Everyone has their favorite Hitchcock film. To Catch a Thief, North By Northwest, Vertigo, Psycho. All excellent films.
My personal favorite is Rear Window, hence the name of the blog. Hitchcock was nearing his peak, which he would reach in 1960 with Psycho. North By Northwest was more thrilling film, Psycho was chilling, To Catch a Thief more stylish, Vertigo more psychological, but Rear Window the best overall film.
James Stewart and Cary Grant did the heavy lifting for Hitchcock as his frequent leading men during the 1950’s.
Grant made a total of four films with Hitchcock, two of those in the 1950’s; Stewart also four, with three in the decade.
Rear Window had its origins as a short story by Cornell Woolrich. Hitchcock drew from source materials but he famously found inspiration in real life events, unusual murder cases for instance, that became threads in Rear Window.
The film, written by John Michael Hayes, takes place on one large sound stage set on the Paramount lot. It provided rained, daylight and nighttime, it simulated city life with vehicles at on a side street and all the sounds of a neighborhood. The set consisted of seven apartment buildings, of 31 apartments and included three other buildings across the street.
Rear Window finds photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (Stewart), laid up with a broken leg suffered on a dangerous newspaper assignment. He is tended to by insurance company nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), who says she had a nose for trouble, and immediately chastises Jeff for his voyeurism, watching the activities of his neighbors. Jeff’s apartment opens onto a courtyard where the various apartment buildings back up. This is the 1950’s, before air conditioning became a staple in America, so everyone has their windows open, letting us see into their world.
Jeff sees and hears a series of things across the courtyard that puzzles him and suggests there might be foul play. Jeff’s girlfriend, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) doesn’t buy into his idea of a murder, but we do. She is more interested in getting him to make a commitment to her, which he artfully dodges. He is the rugged outdoorsman, content to travel to exciting, unaccommodating foreign locations for his work. She is a Park Avenue model and dress designer used to creature comforts and dining at fine restaurants. They are an odd pair.
Finally, there are enough clues to convince both Stella and Lisa that what Jeff saw has merit. They enlist a police detective, an old war buddy of Jeff, Lt. Tom Doyle, who pokes around but finds reasonable answers to explain away Jeff’s clues.
The suspected murderer, Lars Thorvald (Raymond Burr), is a henpecked husband to his bedridden wife, who gains pleasure in her treatment of him. She suddenly disappears and this begins Jeff’s observations of Thorvald. He is seen late at night going out in the rain carrying his large merchandise case. The next day he is seen packing up her things, the mattress in her bedroom is rolled up, and he is observed washing off a a large knife and saw. Suspicious activities to Jeff.
With nothing much to occupy his time, Jeff watches his neighbors’ lives. We become fascinated with what we think we see going on. Perhaps that is why reality shows and social media are of such interest to us now. Looking around the courtyard outside of Jeff’s apartment he peers into the lives of the newlyweds (the shade is usually drawn), the artist, Miss Torso who constantly works out, the old couple with the dog, Miss Lonelyheart who looks for love, and the composer (Ross Bagdasarian). Besides Thorvald, Jeff and his colleagues interject themselves into the life of Miss Lonelyheart, to disrupt her planned suicide.
A bit of trivia, Ross Badgasarian, who played the composer who worked on his song, “Lisa” during the film, was in reality a composer, who went on to create Alvin and the Chipmonks.
On an estimated one million dollar budget, the film made nearly six million dollars at the box office. Rear Window has been ranked as one of the American Film Institute’s top 100 films of all time, and one of a small number of films with a 100 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes.
The copyright to Rear Window was owned by a company set up by Hitchcock and Stewart. After its release, the film was shown on television and occasionally in theaters, but it fell out of view for years, and was tied up in Hitchcock’s estate until 1983, when Universal re-released it to theaters and on VHS. Hitchcock had a long-term relationship with Universal for films and his long-running television series. Hitchcock, in his later years, worked a deal with Universal, trading some of his assets for Universal stock, becoming its largest stockholder.
Stewart and Grant were very different Hitchcock actors. When placed in dangerous situations they reacted quite differently. Stewart played many light, romantic roles before he left for World War II, and returned to play noir and a string of psychologically damaged men. Grant played characters on the run or falsely accused but always held his wits. Stewart could go into very dark territory and showed vulnerability and skating on the edge of losing his grip.
In Rear Window, Stewart’s Jeff didn’t realize how vulnerable he put himself and Lisa by confronting Thorvald in order to force him to make an incriminating move. Grace Kelly was of course Hitchcock’s deliciously cool blonde, who could turn on a dime from icy to hot. Given Kelly’s reputation for bedding her co-stars, Mrs. Stewart made sure she was frequently on the film set to make sure the action was entirely in front of the camera.
Stewart and Kelly have unusual chemistry, different from Grant-Kelly. We only see Stewart’s character in his leg cast and limited to his apartment. We have no idea of their relationship, where they met or how they normally work together. Lisa is the pursuer and Jeff is playing defense. From his apartment, Jeff can see the lonely, the newlyweds and the unhappily married. Jeff is cagey about moving his relationship forward, especially since she can see him in a tailored suit instead of hiking clothes, in a studio taking family portraits instead of angling for an action picture in a conflict zone. There is no doubt of passion between them, but that’s not enough for her. By the end of the film, he has seen a different side to her; she climbs a ladder to get into Thorvald’s apartment and putting herself in Thorvald’s cross-hairs to search for a wedding ring. She has proven herself in Jeff’s world.
From the fist time I saw Rear Window, I was hooked on it as a thriller with some light, macabre humor thrown in. The film is suspenseful as Jeff begins to formulate his theory, then you see it shot down and wonder where the story goes, then another clue and his theory is again plausible, then the tension is ramped up as the characters take chances while being discovered, then it races to a conclusion. Hitchcock constructed a very effective story; it goes several directions while information is added but the viewer isn’t sure how it fits together. Jeff, Lisa and Stella keep pressing forward, even when Lt. Doyle can explain away the clues. Like the unfortunate dog in the film, Jeff sniffs around and won’t let go, until he becomes the prey.
If you are looking for first rate Hitchcock, this is it.