Rear Window is a really simple story when you think about it, a man spying on the neighbors decides to become a detective when he thinks he’s observed a crime. That’s where the drive of the story comes from, but Hitchcock’s got so much more to say here. He makes some observations on relationships and the act of observing, and then weaves them into the story. Rear Window is one of Hitchcock’s most loaded films, and also one of his best.
Rear Window begins by looking over a neighborhood. The neighborhood consists of two apartment buildings facing each other back to back, which a green area in between. In one apartment, the only character we get to know is LB Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart), who is an out of action professional photographer with a broken leg. His girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) and the insurance company nurse hired to take care of him, Stella (Thelma Ritter) visit him frequently. In between these visits he has nothing to do, so he stares out of his window at the neighbors, sometimes with the help of his professional grade photography equipment.
Because our viewpoint stays with Jeff for the whole movie, we get to see a lot more of what is going on in the other apartment building. There is Miss Torso, a ballerina who dances around half naked all day and throws parties she doesn’t seem to care about at night, Miss Lonelyhearts, a middle-aged woman who has almost given up on every getting married, a newlywed couple, a struggling musician, and a couple who sleep outside on their fire escape and own a cute little dog they lower down to the ground in a basket-pulley system. The most interesting neighbors Jeff has, however, are the Thorwalds. Mrs. Thorwald is an invalid; everyday she just hangs around the house in bed and makes demands of Thorwald (Raymond Burr) when he shows up. One day, Mrs. Thorwald is no where to be found, and Jeff gets suspicious. He gets even more suspicious when he sees Thorwald packing away all of her stuff and hiding some knives….
At first no one believes Jeff, of course. He calls a buddy of his from the war who is now a detective, Lt. Doyle (Wendell Corey). He makes some inquiries, but he gets the answers you would expect and it’s clear he’s just humoring Jeff. She’s just gone on a trip to the country, right? People do that when they’re sick… But we know the truth! Jeff never lets us forget for a second the importance of his constant observation. While other characters are doubting him, we never do. Eventually he is able to convince Stella and Lisa of the truth, and they set out to help him prove his theories.
A lot of times, I like to think of different character interactions as a power struggle, who has the most control over the other person. When a story is structured in a way that lets me think of the interactions like this, I will probably automatically love it (Vertigo and The Master are other films that I have thought about this way). One thing I noticed straight off about Rear Window is that the only people who will listen to Jeff’s suspicions are women; his cop buddy totally blows him off. What is Hitchcock trying to get at with this? It’s not necessarily that simple, which is awesome! On one hand, you can argue that Jeff has control over Stella and Lisa, and tries to control Doyle but can’t. He’s the one that discovers all of Thorwald’s secrets, but when you think about it, he doesn’t have much power (at least that’s the more attractive way of looking at it from my point of view).
Jeff has a broken leg; he can’t move except by wheeling around in his chair. He seldom leaves his apartment, so he has to get Stella and Lisa to do his bidding for him. He just sits there watching, basically. It comes down to which act is designated as more powerful: acting or watching. I’ve read articles arguing both. In my mind, Stella and Lisa’s actions are more powerful than Jeff’s watching, even though they both have their uses. Jeff sets it up, but Stella and Lisa to a greater degree are the ones that actually go out there and get some proof. But then you think how Jeff’s the one that calls the police and you’re kind of back to square one…. I love it when stories don’t allow you to come to solid conclusions.
Another way to look at this is how the characters are positioned. Rear Window is said to be a metaphor for cinema as a whole; Jeff is the audience and the other apartment is the movie screen. Jeff, Stella, and Lisa are mostly in his apartment the whole time, with all the other characters (except Doyle) being watched by them. But things get more confusing as the film goes on, because the whole thing is a film after all so Jeff is eventually going to have to do something. The two apartment buildings are not really on separate planes of existence; Lisa, Stella, and Thorwald all cross over to the opposite building. Does that make Lisa and Stella part of the “movie” and Thorwald a spectator? And what does that even mean for the relative power of the characters? I honestly don’t know. My personal theory is that Thorwald ends up on the same side as Jeff in the end because his crimes have been discovered and thereby is rendered powerless, but I honestly have no clue how this relates to cinema as metaphor.
The performances were good too. Jimmy Stewart is really good here, and he’s back to being a likable character in a Hitchcock film! I don’t know how he dealt with being in that cast the whole time though. Grace Kelly still annoys me in this one, but I the second time I watched it I became less annoyed. As long as I pay attention to the parts where she’s helping detect I’m fine, but here are a lot of other times where she’s waltzing around in new clothes every five seconds that I just can’t stand. Thelma Ritter was humorous as Stella, that classic wise cracking New York City type. Comic relief character for the win! Another thing I noticed about the acting in general is that when people are in the “movie screen” apartment building they have to be a lot more like silent movie actors, because Jeff can’t hear them. There are some instances when the do yell across, but mostly they’re just going about their business. Lisa and Stella definitely have to act like they’re in a silent because they’re signalling to Jeff, but Miss Lonelyhearts for example also has to, even though she’s not aware of being watched.
Rear Window is a really cool Hitchcock because it’s a two-layered story. On the outside, it’s just a story of a man spying on the neighbors because he’s bored, but you can also analyze like crazy and get all sorts of meaning out of it. I chose to look at it from the power struggle angle, but I’m certain you could look at it in other ways too, which is of course what makes it so good. It presents you with ideas and allows you to draw your own conclusions, if you can.
“We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms. 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?”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars