James StewartGrace KellyRaymond BurrWendell Corey
Rear Window
Medium: film
Year: 1954
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Cornell Woolrich, John Michael Hayes
Keywords: Oscar-nominated, The Five Lost Hitchcocks
Country: USA
Actor: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr
Format: 112 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0047396/
Website category: Hitchcock
Review date: 26 November 2008
Everyone knows about Rear Window. It's the one where James Stewart's stuck in his apartment all day looking out of his window and one day sees a murder. Unfortunately no one believes him.
That much I knew. I'd forgotten he was there with a broken leg or that his girlfriend was played by Grace Kelly, but those aren't the important thing. The reason we're all here (including Hitchcock) is the murder. Stewart doesn't see it directly, of course. If he had, there would have been no story. The other chap's not stupid enough to commit the crime in front of a window for all the world to see, but sooner or later he's got to put the blinds up.
Hitchcock plays this very light. There are lots of apartments outside Stewart's window and each one has its own little story going on. There's a musician whose work gives hope to the whole neighbourhood. There's a couple of newlyweds who are at it night and day. There's even a young lady we know only as Miss Torso who does ballet exercises in her underwear, although I wouldn't get too excited if I were you. It's 1950s underwear. You could catch whales with those knickers. Nevertheless it's all pleasant, sweet and happy, even if it's not a high-class neighbourhood. The music we hear is always light and jazzy, being only the actual sounds that the characters themselves would hear. If Stewart can hear it on the radio, we hear it too.
Nonetheless I still felt a feeling of slight dread throughout the film, not strong enough to be oppressive but definitely enough to make me have to fight the urge to pause the DVD and give myself a break. There's something uncomfortable about the set-up. Our hero's spying on people through their windows. Of course he's James Stewart and no one could ever be more honest or innocent about it, but even so it's not entirely comfortable to see him spying on a killer. You see, I knew what was going to happen. Not because I'd seen it before or anything. I'm talking about the laws of drama. At some point the killer would see Stewart watching him and look back. After a while I also realised that Grace Kelly was going to go across and break into the apartment. These two things were simply inevitable, as natural as night following day.
When Stewart got out the binoculars, I didn't really wince. You're never going to convince anyone that you weren't deliberately spying if you're using binoculars, but by that point he was already pretty sure of his mark and I was prepared to go along with it. I was startled by the camera and the telephoto lens, though. Stewart's character is a photographer, you see. That's, um. Anyway.
There are themes. At the beginning James Stewart doesn't want to marry Grace Kelly. He thinks she's too high-class for him. She then spends the rest of the movie doing her damndest to win him back over, but all that was presented pretty bluntly. She has plans for him. Stewart doesn't want anything to do with them and indeed even manages to hurt her with his straight-talking. He's thinking about their future and by analogy all the worlds he can see through his windows could be seen as a snapshot of possible lives. The newlyweds have their physical relationship, but life isn't that simple. There's a despairing old maid. Miss Torso. Then of course one marriage in particular goes off the rails so far that it's ended by a butcher's knife and a metal saw. However personally I'm optimistic, since he's thinking about the matter so seriously.
The named cast are fewer than you'd expect in a 112 minute movie. There's a whole world out there, but Stewart can't talk to any of them. This feels as if it could have been another Hitchcock films based on a stage play, even though it's actually based on a short story. My favourite character was the little old nurse who comes in to boss him around and play at being his Jewish Mother. She has a nice line in offbeat philosophy. "Nothing has caused the human race so much trouble as intelligence." She also made me laugh by making grisly conversation when Stewart's trying to eat. Apart from her, there's Stewart, Kelly and one Detective Doyle played by Wendell Corey. That's it, if you don't count the murderer himself. He's mostly safely out there in the outside world, but it's a foregone conclusion that that won't be a permanent state of affairs. He's played by Raymond Burr, allegedly because Hitchcock wanted a killer who looked like his interfering former producer David O. Selznick.
Hitchcock regular James Stewart makes a huge difference to the film. He keeps everything honourable and above board. You never lose patience with his voyeurism or find him annoying or creepy, even when thanks to him Grace Kelly goes over to the other apartment and tries to scare the killer. Wow, that was dumb. Personally I thought those had to be the world's stupidest ideas, but thanks to James "Everyman" Stewart I never felt myself being pushed away from the film. Besides, at least he tries to call in a detective. It's not his fault he can't muster up enough evidence to convince him. The characters make some courageous choices in an extreme situation, but you couldn't accuse the film of going in for idiot plotting.
As with many Hitchcock films, Rear Window has since been remade in various forms. The most interesting sounds like Christopher Reeve's 1998 TV movie, in his first role since being paralysed from the neck down in that riding accident in 1995. It won him a Best Actor Golden Globe and was nominated for three more awards. I bet it's not as good as this, though. After I wrote that in my original review, I got the following reply which I'll quote even though I can't vouch for it personally. "It's not terribly good at all and Reeve got the Globe out of sheer pity and as a reward for being so brave etc, in my opinion."
In some ways, this is a hard film to analyse. It's so simple. A man sits in his apartment and looks out of the window. The plot's so simple that I can think of people who'd probably accuse it of not having one, although of course they'd be wrong. Nevertheless it has rich themes and pulls you through almost without a bump from beginning to end. The only exception to this is at the end, when Hitchcock speeds up the film in a number of shots and suddenly people are zipping along like the Keystone Kops. That's so out of place that I can only think Hitchcock decided the ending was a bit slow, so decided to hurry it up a bit. I've probably just committed heresy or something. Anyway, Hitchcock gets away with it. Do I need to say that this is an exceptionally good film?