James Stewart plays L.B. Jeffries, injured photographer, wheelchair-bound and bored. He fills his time watching his neighbours and becomes convinced that one (Raymond Burr) may have murdered his wife.
My favourite films are the ones with the simplest of plots because there’s plenty of room for great writers to fill the time with detail that may not be necessary, but colours the story nonetheless. This is one of Hitchcock’s skills as a director anyway, so John Michael Haye’s wonderful adaptation of a short story is the perfect screenplay because it gives both of them plenty of room to play. The result is a cheeky, poignant, playful and eventually thrilling film that is a definitive example of the Hitchcock style.
It opens theatrically, with blinds rolling up and so the story unfolds slowly, as we observe Stewart observing his neighbours, making voyeurs of the audience. We are now complicit in the rude hobby of nosey-parkers! Don’t expect an immediate thrill-ride as the real focus of the film is way off, but watching the lives behind those windows is fascinating and the apartments are all exquisitely detailed. The noise from the street (that we can just see, and is almost another window in itself), the records played by the sexy blonde dancer or the lonely piano player provide a Diegetic score, intriguingly linking the neighbours without them ever really meeting.
There’s plenty to keep the attention during the languid pace before we need to consider the strange behaviour of Lars Thorwald. Has he committed murder or is it all in Jeffries’ mind? We have to rely on Jeff’s point of view and sometimes he frustrates us by falling asleep, but the circumstantial evidence piles up.
He steadily convinces the two women his life that all is not well. Thelma Ritter (All About Eve) as his nurse turns in another dryly witty performance and every one of her lines is a cracker; she describes Grace Kelly as “the right girl for any man with half a brain who can get one eye open”! Why he should need convincing, I have no idea. Her entrance is possibly the most entrancing of any actress, beautifully photographed as she wakes Jeff from a nap, the camera confident in its intimacy. The part was written for Kelly so of course, she is beyond perfect. She is still the delicate and strong character from Dial M for Murder, but now smoother and livelier. If you don’t feel anything as she first fills the screen, check your pulse…
As usual, their relationship is the real story and it feels like the most genuine Hitchcock did.I heard a comment regards Notorious that Hitchcock wouldn’t make a film again with such heart, but that’s rubbish if the performance between Stewart and Kelly is taken into account. It’s an adult situation, focused by the efforts to catch out Thorwald. Just watch Stewart’s expression when Kelly returns from a daring reconnaissance mission! Wordlessly, he completes a sub-plot and allows the film to move into fifth gear. There is almost a sexual frisson to these moments, leading to a possible conclusion that Hitchcock is playfully treating this plot as if it were entirely a seduction by Lisa, albeit a vicarious one considering Jeff’s incapacity.
There isn’t a lot of suspense until the final act, but it more than makes up for it as the helpless Jeff can only watch events take an awful and serious turn as maybe he has gone too far in his amateur sleuthing. Stewart has been stuck in one place for the entire film and he really makes you feel his impotence. But then he has always been the ultimate every-man and this is a classic performance. Hitchcock too seems to be willing to be more ruthless and messy in depicting violence. There are a couple of brief but very uncomfortable moments.
A hard sell on paper as there isn’t really a plot, Rear Window is one of the absolute essential Hitchcock films and epitomises his fascination with murder right on your doorstep. It feels like a shift into another level of confidence that will see him create his most famous films over the next few years.