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Film Review - Rear Window (1954)
Take one of the great directors in the history of film, and one of the most personable film stars, and put them to work on an original concept, and one should have a classic movie. In 'Rear Window', we certainly do.
A murder mystery thriller set almost entirely in one single room, with a bored and incapacitated hero just watching his neighbours through the rear window of his apartment - this is the setting for 'Rear Window'. It was a novel idea for a movie, and somewhat experimental in its style, and yet in this originality it was typical of Alfred Hitchcock's unique directorial style.
'Rear Window' has been discussed often by film enthusiasts for its story and set design, and its cleverness of direction. On this page I look at this famous cinematic work, relate some of the key elements in its making, and give my personal opinion as to its merits.
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WHAT’S THE STORY ?
L.B 'Jeff ' Jefferies is a professional photographer, and he is used to an adventurous life. When not travelling he lives in an apartment block, and that's where he is throughout the course of this film, because he is recuperating from a broken leg. But it's hot in his apartment, and he's feeling bored and frustrated, and he's desperate for something to occupy his active mind. Fortunately he's got something. His window opens out on to a courtyard surrounded on all sides by numerous other apartments. Most of the occupants of these apartments don't appreciate how easy it is to see into their rooms; or maybe they just don't care. Either way, the opportunity exists to watch them and Jefferies's enquiring nature leads him to develop a fascination with the lives that he sees being conducted in the rooms across the courtyard. Particularly he studies the various relationships and speculates or imagines what might be going on in those relationships.
Jefferies has his own uncertainties in his own relationships which occupy his mind away from the window. He's got a girlfriend, Lisa, but as a couple they are like chalk and cheese. Jefferies is used to roughing it on foreign trips, whilst Lisa is a city girl, glamorous, and seemingly ill-suited to his kind of life. To distract himself from these thoughts about Lisa, Jefferies looks back towards the neighbours in the apartments opposite. He even gives them nicknames to suit their appearance or behaviour, like Miss 'Lonelyheart' or Miss 'Torso'. But as time goes on, one neighbour in particular begins to attract his deep curiosity. Jefferies begins to believe that one neighbour just may have committed a murder.
The difficulty now is to convince others of his belief, and to prove it - a task which seems impossible in the circumstances, confined as he is to his own apartment. It's also a task which becomes increasingly dangerous, as he enlists the aid of Lisa to do the necessary leg work.
MAIN CAST & CHARACTERS
L.B 'Jeff' Jefferies
Lisa Carol Fremont
Lt. Thomas J Doyle
Lars Thorwald (The Salesman)
Woman on Fire Escape
Man on Fire Escape
FACTS OF THE FILM
DIRECTOR : Alfred Hitchcock
WRITERS / SCREENPLAY :
- John Michael Hayes (screenplay)
- Cornell Woolrich (short story)
YEAR OF RELEASE : 1954
RUNNING TIME : 112 minutes
GENRE : Thriller
ACADEMY NOMINATIONS :
•Alfred Hitchcock (Best Director)
•Also nominations for Best Writing, Screenplay, Best Sound, and for Best Cinematography (Colour)
KEY CHARACTERS AND PERFORMANCES
James Stewart is possibly the all time favourite actor of the author of this review; every time he appears on screen, his performance is eminently watchable, and often incorporates wry humour. And in this film he doesn't disappoint. In some ways L.B 'Jeff' Jefferies is one of his less likable characters - not only is he a voyeur, he's also a moaning malcontented photographer who doesn't appreciate the girlfriend he has, and is full of self pity for his misfortune to be stuck at home in his apartment. Ordinarily, he's an active man with an enquiring mind - and it seems all he can do at the moment is to use his enquiring mind.
Grace Kelly plays 'Jeff' Jefferies's girlfriend, Lisa Fremont, but socially they are opposites. She has a role which wasn't in the original short story, and to be honest for most of the time her role doesn't serve a huge purpose here, except to demonstrate that Jefferies has his own little soap opera going on in his apartment just the same as Miss 'Torso' and the songwriter and Miss 'Lonelyheart' and all the rest. But she provides a distraction from the monotony of Jefferies staring out of the window, and when investigations are required to prove his murder theory, she comes into her own.
