Inside everyone is a bit of a detective and a bit of a voyeur. Rear Window, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and released in 1954, is a mystery thriller that holds up to this day even after it’s passed its 60th anniversary. Based on Cornell Woolrich’s short story “It Had to Be Murder”, Rear Window tells the tale of L.B. Jefferies, a professional photographer laid low by a leg in a cast who spends his free time watching his neighbors on a block in Greenwich Village, Manhattan as they open their windows to ride out a heat wave. While cooped up in his apartment late one night, Jefferies hears a woman scream “Don’t!” and the sound of breaking glass. From there a mystery thriller unravels that will have you sitting on the edge of your seat throughout the entire film.
Rear Window is widely considered to be one of the best films Hitchcock ever made, a pretty high bar to clear from such a prolific and lauded director. It received four Academy Award nominations and won the Edgar Award for Best Motion Picture Screenplay and the National Board of Review Award for Best Actress (Grace Kelly). Acclaimed both upon release and to this day, Rear Window has stood the test of time as a classic thriller. It has even been added to the Library of Congress!
Shot on a single indoor set at Paramount Studios built just for the film, Rear Window does a perfect job of capturing the insular feeling of a city neighborhood while simultaneously evoking the anonymity of being one face amongst millions. We the audience are absorbed in Jefferies’ quest to find evidence against the supposed killer and watch with rapt attention as the everyday lives of his neighbors unfold around us, searching for hints of something awry, the secrets buried deep underneath the seemingly mundane.
James Stewart is excellent in the starring role of Jefferies, unsurprising considering his starring roles in countless other classics including It’s a Wonderful Life and Vertigo. However Grace Kelly is certainly worthy of her Best Actress award for her role as Lisa Carol Fremont, Jefferies’ girlfriend. When watching older films it is unfortunately common to expect the leading lady to serve largely as eye candy or perhaps a damsel of distress in need of rescuing to wrap up the third act. Not so for Lisa. She is a key player within the film and an equal partner within Jefferies’ investigation from early on. If you are looking for classic films bursting with female agency, I would highly suggest giving this one a watch. Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter (who plays Jefferies’ nurse Stella) are a delight to watch from start to finish.
The film does a beautiful job of incorporating the stories of other neighbors beyond the alleged murderer, adding to the voyeuristic nature of the film and drawing the audience’s point of view further within Jefferies’ so at times it feels almost as though they are Jefferies himself. These stories tie into the main plot at points, divert from it in key moments of tension and bring a breadth of humanity to the film that would be absent without them. Watching other neighbors beyond the target makes one wonder at their own motives for observing. Could these neighbors be accomplices to the crime? Potential witnesses? Or are we simply using the investigation as a cloak to justify looking in without permission to these people’s most intimate moments within their personal lives?
The cinematography of Rear Window is another masterful element that contributes to the power of the film. The vicarious voyeurism the audience experiences as Jefferies, Lisa and Stella look out the window to the apartments across the courtyard is strengthened by the fact that almost all the film’s shots are situated from within the apartment itself and without zooming in so that we can only see as much as the characters within the story see. The highly detailed set which took Hal Pereira and Joseph MacMillan Johnson six weeks to build encapsulates the viewer within the same tiny world as Jefferies, making them feel simultaneously helpless and empowered by observing the lives of others. For more details on the ingenious techniques at play in Rear Window, you can give this analysis by Matt Draper a watch (but only after you’ve finished the movie – there are spoilers aplenty!)
If you are a fan of mystery, suspense and intrigue, be sure to give Rear Window a try. Its enticing story and charismatic cast will keep you entertained, chuckling at jokes one minute and paralyzed with fear within the next. It is the sort of classic that is accessible to all, capturing fragments of the human experience throughout all of its 112 minute runtime. Whether alone or with friends, pop some popcorn, sit down on the couch and join in people-watching for the cause of justice… and curiosity.