Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
Rear Window (1954)
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Background

Rear Window (1954) is an intriguing, brilliant, macabre Hitchcockian visual study of obsessive human curiosity and voyeurism. John Michael Hayes' screenplay was based on Cornell Woolrich's (with pen-name William Irish) original 1942 short story or novelette, It Had to Be Murder.

This film masterpiece was made entirely on one confined set built at Paramount Studios - a realistic courtyard composed of 32 apartments (12 completely furnished) - at a non-existent address in Manhattan (125 W. 9th Street). Each of the tenants of the other apartments offer an observant comment of marriage and a complete survey of male/female relationships (all the way from honeymooners to a murderous spouse), as the main protagonist watches / spies / spectates through his 'rear window' on them. Remarkably, the camera angles are largely from the protagonist's own apartment, so the film viewer (in a dark theatre) sees the inhabitants of the other apartments almost entirely from his point of view - to share in his voyeuristic surveillance.

Concurrent with the crime-thriller theme of mysterious activities of apartment neighbors is the struggle of the passively-observant and immobile protagonist (James Stewart), a magazine photographer who is impotently confined to a wheelchair while recuperating in his Greenwich Village apartment and fearful of the imprisoning effects of marriage. He struggles, as he does with his plaster cast, to overcome his noncommittal feelings and reluctance to get married to his high-fashion model fiancee-girlfriend (Grace Kelly). In the midst of the most tense situation in another context, she daringly flashes a wedding ring to him to clue him in with the 'evidence.'

This film - one of Hitchcock's greatest thrillers, especially in its final twenty minutes, received only four Academy Award nominations (with no Oscars): Best Director, Best Screenplay (John Michael Hayes), Best Color Cinematography (Robert Burks), and Best Sound Recording. Un-nominated for her erotically-charged performance in this film as a rich society woman, the glowingly-beautiful Grace Kelly won the Best Actress Oscar in the same year for her deglamourized role in The Country Girl (1954). This was her second of three films for Hitchcock (she had already made Dial M for Murder (1954) and would next star in To Catch a Thief (1955)), before leaving acting in 1956 to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco. And this was Stewart's second of four appearances for Hitchcock (he had already starred in Rope (1948), and would go on to be featured in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Vertigo (1958)).

In brief, the protagonist and some of the neighboring characters (with the hero's manufactured names) in the courtyard apartments are:

The Protagonist and His Apartment Complex's Neighbors
L. B. "Jeff" Jefferies (James Stewart) the lead character, a successful globe-trotting action photographer for a magazine, who is confined to his apartment with a broken leg in a cast
(Ross Bagdasarian) a musical composer/songwriter who struggles to make an income
"Miss Torso" (Georgine Darcy) a sexy young dancer, who battles against numerous suitors
"Miss Lonelyhearts" (Judith Evelyn) a lonely, middle-aged woman, who drinks and takes pills
Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr in a pre-Perry Mason appearance) and wife Anna (Irene Winston) a hard-working, costume-jewelry traveling salesman living with his bedridden, nagging wife; Thorwald is suspected of a hideous murder, the killing and dismemberment of his wife
(Sara Berner and Frank Cady) a couple on a fire escape
(Rand Harper and Havis Davenport) a newlywed man and woman on honeymoon
(Bess Flowers) a woman with a poodle
"Miss Hearing Aid" (Jesslyn Fax)  
"Bird Woman" (Iphigenie Castiglioni)  

Two other characters include Jeff's grouchy, caustic masseuse Stella McCaffery (Thelma Ritter) from the insurance company, and a disbelieving cop Thomas J. Doyle (Wendell Corey), Jeff's old war-time buddy.

The Story

Underneath the credits, jazz music plays as the bamboo shades rise slowly over four vertically-rectangular windows in a small Greenwich Village apartment. The camera tracks out through the windows, showing the surrounding Lower East Side apartment buildings, lower courtyard and garden. A camera pan follows a meowing cat up a wide set of steps in the foreground of the courtyard, and then keeps moving up to a wide pan of almost the entire complex. Tracking back into the open apartment window, the occupant is asleep, sweating profusely. It is 94 degrees on the thermometer - during a heat wave. Next door in the adjacent loft (of a composer), a radio blares a commercial as its lathered-up occupant shaves:

Men, are you over 40? When you wake up in the morning, do you feel tired and run down? Do you have that listless feeling?

He stops shaving and tunes the radio to a music station.

