When you go out to the neighborhood cinema, you’re indulging in a voyeuristic experience, watching the lives of people unfold before you on the screen. The theme of viewer as voyeur, peeping in on the privacy of total strangers, has never been done better than in Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW, nor more entertainingly. Like James Stewart’s protagonist L.B. Jeffries, we the audience are the voyeurs in the shadows watching from afar, stumbling onto things not meant for our eyes, and powerless to stop them without outside assistance. Hitchcock is not only the Master of Suspense, but a master of audience manipulation, and this dazzling piece of moviemaking is not only a hell of a thrill ride but a technical marvel as well.
The world of globetrotting photojournalist Jeffries has been boiled down to the view of the courtyard outside his apartment window, just as the audience’s world is now focused on the screen. Jeffries, confined to a wheelchair with a broken leg, spends his days watching the lives of others unfold before him. The courtyard itself is a massively constructed replica on a Paramount sound stage complete with fully furnished, functional apartments costing somewhere between $75-100,000 dollars to build (reports vary). The lighting was rigged to simulate dusk to dawn, mimicking the real world outside the studio confines. It’s incredible to me that Hitchcock would pay so much attention to detail, yet most of the action (except a few brief scenes) is shot from Stewart’s apartment! That’s what separates a true artist from the multitudes.
Across that courtyard, Jeffries (and the audience through him) observes his neighbors, each becoming their own film-within-a-film. Hitchcock had dabbled in many genres before donning his “Master of Suspense’ mantle, and we are privy to the mini-tales of a frustrated songwriter (played by real-life songwriter Ross Bagdasarian, later to achieve fame as Dave Seville, mentor to Alvin and the Chipmunks!) trying to follow his own muse (this is where Hitch’s annual cameo comes into play), the delectable Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy) fending off the wolves while waiting for her serviceman lover to return home, a put-upon married couple ( Frank Cady aka Sam Drucker of GREEN ACRES , and Sara Berner) and their cute little dog (who will play a part in the unmasking of the crime), a newlywed couple (Rand Harper, Havis Davenport) celebrating their honeymoon (her cries of “Harrrry” are a lot different from Allison Hayes’s bellowing in ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN !), an eccentric artist (Jesslyn Fax, perhaps standing in for Hitchcock himself?) and the sad tale of Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn), an unmarried woman “of a certain age” who dines alone and cries herself to sleep.
Yet all this is superfluous to where Jeffries (and our) real focus is: the goings-on inside the apartment of salesman Lars Thorwald and his invalid wife. We watch as Thorwald draws the shades in the bedroom, then late at night takes trips to and from home, carrying his sample case, holding what we don’t know. When Thorwald is seen cleaning a butcher knife and a handsaw, and bundling a large trunk with rope, Jeffries (and us) can only come to one conclusion – murder most foul has been committed! Noir heavy Raymond Burr conveys a sense of menace as the bulky Thorwald even from afar, and the in-joke is the actor is made up to look like Hitchcock’s bete noire, producer David O. Selznick, whom Hitchcock clashed with during his time spent under contract. The penultimate scene, where Burr enters Stewart’s apartment with malice aforethought, is a masterpiece of utilizing sound and vision on film to their best advantage, and should be studied by aspiring filmmakers as much as PSYCHO’s vaunted shower scene.
There’s another conflict going on during the film with Jeffries’ culture clash with his girlfriend, glamorous model Lisa Freemont, portrayed by Hitchcock’s ultimate “ice blonde” Grace Kelly. When Jeffries balks at the thought of marriage to her, I thought, “Are you crazy??”. Kelly (beautifully gowned by the great Edith Head) is a vision of loveliness, and the polar opposite of working class Stewart, and his character believes their different worlds will never allow them to successfully navigate the swift rapids of relationship bliss. It’s only when Lisa proves her mettle by doing some “amateur sleuthing” (a favorite Hitchcock motif), and places herself in great jeopardy that Jeffries finally realizes she’s the one for him. Stewart and Kelly engage in some titillatingly hot sexual banter, and their scenes together allow the audience to peep on the peeper, indulging Hitchcock’s (and our) voyeuristic streak and taking it to yet another level.
And what can one say about Thelma Ritter except “Bravo”! Her sarcastic role of Stella, the nurse attending to Jeffries, is a real hoot, and lets Hitchcock set his comedic side loose. Thelma gets off the best lines with her own inimitable style; my favorite is when Stewart asks what Thorwald could possibly be selling at three o’clock in the morning and she replies, “Flashlights”. It breaks the tension as Stewart’s character is becoming more and more convinced that Thorwald is up to no good. She also gets in the last word regarding the contents of a hat box found in Thorwald’s apartment, delivering it as only Thelma Ritter could. Wendell Corey, an actor I usually find too bland, does a good job as Jeffries’ police pal Tom Doyle, skeptical about the whole situation, and serving to plant the seeds of doubt in Jeffries’ (and the audience’s) mind.
Alfred Hitchcock is like a cat with a catnip-stuffed toy mouse here, pawing at his audience and batting it around the courtyard with glee. REAR WINDOW is a movie about murder, but it’s also about moviemaking, about the audience as voyeur, and about manipulating our collective emotions like the Master of Suspense he truly was, drawing us in to this constructed world and making it look and seem all too real. That the reality is only an illusion on a Paramount sound stage is a testament to the genius of Alfred Hitchcock, and REAR WINDOW is essential viewing for the voyeur in all of us.