Original release: August 1st 1954
Running time: 112 minutes
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: John Michael Hayes, Cornell Woolrich
Cast: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Raymond Burr
We’ll soon be living on top of each other as the global population continues to rise. With the number of people living in cities outnumbering those who live rurally, it’s the only logical conclusion. We read each other’s newspapers over shoulders on the train, see through windows across courtyards, and peer up enviously at those with balconies while their conversations dance in the wind. How do we know we aren’t being watched?
In Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Jeff’’s (James Stewart) neighbours are none the wiser. Wheelchair bound with a broken leg, he’s got time to pass until he can walk again and get back to work, so he’s taken to spying on his neighbours. He’s even made up nicknames for some of them; the ballet dancing is Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy), the spinster is Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn), and the musician he’s dubbed the Songwriter (Ross Bagdasarian).
In between home visits by his nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter), and his girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly), he watches their lives unfold before his eyes. Miss Torso dances and entertains a number of men in her apartment, Miss Lonelyhearts acts out a dinner for two with an invisible companion, and a newly-wed couple retreat to the bedroom with their blinds drawn down. However, it’s Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) and the sudden absence of Mrs Thorwald that really catches Jeff’s attention…
Hitchcock, the master of suspense, peppers the film with one setback after the next as Jeff tries to unravel the mystery. Even we as we spy into his life we can’t quite tell what’s real and where the blanks have been filled in by an over-active and under-stimulated imagination. We too are participating in Jeff’s voyeurism; trapped in the apartment and locking eyes with Thorwald.
It’s enthralling on the first watch, and even when we know the answers on subsequent views, it’s still a joy.
Behind their windows, the characters are lonely and alienated. Whether they crave companionship, like Miss Lonelyhearts, or creative fulfilment, like the Songwriter, or are isolated in their own bubbles like the married couple, they never seem really happy. Hitchcock is showing behind closed doors, everyone can be desperate or disappointed by how things have turned out for them.
Jeff doesn’t want the truth out of the Thorwald situation, he wants a good story. Hitchcock gives us slips of gossip but also asks us about our responsibilities. Lisa says she doesn’t know much about “rear window ethics”, and when it comes down to it, neither do I. Would I call the police if I thought my neighbour killed his wife? Not without proof, but I wouldn’t want to get involved in anything where I could end up dead.
On the other hand, it’s enjoyable knowing what people are up to. That’s why we love social networks – we can peep into other people’s lives without being seen. Like Jeff’s neighbours we could pull down the blinds on our lives, but we don’t. I certainly forget that people read my Tweets sometimes. I’ve been recognised from it twice and both times I was completely flustered and scuttled off because I had no idea how to react.
This kind of voyeurism is addictive too, a few days away and it’s easy to feel out of the loop. One evening, Jeff while is spying, he falls asleep and misses Thorwald’s comings and goings. Without that vital piece of information, his cop pal, Det. Lt. Thomas J. Doyle (Wendell Corey), won’t take him seriously.
As for Stewart and Kelly’s on-screen romance, the pair have real chemistry and adds to the reasons why Rear Window is such a joy to watch. The Thorwald debacle gives Lisa a chance to prove to Jeff she can be adventurous and more than a socialite fashion gal.
At the start, Jeff’s thinking of breaking it off with her. He doesn’t want to be tied down with a boring life like the people he watches. Only when Lisa puts herself at physical risk for him does Jeff take her seriously as a person, and opens his eyes to what a catch of a lady she is.
In the digital age, Rear Window is as relevant as ever. The format of the game might have changed, but the rules haven’t; we’re still a “race of peeping Tom’s”, but with information comes responsibility too.
Frances likes words and pictures, regardless of media. She finds great comfort and escape in film, and is attracted to anything character-driven with a strong story. Through these stories, she will find meaning in the world. Three movies that Frances thinks are really good for this are You and Me and Everyone We Know (Miranda July), I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK (Chan-Wook Park), and How I Ended This Summer (Alexei Popogrebsky).
When Frances grows up, she would like to write words and make pictures and have cool people recognise her on the street and tell her that they really enjoy her work.
She can be found overreacting and over-caffeinated on Twitter @penny_face, a childhood moniker from her grandmother owing to her gloriously round face.