Then, the camera begins a continuous, almost two minute long panning camera movement. Across the way, an older couple are sleeping on an outside fire escape, curiously head to foot, to escape the intense heat. They stir when their alarm sounds, and below them, an athletic, scantily-clad blonde woman puts on a pink top and suggestively exercises while doing her chores, giving a dancers'-like kick high into the air. Life is beginning to stir. The camera returns to the apartment where it slowly reveals that the man is immobilized. He is alone and confined in a wheelchair. His left leg is in a cast - already inscribed:

Here lie the broken bones of L. B. Jefferies

The camera proceeds to explore L. B. ("Jeff") Jefferies' (James Stewart) second-floor apartment, giving silent clues to his occupation. On the wall are enlarged photos - he is a professional magazine photographer and world-traveler, documenting wars, dangerous sports, racing accidents and other catastrophes, accustomed to paparazzi-style behavior and nosing into other peoples' affairs:

When his editor calls on the phone, he sees two females on the roof terrace across the way crouch down behind the wall to nude sunbathe - they take off their pajamas. A low-flying helicopter soon approaches to spy on the women. Jeff also observes his neighbors' activities outside his window, especially the dancer who attracts his prurient interest, especially when she wiggles her behind. It is learned that seven weeks earlier, he sustained his fractured-leg injury in a crash while he was photographing a car race from the middle of the track to get a "dramatic" photo. The cast will come off a week later: "Next Wednesday I emerge from this plaster cocoon."

Incapacitated and bored, he spends his time staring out the window watching (prying on) his neighbors through the windows of the apartments on the opposite side of the complex's courtyard. Between the side/rear walls of the apartment buildings is a narrow alleyway leading to the street.

[The frames of the windows in the apartments across the way are similar to the individual frames of a strip of cinematic film, and Jeff - as a film director might - derives pleasure from 'film-viewing' the dramas that unfold in peoples' lives. At opposite ends of the courtyard are two artists, one a young piano player/composer of songs (symbolic of sounds), the other a middle-aged modernist sculptress (symbolic of images) - these two correspond to the two main components of a film.]

Because he has been incapacitated for six weeks, he will miss a photo assignment in Kashmir. Jeff begs his editor to get him back on the job:

Jeff: You've got to get me out of here. Six weeks sitting in a two-room apartment with nothing to do but look out the window at the neighbors. ..If you don't pull me out of this swamp of boredom, I'm gonna do something drastic...like what? I'm gonna get married and then I'll never be able to go anywhere.
Editor: It's about time you got married, before you turn into a lonesome, bitter old man.
Jeff: Yeah, can't you just see me, rushin' home to a hot apartment to listen to the automatic laundry and the electric dishwasher and the garbage disposal, the nagging wife.
Editor: Jeff, wives don't nag, they discuss.
Jeff: Is that so, that so? Maybe in the high rent district they discuss, in my neighborhood they still nag.
Editor: Well, um, you know best.

Paralleling his conversation about the difficulties of marriage (more boredom, nagging and oppressiveness), he views a heavy set, grouchy neighbor Thorwald (Raymond Burr) in the opposite apartment return home from work (framed in one window) and argue with his blonde-haired, nagging, sick, negligee-clad wife lying in bed (symbolically separated by being framed in the next smaller, more claustrophic bedroom window). [Is she arguing with him because she suspects that he is cheating on her?]

To scratch an itch he feels inside his cast, Jeff takes a long Chinese back-scratcher and carefully threads it down inside his cast and relieves the aggravating feeling. [There is the implication of sexual stimulation for the sexually-repressed Jeff.] His sharp-tongued, visiting nurse-therapist Stella (Thelma Ritter), sent by his insurance company, arrives to give him a massage. She scolds and disapproves of him (and the society as a whole "race of Peeping Toms") for his principal pasttime - voyeurism. She condemns him for being more interested in other people's lives than his own, after reminding him that Peeping Toms used to be punished with blindness - she also asks a sexually-charged, euphemistic question about a "red-hot poker":

The New York State sentence for a Peeping Tom is six months in the work house...They got no windows in the work house. You know, in the old days, they used to put your eyes out with a red-hot poker. Any of those bikini bombshells you're always watchin' worth a red-hot poker? Oh dear, we've become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change. Yes, sir. How's that for a bit of home-spun philosophy?

As she takes his temperature and prepares to set up a bed for his massage, Stella warns that his voyeurism will only lead to trouble. She also notes his sexual impotence by noting that he must have a "hormone deficiency" because "those bathing beauties you've been watching haven't raised [his thermometer] temperature one degree."

