L.B. Jeffries, known as “Jeff” to his friends, is an in-demand photographer. He’s traipsed through jungles and battlefields, but is sidelined in his small New York apartment after suffering a broken leg. The only company he has is an insurance company nurse named Stella and his sophisticated girlfriend Lisa. With nothing to do and nowhere to go, Jeff begins to stare out his window. It is a sweltering hot summer and everyone has their windows open. Jeff’s idle curiousity turns into a daily habit of watching his neighbors’ humdrum affairs.
The neighbors are an odd mix that Jeff nicknames. The Composer is a frustrated songwriter living across the way. Miss Lonelyhearts is the sad lady who longs for affection, while Miss Torso, a pretty dancer, has no shortage of gentleman callers. One couple sleeps on their fire escape and hauls their dog up in a basket at night, while a housewife tends to her child and cat. The Thorwalds are an unhappily married couple and it is they who land Jeff in a mess of trouble. Mrs. Thorwald is an invalid and she and her husband quarrel regularly. Jeff wakes up one day to discover she has disappeared, ostensibly to visit family in the country, according to her husband. Jeff is convinced that Mr. Thorwald has killed her.
Stella warns Jeff against spying on his neighbors. The more Jeff becomes obsessed with the idea that Thorwald has killed his wife, the more Stella decries his actions. Lisa and police officer friend Doyle think Jeff has too much time on his hands and that a reasonable explanation can be found. After the housewife’s cat is found dead, Jeff realizes the cat had been digging in Thorwald’s much cared for garden. He believes Mrs. Thorwald is buried there. Lisa and Stella begin to believe Jeff, leading them all to a confrontation with Thorwald that nearly costs Jeff his life.
There’s something to the idea that if there is such a thing as economy of language, Rear Window might be a good representation of economy in film. There are four major characters and while Hitchcock takes detours by showing the rest of the neighbors, you rarely hear any of them speak. Most of them have a few shots devoted to them. Simple, yet effective, since some of the saddest moments in the movie are from the neighbors. Miss Lonelyhearts in particular has an awful moment, where she is so desperate for companionship she sets a romantic table for two and pretends that someone is having dinner with her. Failing to keep the artifice up, she collapses in sobs, not knowing Jeff is watching her.
Not a lot of time is spent on backstory or explanations. One scene is shot where the camera focuses on Jeff’s leg, then moves to a broken camera, then to a photograph on the wall of a race car accident where the car appears to be about to hit the photographer, and finally rests on a stack of magazines. In fifteen seconds, Jeff’s livelihood and the reason why his leg is broken are explained and the film moves on.
Aside from all this, Jeff and Lisa are having fights about whether or not to get married. The neighbors provide interesting counterpoints, from the unmarrried and lonesome Miss Lonelyhearts to the miserable Thorwalds. Jeff fears their incompatible lifestyles will lead to a no good marriage, but after Lisa does some amateur sleuthing at high risk to herself to help Jeff, he’s convinced enough that she’s the girl for him.
Nearly all the shots are from Jeff’s apartment, leading to a strange feeling of voyeurism and claustrophobia; the viewer sees what Jeff sees. The more Jeff watches, the more obsessed he becomes, pulling out binoculars and telephoto lenses, mirroring what the rise of the viewer’s interest in the residents of Jeff’s neighborhood should be.
Stewart is the main talent here; he plays Jeff as a likeable guy with perhaps an unlikeable interest in those unaware of his presence while ignoring similar traits in those he knows best. Even when Jeff is not doing the best of things it’s easy to understand why he’s doing it. Grace Kelly as Lisa is much weaker until the last third of the movie, when she appears much stronger. Thelma Ritter as Stella is snappy fun, for the most part and Raymond Burr plays the menacing Thorwald creepily well.
It also helps that, you know, Hitchcock was a freaking genius. Plus with neat lighting and beautiful costumes by Edith Head, the whole thing looks pretty as hell.
Rear Window is very much a movie of its time, meaning to people of my generation it may feel dated. No television is featured; Jeff at one point delays Thorwald from choking him by blinding him with flashbulbs, a technology long since passed since flashbulbs were good for one use only. (Watching Stewart attempt to change the flashbulbs quickly keeps one on tenterhooks.) This is not a criticism but merely an observation.
It’s routinely given four stars and with much cause. Rear Window is a beautiful suspense movie that is not perfect, but gets pretty damn close.