“Call it female intuition”
After seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window for the second time, I am even more convinced that the broo-haha surrounding Disturbia and its ripping it off was uncalled for. Besides the premise of a person confined to their window and therefore seeing what they think is a murder, the two could not be more different. This film is one that will never age, whether it be story, acting, or sheer inventiveness in its execution. Only Hitchcock could build the suspense as high as he does for almost two hours despite never leaving a single room the entire time.
Our protagonist is in a full leg cast and a prisoner to his room. Besides that interior everything we see is from his vantage point across a courtyard into the windows of other apartments with a sliver of space opening to the street beyond. Boredom has set in after six weeks of house arrest—a lifetime for an adventurous photographer like L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart). The result proves to be a clinic of choreography that expertly shows only what we need to know, the film forever leaving us guessing right up until the final scene thanks to our complete uncertainty as to what the whole truth actually holds. Did L.B.’s neighbor murder his wife? Or did she simply take a vacation as the evidence seems to infer?
The film has no technical flaws. Its utilization of a pivoting camera that pans left to right out Jefferies’ window is one-of-a-kind. With only the zooms from his camera lens and binoculars, we’re allowed to see everything he does so that we’re able to come up with our own conclusions while becoming a part of his. This is a slow burn of a story, each new discovery revealed as though a layer of an onion peeled away. The sheer amount of rehearsals must have been staggering as there are plenty of long takes going from window to window, catching the precise moment of activity we need to propel the story forward. Each actor had to be able to hit their mark at the exact moment necessary, timed to perfection. It’s a joy to think about the work that went into the production every time we’re shown characters moving room to room, stopping at each window for our benefit and yet never feeling unnatural. Full credit goes to the cinematographer for orchestrating it all.
The premise and craft are not the only things it has going. There isn’t an acting misstep either. James Stewart truly was the greatest actor of his generation with an uncanny delivery moving him from serious drama to light comedy in a blink. There’s a lot of heavy emotional tension between him and his girlfriend that’s treated with the same amount of care as every other plot thread. His relationship with Lisa Fremont (the gorgeous Grace Kelly) is mirrored with that of the quarrels and love trysts happening all around him. Without the murder mystery and the peeping into the lives of other couples, they might just break up forever. In his mind his middle-class upbringing and photojournalist lifestyle doesn’t match well with her patrician ways and need to wear every dress no more than once to keep appearances up for her job. The two could not be anymore different except for the fact they are madly in love with the other.
Kelly is not just a pretty face, though. Her performance is authentic always keeping up with Stewart’s sarcastic wit and playing the girlfriend spurned while also gradually becoming engrossed in the story of the Thorwalds across the way. She becomes a photojournalist herself in many ways, looking through the camera and coming to conclusions. Stewart also morphs into that which he thinks he could never become: sedentary on the fringe while others do the hard work. Many times towards the end he’s the one left to watch others risk their safety for his manifested theories. He himself is the helpless one who’s unable to go into the trenches. Whether Thorwald (Raymond Burr) killed his wife or not, the hold this mystery has on them finally shows both what the other goes through so that a mutual respect can blossom and become as strong as their love.
My favorite aspect, however, is the infectious levity. Sure the subject matter is serious—I wouldn’t be surprised to discover its intent was as commentary about the Red Scare and worrying about your neighbors’ allegiances—but at every turn we get witty banter to alleviate the tension. Stewart and Kelly are quite the team and they perform John Michael Hayes’ words with ease. The timing is superb and many of the best lines are mixed into the otherwise dramatic premise and exposition. We aren’t talking gags and jokes, but puns and sly shots taken as a result of the conversations at hand (most notably from Thelma Ritter’s scene-stealing Stella). This is one smart script and I find myself even more interested in seeing The Man Who Knew Too Much—the second version Hitchcock directed—to see how well the team does upon being reunited again.