Stella is an insurance company nurse, looking after Jefferies and trying to get him back on to his feet as soon as possible. She is played by Thelma Ritter. The only other character with a prominent speaking role is Lt Doyle, a friend from Jefferies's war-time past and now a policeman. Doyle is played by Wendell Corey. Both Stella and Doyle are necessary components of a film without much action - without these two and Lisa, there wouldn't be much dialogue, and they provide sounding boards for Jefferies' theorising.
Of all the characters who live in the apartments around the courtyard, none are shown in close up (except briefly Raymond Burr as Lars Thorwald) and none are drawn in depth. We only know about them exactly what Jefferies knows about them; that's the way Hitchcock wants it, because that way we are in exactly the same position as the hero of the piece.
THE EXTRAORDINARY STAGE SET OF 'REAR WINDOW'
The film 'Rear Window' was based on a short story called 'It Had to be Murder', published in 1942 by William Irish (aka Cornell Woolrich). In the short story there was no love interest for the James Stewart character, and no representation of other characters seen through the window - key ingredients of Hitchcock's movie.
The apartments remarkably were a stage set - not a real apartment block. But no stage had a ceiling which was high enough to incorporate all levels of the apartment block. The level of Jefferies's apartment is the true level of the floor of the stage, which was removed for the making of the film, and the lower levels were actually the basement of the studio. The whole stage complex was the largest in Paramount's history, about 60m wide, 30m deep, and 12m high. Changes in the lighting to simulate morning, afternoon, evening and night were achieved with a thousand arc lights.
Alfred Hitchcock spent all his time in Jefferies's apartment as this is the viewpoint from which the entire movie is shot. At least one member of the cast, Georgine Darcy - 'Miss Torso' - virtually lived in her stage 'apartment' relaxing here in the daytime between shots.
Raymond Burr was reputedly selected to play Lars Thorwald because he bore a resemblance to David O Selznick - a producer with whom Hitch had a long yet very uneasy, collaboration.
The 'songwriter' in the film is played by a real life songwriter, Ross Bagdasarian
Hitchcock's trademark cameo appears after about half an hour, winding the clock in the songwriter's apartment.
Hitchcock dismissed the idea that the voyeuristic element of this movie was a bit sordid. He pointed out an unspoken truth - people do have a curiosity about what goes on around them. It's normal. It is, after all, the basis of reality TV shows, soaps and the like.
Two years after this film was made, Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco and became Princess Grace of Monaco.
There was a television version of 'Rear Window' in 1998, which starred the sadly paraplegic Christopher Reeve, but this was quite different in style and direction.
'Rear Window' is a strange film to review in terms of stand-out moments which stick in the memory. With the exception of the exchanges in the apartment between Jefferies and Lisa, Stella and Lt Doyle, the whole of the movie is shot through the window, and to be honest, nothing much of note happens. Any 'scenes', such as they are, tend to be long distance shots of other apartments across the courtyard.
The opening sequence is very well handled. First the camera takes us through the window of Jefferies's apartment and presents the whole vista of the courtyard he can see from his window. The camera then turns inwards to show us Jefferies's own apartment - he's sleeping in a chair, his leg cased in plaster, camera gear on the tables and framed magazine covers on the walls - we learn almost everything we need to know about Jefferies and his environment before a word is spoken.
In the middle of the night a strangled scream rings out and the sound of breaking glass is heard. This is the key moment of the film. It is the moment that Jefferies's focus of attention changes. It starts to rain torrentially, but one of his neighbours is behaving strangely. In the small hours of the morning, the 'salesman' makes several journeys out into the rain, carrying a suitcase. Jefferies spends the night drifting in and out of consciousness. He is left to guess what is happening; as we are too.
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Right up till the last few minutes of this movie, the dialogue is limited to just four characters, and primarily centres on the relationship between 'Jeff' and Lisa, and speculation about the salesman's actions. Perhaps the most perceptive quotes however are those which take a gentle swipe at the nature of our social life and the neighbourhoods we live in. Jefferies tries to convince a sceptical Lt Doyle that there is something about the salesman's life which needs to be explained:
- 'You can explain everything that's gone on there and is still going on?'
