Originally published August 13, 2014.
Overview: A wheelchair bound photographer recovering from a leg injury observes some suspicious behavior while watching his neighbors to pass the time. 1954; Paramount Pictures and Universal Pictures; rated PG; 112 minutes.
Peeping Toms: The plot of Rear Window revolves heavily around the art of observing others, which is a past time that goes hand in hand with human nature and our innate fascination with comparing ourselves to those around us. The subject of curiosity bordering on voyeurism is one that is just as much if not more relevant in today’s society as it was when this film was made in 1954. When I was in middle school, my best friend and I used to sit in the bleachers during recess and watch people. We’d take turns making up stories about what our fellow classmates were doing and saying as they walked by us. Now, in this digital age of selfies and the constant desire to be able to instantaneously consume information and stay connected, we truly have, as Stella so matter-of-factly says, “become a race of peeping Toms.” Can you imagine if L. B. Jeffries lived in 2014 and had wireless? We would all be watching his live feed online 24/7 instead of the house guests on Big Brother. This appeal to one of our most unavoidable addictions is one of the reasons Rear Window is not only classic cinema, it’s also timeless. It never seems to age, because it resonates with a part of all humanity that will never dissipate.
Close Quarters: The most remarkable and unique thing Rear Window accomplishes is that such an intricately woven and fully realized 112 minute film resides in such a small space. Unlike in some of Hitchcock’s other fast paced, globe trotting, cat and mouse films, we never leave Jeffries’ apartment. In fact, we never even leave the room, and as an audience, not once do we wish we could. If someone walks out that door and into the world, they aren’t missed until they return, because everything we need to see is right in front of us, through eyes of Jeffries and his camera lens. Hitchcock manages to isolate the audience so cleanly and seamlessly from the beginning that we’re barely aware that we’re being limited. One way he does this convincingly is by balancing the focus of the story to include more that just a mystery. From the minute the opening scene begins and the camera pans across the various windows, introducing us to our new neighbors, we settle into their routines as quickly as we begin to expect Stella’s (brought to life by an emphatic yet nurturing performance by Thelma Ritter) arrival each morning and Lisa’s (the scenes-stealing and always radiant Grace Kelly) arrival each night. We size up the suitors brought home by Miss Torso every evening and cross our fingers that today will be the day Miss Lonelyheart finally finds the one. The musical score that typically accompanies each scene is replaced by the sound of a dog barking, or The Songwriter’s latest serenade, making us feel like we’ve settled in for the long haul, or the slow burn, if you prefer.
A One Man Show: The weight of the impact of Rear Window lies squarely on James Stewarts’ (L. B. Jeffries) shoulders, as he’s only able to flex his acting muscles rather than his actual ones. This isn’t Gravity or Castaway, where we follow a singular character through the trials and tribulations of space or a deserted island. Stewart is completely wheelchair-bound, with no way to hold the attention of the audience other than his raw acting ability, and he knocks it out of the park. He carries the momentum of the story from beginning to end, using the subtle nuances in his voice and facial expressions to convey nonchalance, frustration, determination, then borderline obsession, and finally, naked fear. The way his eyes light up as he grabs for his camera, then narrow as he focuses in on his subject relays everything viewers need to know about what he’s seeing even before the camera switches to his point of view. And we’re along for the ride every step of the way, feeling the same emotions and exasperation as we piece the clues together in desperation to solve the case from the confined quarters of a single room.