He claims he would welcome a little "trouble." With solidly-rooted, home-spun common sense, she also cautions about his lack of roots and commitment, his sidestepping of marriage and his lukewarm attitude toward his girlfriend/fashion model Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly) - she insists that there must be something wrong with him to reject Lisa's attention:

Stella: I got a nose for trouble. I can smell it ten miles away...I can smell trouble right here in this apartment. First you smash your leg. Then you get to lookin' out the window. See things you shouldn't see. Trouble. I can see you in court now, surrounded by a bunch of lawyers in double-breasted suits. You're pleading: 'Judge, it was only a little bit of innocent fun. I love my neighbors like a father.' And the Judge says, 'Well, congratulations, you've just given birth to three years in Dannemora.'" [Note: Dannemora is a small town in Upstate New York where a maximum security New York State prison named Clinton Correctional Facility is located.]
Jeff: Yeah, right now I'd welcome trouble...You know, I think you're right. I think there is going to be trouble around here.
Stella: ...What kind of trouble?
Jeff (linking his relationship to Lisa with his spying on neighbors): Lisa Fremont.
Stella: Are you kidding? She's a beautiful young girl and you're a reasonably healthy young man.
Jeff: She expects me to marry her.
Stella: That's normal.
Jeff: I don't want to.
Stella: That's abnormal.
Jeff: I'm just not ready for marriage.
Stella: Every man's ready for marriage when the right girl comes along. And Lisa Fremont is the right girl for any man with half a brain who can get one eye open.
Jeff: Oh, she's all right.
Stella: What did you do? Have a fight?
Jeff: No.
Stella: Her father loading up the shotgun?
Jeff: What? Please, Stella.
Stella: It's happened before you know. Some of the world's happiest marriages have, uh, started under the gun, as you might say.

He confesses that Lisa is too much of a "Park Avenue" woman - too rich, "too perfect," spoiled, sophisticated and incompatible for his lifestyle as a globe-trotting, high-risk, ultra-masculine photographer. According to him, her different interests include "expensive restaurants," "a new dress," a "lobster dinner," and "the latest scandal". Stella also highlights one of the film major themes - that Jeff's hyperactive imagination will cause him a LOT of trouble:

Jeff: No, she's just not the girl for me.
Stella: Yeah, she's only perfect.
Jeff: She's too perfect. She's too talented, she's too beautiful. She's too sophisticated. She's too everything but what I want.
Stella: Is, um, what you want something you can discuss?
Jeff: Well, it's very simple, Stella. She belongs to that rarified atmosphere of Park Avenue, you know. Expensive restaurants, literary cocktail parties...Can you imagine her tramping around the world with a camera bum who never has more than a week's salary in the bank? If she was only ordinary.
Stella: You ever gonna get married?
Jeff: I'll probably get married one of these days, and when I do, it's gonna be to someone who thinks of life not just as a new dress, and a lobster dinner, the latest scandal. I need a woman who's willing...to go anywhere and do anything and love it. So the honest thing for me to do is just to call the whole thing off and let her find somebody else.
Stella: Yeah, I can hear you now. Get out of my life. You're a perfectly wonderful woman - you're too good for me. Look, Mr. Jefferies, I'm not an educated woman, but I can tell you one thing. When a man and a woman see each other and like each other they ought to come together - wham! Like a couple of taxis on Broadway, not sit around analyzing each other like two specimens in a bottle.
Jeff: There's an intelligent way to approach marriage.
Stella: Intelligence! Nothing has caused the human race so much trouble as intelligence. Hah! Modern marriage!
Jeff: Now we've progressed emotionally.
Stella: Baloney! Once, it was see somebody, get excited, get married. Now, it's read a lot of books, fence with a lot of four-syllable words, psychoanalyze each other until you can't tell the difference between a petting party and a civil service exam.
Jeff: People have different emotional levels.
Stella: When I married Miles, we were both a couple of maladjusted misfits. We are still maladjusted misfits, and we have loved every minute of it.
Jeff: Well, that's fine, Stella. Now would you fix me a sandwich please?
Stella: Yes, I will. And I'll spread a little common sense on the bread. Lisa's loaded to her fingertips with love for you - I got two words of advice for you - Marry her!
Jeff (jokingly): Did she pay you much?

