Starring: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr
Despite the fact that it stars two of my least favorite Hitchcock regulars, Rear Window is among my favorite of his works, in part because I find it to be one of Hitchcock's most personable, accessible, and genuinely likable films. Jeff, a professional photographer, is holed up in his apartment complex and confined to a wheelchair because of a broken leg. He is looked after by a no-nonsense, sardonic nurse and by his doting, fashion model girlfriend, Lisa. The rear window of his apartment looks out over a courtyard also faced by the rear windows of other tenants, all of whom have their windows open during a heatwave. Out of boredom, Jeff spies on them with a telephoto lens, soon uncovering something suspicious. A salesman and his invalid wife have an argument and then the wife disappears. Jeff sees the man later cleaning knives and carrying suitcases out of the apartment and begins to suspect murder. His girlfriend, nurse and old detective friend think he is merely suffering the ill effects of boredom, but Jeff is determined to get to the bottom of Mrs. Thorwald's disappearance.
Rear Window works because it is first and foremost a comedy thriller and one that appears to take itself not very seriously. This is where Hitchcock deceives us, because he is actually addressing some serious issues like voyeurism, the male gaze, the spectacle of cinema, and various gender issues. What does it mean to look? What does it mean to be looked at? Unlike the thematically similar Rope, this doesn't feel simply like a cinematic exercise in the perfect murder (or the perfect murder witness). It is a compelling film with warm characters and stands as a perfect example of some of Hitchcock's effortless filmmaking at work.
As I said earlier, I'm not the biggest fan of either James Stewart or Grace Kelly. While I like these actors in some other films, they are far from my favorite Hitchcock stars (though Kelly is fantastic in To Catch a Thief). But there is something about both of them here that makes it impossible to dislike Jeff or Lisa. On many levels, the film is a psychodrama about their relationship. Jeff is not the kindest or most generous person, but his flaws are the reason his character works so well. Like many of Hitchcock's other male leads, he is dismissive of his romantic partner. He only seems to tolerate Lisa because he is stuck in a wheelchair. She inexplicably and tirelessly tries to convince him that a more permanent arrangement would be ideal.
Throughout the courtyard, the other characters and their relationships mirror Jeff's unconscious anxieties or hopes about his relationship with Lisa. There are the newlyweds, first romantic, then the wife is dissatisfied and nagging. There is Miss Lonelyhearts, who holds dinner parties for imaginary callers and tries to kill herself before winding up with a frustrated composer living in another apartment. An older married couple follows a repetitive, boring schedule. The lovely dancing girl, dubbed Miss Torso, entertains a variety of men throughout the film before her real love returns for the conclusion. This psychodramatic element also adds to the dreamy quality of the film. Cutting techniques and fades, plus a variety of night shots and scenes of Stewart asleep by the window give the scenes he observes a dreamlike feel. He seems to be stuck in a loop, living out his subconscious anxieties about relationships until they can be resolved in some way, though the conclusion is vague about this.
Gender issues are also dealt with in the restricted space of the apartment complex. The passive masculine and assertive feminine combination of Jeff and Lisa is countered, in a rather sinister way, by the assertive Thorwald and his passive wife. Jeff, normally a world-travelling photographer, is forced into passivity by his broken leg. He, in turn, forces Lisa into action. Her perfection and elegance is complicated by her frustration and Kelly is wonderful here in what I think is her greatest role. In her quest to prove to Jeff that she would make a good photographers wife, capable of living in the jungle or desert, she becomes embroiled in the murder mystery and seeks adventure and danger where Jeff is forced to remotely observe. This gives her character a depth Kelly's other characters utterly lack, such as Dial M for Murder from the same year, where she is a vapid, powerless character being acted upon by the males in the film.
There are so many reason to see Rear Window. Last, but certainly not least, is the beautiful cinematography from the inimitable Robert Burks. The creative shots and vibrant use of Technicolor truly make the apartment complex set stand out as its own character within the film. Rear Window comes with the highest recommendation and is available as a single disc DVD from Universal or as part of the Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection.