Surprise, surprise, we’re talking about Alfred Hitchcock again this week on Cinematic Century! Spoiler alert, but during the 50’s this list is going to be absolutely dominated by Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock, two of my favorite directors at the top of their game, churning out some of the most interesting and innovating films that Hollywood had put out up until that point. I feel like the 1950’s often get saddled with some disdain, usually in regards to the innovation that the New Hollywood movement began in the 1960’s, but I’ve been wonderfully surprised to discuss such fun and fascinating films from this supposedly creatively-bereft decade. And, 1954 is actually a really solid year. Rear Window faced some seriously tough competition from the other films of this year, and it ended up being a really close race for which film got featured today. Hitchcock actually had two films released in 1954, but Dial M For Murder has never been one of my favorites of his filmography, and didn’t end up putting up much of a fight. One of the strongest contenders was probably On the Waterfront, giving us some seminal Marlon Brando, some fascinating moral ambiguity, and the troubling but interesting role that Elia Kazan holds in Hollywood. We also could have talked about two Japanese films that couldn’t be more different. Seven Samurai, yet another film that frequently gets labeled as one of the greatest films of all time, was released this year, and while that run-time can be a little daunting, it’s worth it. Watching that film makes it easy for you to see why it’s one of the most homaged and ripped-off stories ever made. And, on the opposite side of the spectrum we could have talked about Godzilla, a surprisingly beautiful and dark film about a nation reckoning with the most horrific weapon in history being used on their people, all focused through the lens of a giant monster. And, speaking of monsters, the Creature From the Black Lagoon is rad as hell! But, when it came down to it, I had to listen to my heart. And my heart wanted to talk about a slowly unraveling Jimmy Stewart peeping on his neighbors.
The premise of Rear Window, a bored man spies on his neighbors and discovers a potential murder while dealing with a broken leg, came from a short story written by Cornell Woolrich. Oddly enough, Woolrich himself was confined to his apartment thanks to a gangrenous leg, which is when he got interested in writing, leading to this story. And, by the time the film started to take shape and was passed over to Alfred Hitchcock, things started to get surprisingly elaborate. Because the film was entirely set in a courtyard between several apartment buildings, and some sort of on-location shooting was out of the question, the production ended up building the largest set that Paramount had ever had before. They essentially built small city block, complete with a drainage system and an elaborate lighting system that would realistically portray the natural light of the city. And that slavish realism helped bring this story to life, and into the hearts of the people. The movie was a massive hit, both commercially and critically, and was almost instantly hailed as a masterpiece and one of Hitchcock’s finest films. And that esteem has continued on in the ensuing decades, frequently being considered one of his greatest movies. Even though he made more personal films, and films that more closely hewed to the Hitchcock formula, it’s easy to see why this film has continued to be held in such high regard.
Rear Window follows a man named L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies as he recuperates from a broken leg. He’s a professional photographer, and has become accustomed to a thrilling life traveling around the world and capturing the most interesting visual he can find, and now he’s trapped inside his apartment, forced to sit still and heal, with nothing but his neighbors to entertain himself. He spends most of his days sitting at the window, staring out at the oddballs who live in the apartments surrounding his courtyard, joking around with his nurse Stella, and questioning if he actually wants to settle down with his rich socialite girlfriend Lisa Fremont. He makes up stories about the people he spies on, including the vivacious ballet dancer, the newlywed couple, the lonely single woman, the unhappy married couple, the oddballs with an inquisitive little dog, and the composer. It’s a pretty dull life, but it helps distract Jeff from the question of his future with Lisa. Until one night when Jeff is woken up in the middle of the night while hearing a woman screaming. In his sleepy haze he tries to figure out what’s going on, and notices that the travelling salesman husband of the unhappily married couple leave the apartment several times with his large sample case.
Jeff starts to worry about what happened at the couple’s apartment, and the next day he’s alarmed to find the wife missing. She appeared to be an invalid, and never left the apartment, but she was now missing. He becomes convinced that the husband, who he learns is named Lars Thorwald, murdered the wife, and has somehow disposed of the body. He shares his ideas with both Stella and Lisa, and they both initially think that he’s just bored and making up stories. Jeff keeps at it though, and even calls in an old friend of his, who is a cop, named Tom Doyle. But, Doyle isn’t convinced either. He pokes around a bit, and finds that Mrs. Thorwald is supposedly upstate visiting family, and does his best to convince Jeff that he’s over-reacting. But Jeff won’t let it go. He continues stalking Thorwald, noticing all sorts of suspicious things about Thorwald, and slowly starts to convince both Lisa and Stella that something isn’t right. But, what really gets everyone on board is when the dog belonging to the oddballs who sleep on the fire escape is murdered. Jeff had been seeing the dog sniffing around in Thorwald’s flowerbed, and after the dead dog is found the entire courtyard come to their windows to see the owners freaking out. Everyone except Thorwald who they can see calmly and ominously smoking his cigar. This finally puts Lisa and Stella on Jeff’s side, and Lisa agrees to help Jeff out, specifically by running over to his apartment and sliding a note saying they know what he did under his door. They watch him panic, and confirm that they’re on to something.