- 'No - and neither can you.That's a secret, private world you're looking at out there. People do a lot of things in private they couldn't possibly explain in public.'
As well as murder and relationships, this is a film which highlights the isolationism which can exist whereby even nearest neighbours may scarcely know each other, exemplified by the scene in which a dog is found dead. There is a loud cry, and all of the apartment dwellers come out to see what's going on. One of the residents is holding the body of her dog:
- 'Which one of you did it? Which one of you killed my dog? You don't know the meaning of the word 'neighbours'; neighbours like each other! Speak to each other, care if anybody lives or dies! But none of you do! ... But I couldn't imagine any of you being so low that you'd kill a little helpless friendly dog - the only thing in this whole neighbourhood who liked anybody!'
All the neighbours who are the target of her ire, then retreat back inside their own little homes to get on with their private lives. One suspects that would be as true today as it was in 1954.
'Rear Window' is without doubt a clever film. The scenario is intriguing, and one to which everyone can relate - just an ordinary guy looking out of his window and watching his neighbours, wondering what's going on in their lives.
Whether it is also a great film is more debatable. As one of Hitchcock's film experiments, the idea of a movie in which virtually all the action is filmed through one window certainly works better than 'Rope' (another experiment in which a single camera roams around a single room in a seemingly continuous take.) However, the idea is limited in what can be shown. Many characters in the apartments across the courtyard are one dimensional (even including the suspected murderer.) That is intended - we are meant to see and know only what Jefferies knows - but it does mean that a sizeable proportion of the screen time is devoted to characters many of whom are not relevent to the plot. It would at least be nice to be able to care about them, but because we know so little about them, it is hard to care.
WHAT’S SO GOOD ABOUT IT?
The plot is everything in this movie. The concept of a cast of characters, one of whom may or may not be a murderer, is not new, but the way it is handled in 'Rear Window' certainly is - a man alone in an apartment with nothing to do except spy on his neighbours, all going about their ordinary lives in their own ways. But one has a life which appears rather more mysterious - and possibly more sinister - than the rest. Like Jeff, the audience is pulled into the lives of the people in the rooms across the way. Like Jeff, the audience becomes voyeurs (though we have the excuse that we know this is fiction). The way this scenario develops is clever.
Red herrings are a common ploy in murder mysteries, but here there's almost an entire cast of red herrings - characters who seemingly have no part in the central story of murder and mystery. That also makes the film intriguing.
Finally, there is the Hitchcockian element - the experimentation with the medium of film. Almost throughout the whole movie the viewer is observing the voyeur, seeing what Jefferies is seeing, and watching how Jefferies reacts. The perspective of the viewer in this film is very much Jefferies's perspective on events.
All these factors make 'Rear Window' a movie which any student of film should watch and learn from, and everybody else should watch it at least once to see how a master director experiments with film technique to tell a straightforward story.
CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Anyone who is a movie buff, or a fan of suspense and mystery, and above all, of Alfred Hitchcock - will no doubt find this a fascinating movie - one of his most celebrated works. For me, the manner in which the film is shot presents problems which are not entirely overcome. I feel there is a lack of characteristic Hitchcockian tension and a lack of character development. Despite this, the film doesn't drag as we watch the antics of the neighbours and puzzle out the salesman's behaviour along with Jefferies. 'Rear Window' should be watched as a masterpiece of movie technique, and a piece of classic Hitchcock.
SOME OF MY OTHER ALFRED HITCHCOCK REVIEWS AND CRIME FILM REVIEWS.....
- Torn Curtain
'Torn Curtain' was released in 1966 to generally unfavourable reviews. Yet this Alfred Hitchcock movie contains some classic set pieces and is, I believe, one of the most underrated of all his works
- The Grissom Gang
The Grissoms are a family of violent crooks in 1930s America. When their paths cross that of young heiress Barbara Blandish, the gang abduct her and hold her to ransom and then kill her. But psychotic Slim Grissom begins to fall in love with her ...
- Falling Down
Falling Down is the study of a man's tortured mental descent from law abiding citizen to crazed killer, as he walks across town. This film documents how the final pieces of his life collapse on a hot day in Los Angeles. He is falling down
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