neighbors.
As Jeff’s friend Lieutenant Doyle says, “People do a lot of things in private they couldn’t possibly explain in public.”
There’s Miss Torso, the ballerina who uses her constant parade of suitors to mark time until her true love returns. Miss Lonelyhearts, who wears her heart on her sleeve as she enacts a romantic dinner every night with the dream man who lives only in her imagination. And the newlyweds, whose ardor for the bedroom keeps the shades perpetually drawn. (“No comment,” Jeff smirks when Lisa asks him what’s going on behind the shades.) There’s the songwriter who bangs out compositions to pay the rent, and the couple who sleep on the fire escape to survive New York’s stifling summer heat.
But of primary importance is Thorwald, the traveling salesman who grows increasingly frustrated by his invalid wife’s incessant nagging.
As always, Hitch uses the camera rather than excessive dialogue to tell us what we need to know. A nightgown spills out of Lisa’s purse when she wants to spend the night. Jeff wedges a back scratcher into his cast to find relief from a sweaty itch. Thorwald going in and out in the middle of the night, carrying knives and ropes and saws just before his wife disappears.
Jeff is convinced Thorwald killed his wife, and though Lisa initially thinks he’s just cooped up and imagining things, she eventually comes around to his way of thinking.
Interlaced with this tale of murder is the frustrated love story of Jeff and Lisa. Jeff resists commitment because they come from two different worlds. He’s an adventurous photographer who goes to dangerous lengths to get the perfect shot, living out of one suitcase in sometimes squalid conditions. Lisa is the perfect New York socialite. Her adventures end at finding the perfect restaurant and staying on top of fashion.
Lisa is dressed for Park Avenue in a different, perfect dress in every scene.
Jeff doesn’t think she has what it takes to be his wife.
It is her role as Lisa that I think most clearly etches Grace Kelly’s image into our memories. Her Lisa is dressed to the nines, and she radiates class. Even when she’s scandalously telling Jeff that she’s going to spend the night, she comes across as every inch the lady.
Just like Alfred Hitchcock, Stewart named Grace Kelly as his favorite leading lady.
After the success of Dial M For Murder, Grace Kelly had her choice of working with director Elia Kazan in On the Waterfront (1954) or Hitchock’s Rear Window.
Though she wanted to stay in New York (where Waterfront would be filmed), she stuck with Hollywood and Hitch. Newcomer Eva Marie Saint took on the role of Brando’s girlfriend and won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her efforts. (Though Kelly herself would win the Best Actress Oscar that same year for her work in The Country Girl, made just after Rear Window.)
It’s hard to second guess her decision.
But enough about James and Grace.
Let’s get back to Jeff and Lisa.
Inquisitive photojournalist Jeff wants nothing more than to poke around in Thorwald’s apartment, yet his cast precludes any sleuthing. Enter Lisa, who becomes Jeff’s legs in her bid to prove both that Thorwald is guilty of murdering his wife and she, Lisa, is enough of a daredevil to keep up with Jeff.
Things go wrong, of course, and Jeff can do nothing but watch as Thorwald returns early to menace Lisa in his apartment. Things go from bad to worse when Thorwald discovers the immobile Jeff watching him.
Rear Window is an onion, revealing its layers upon repeated viewings. It’s a murder mystery, of course. But it’s the love story of Lisa and Jeff. It’s also a deeper story, about the intense fascination of watching others when they believe they’re unobserved. That’s the whole magic of movies, right? As the audience, we get to be voyeurs of the most joyful and most heartbreaking moments of the fictional characters we come to love and hate. And the final layer of the onion is that the film is about directing itself— Jeff directs Lisa, just as Hitch directs his actors. They play out the stories he dreams up for them.
In the references section of this blog, I list five films that everyone should watch: we’ve covered The Philadelphia Story, The Lady Eve, All ABout Eve, and now, Rear Window.
Even if you don’t think you like classic films, I cannot recommend Rear Window enough.
- Spoto, Donald. Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and his Leading Ladies.
- Eliot, Marc. Jimmy Stewart, A Biography.
- Spoto, Donald. High Society: The Life of Grace Kelly.
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.