They continue the escalation of their observations of Thorwald in the coming days, and Jeff even calls him one night, arranging a meeting in a bar. But, this was just a ruse to get him out of his apartment so Lisa and Stella could go dig up the flowerbed, worrying that there might be at least pieces of Mrs. Thorwald in the dirt. But, having really gotten into this whole mystery, Lisa ends up climbing up the fire escape and breaking into Thorwald’s apartment to snoop around, earning a lot of pride from Jeff. She does find Mrs. Thorwald’s wedding ring, further giving them evidence that something nefarious has occurred. Unfortunately, Thorwald returns to the apartment at that moment, and is not pleased to find this mysterious woman inside snooping around. The police are called, and Lisa is arrested, but before she’s taken away she tries to signal Jeff, which Thorwald notices. Stella leaves to post bail for Lisa, leaving Jeff completely alone, which is when Thorwald starts to piece everything together, and comes to attack Jeff. He breaks into Jeff’s apartment, and prepares to murder him, while Jeff does his best to slow him down and blind him with his camera flashes. And, he earns the time he needs. Because as Thorwald starts to strangle Jeff and push him out of the window Doyle, Lisa, and Stella arrive with some other police officers to stop them. Jeff does end up falling from the window, breaking both of his legs this time, but Thorwald is arrested, and he’s finally decided to accept his love for Lisa, starting a life with her.
It shouldn’t be surprising, especially after already talking about everything that Hitchcock accomplished with Rope, but it’s frankly incredible how well he can craft a story that takes place all in one massive set. Hitchcock was such a master of film-making and suspenseful storytelling that it almost felt like he was looking for ways to challenge himself, tying one arm behind his back as it were. And, despite the limitations that this story presents, he absolutely nails it. There are some issues with the film, primarily revolving around with out-dated patriarchal stuff with Jeff and Lisa’s relationship where he’s mad that she’s a girl who can’t go on adventures with him, but overall it remains one of the most entertaining films he ever made. Jimmy Stewart is terrific as always, not really diving into the depth of human despair like he will a few years later in Vertigo, but he’s able to pull off what seems like an incredibly hard performance. He’s bound to a chair, and one location, having to do a lot of takes directly to camera just reacting to things, and he sells it. His weird cabin-fever madness is brought wonderfully to life, giving us a character that’s easy to sympathize with. And, this is probably my hands down favorite Grace Kelly film. She’s an actress that I’ve never really gotten, but I think her performance as Lisa is pretty delightful, someone who isn’t afraid to just be themselves, but also branch out and try new things. The film’s just an expertly crafted clock of suspense, every little piece working perfectly to tell a twisted little story of crime.
Hitchcock has always been interested in how the world of crime affects regular people. So many of his films revolve around average people being swept up in strange and terrifying crime plots that flip their lives upside down, struggling to make sense of things. But, this film ends up going a little differently. Jeff isn’t a character who gets dragged into a criminal plot. He inserts himself into one. He’s made a life as a photographer, someone who goes to exciting places, and inserts himself into the situation to take a memory of it. So, when locked up in his house, being forced to sit still for once, he finds himself missing the thrill of other people. He’s a voyeur, someone whose entire life is spying in on other people and sharing it with the world, so of course when he’s left with no other alternatives he starts studying his neighbors. It just so happened that something horrible happens, but he could easily have spent his entire time looking out his window and just examining his neighbors with nothing interesting occurring. But, luckily for him, a murder takes place. He revels in something finally exciting happening, and spends almost the entire film giddily watching a legitimate murderer, because he’s safely at a distance. Because Jeff seems to craze a life of excitement, that won’t actually affect him. Actually getting injured in the line of duty seems to be his biggest regret, and he goes through with this voyeuristic detection from an almost clinical standpoint, still not coming to terms with the fact that he’s dealing with a legitimate murderer until things are too late. He just needs that thrill.
Rear Window was written by John Michael Hayes, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and released by Paramount Pictures, 1954.
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