Across the apartment complex, Jeff sees a newlywed couple move in - the Newlyweds. The bridegroom completes their marital ritual by carrying his bride across the threshold. They kiss, and then close the blind for privacy. A calliope rendition of the romantic ballad "That's Amore" plays in the background. [They are the only ones in the film who close their shades.] Stella accuses Jeff of being a "window shopper" before leaving.

Later during a reddish Manhattan sunset as Jeff dozes, the courtyard is buzzing with activity - the soprano practices her scales. A shadow [suggesting the negative image on Jeff's table] slowly rises up Jeff's face as Lisa (in close-up) approaches, bends over, and then lovingly kisses him. She rouses and awakens him from his sleep. She is a stylish vision of beauty [recalling the positive image on the cover of the magazine] - an elegant, lovely, affluent, blonde, fashion-model-designer girlfriend. They whisper to each other, as she asks him about his leg, his stomach, and his "love life." When she asks, "anything else bothering you?," he responds impolitely: "Who are you?"

To answer his inquiry, she introduces herself by performing in front of him while glamorously dressed in a $1,100 haute-couture gown. Used to being looked at by complete strangers, she poses as an exhibitionist in her new, fashionable and expensive Parisian dress. [She desperately tries to distract him from the enticements and attractions of his subjects across the courtyard through his window, although he has predicted her interests correctly - she has "a new dress and a lobster dinner." However, she did not pay for the dress (it was given to her gratis as a model/fashion columnist), and she prepared the catered lobster dinner herself - she was not the pampered, spoiled woman that Jeff had characterized. And she would later indulge in danger and daring, life-threatening acts which Jeff believed that he was solely capable of performing as a freelance, globetrotting photographer.]:

Lisa: Reading from top to bottom: (She turns on one lamp light.) Lisa
(She turns on a second lamp.) Carol
(She turns on a third lamp.) Fremont
Jeff: Is this the Lisa Fremont who never wears the same dress twice?
Lisa: Only because it's expected of her. It's right off the Paris plane. You think it will sell?...A steal at $1,100 dollars.
Jeff: Eleven hundred? They ought to list that dress on the Stock Exchange.

Although he thinks it's only a "run-of-the-mill Wednesday," she expects it will be a "big night":

It's opening night of the last depressing week of L. B. Jefferies in a cast.

She finds an old and worn cigarette box in his apartment, commenting: "It's seen better days...it's cracked and you never use it. It's too ornate. I'm sending up a plain flat silver one with just your initials engraved." He objects to her spending her "hard-earned money" on such things. She opens the door to a uniformed, red-coated waiter from the Twenty-One Club who delivers their lobster dinner and an ice bucket that she has catered. Jeff is unable to pop the cork (both a phallic reference and a marriage reference) so the waiter accomplishes the task -- more symbolism of Jeff's impotence. She promises him: "I'm going to make this a week you'll never forget."

While drinking the wine before dinner, she tells Jeff about her busy work day - a sales meeting, appointments with wealthy notables, luncheon with Harper's Bazaar people, two fall fashion showings twenty blocks apart - and then a favor that she did for him with her connections. To keep him in New York shooting fashion photography instead of adventurous assignments overseas, she "planted three nice items in the columns" for him for publicity, to get him a lucrative contract in the local fashion industry. But Jeff snubs her offer - believing that his own lifestyle suits him best. He notes how her contrasting lifestyle clashes with his. He ultimately rejects the new image and identity she has planned and publicized for him:

Lisa: You can't buy that kind of publicity.
Jeff: I know.
Lisa: Someday you may want to open up a studio of your own here.
Jeff: How would I run it, from say, Pakistan?
Lisa: Jeff, isn't it time you came home? You could pick your assignment.
Jeff: Well, I wish there was one I wanted.
Lisa: Make the one you want.
Jeff: You mean leave the magazine?
Lisa: Yes.
Jeff: For what?
Lisa: For yourself and me. I could get you a dozen assignments tomorrow - fashions, portraits. Well now, don't laugh, I could do it.
Jeff: That's what I'm afraid of. Can you see me driving down to the fashion salon in a jeep wearing combat boots and a three-day beard? Will that make a hit?
Lisa: I could see you looking very handsome and successful in a dark blue flannel suit.
Jeff: Let's stop talking nonsense, shall we, hmm?
Lisa (hurt): I guess I'd better start setting up for dinner.

To escape from their romantic tensions, Jeff turns to the window again, while she walks away to get dinner ready. Jeff's neighbors are only known by the names he assigns to them. Across the apartments in Jeff's view, a lonely, middle-aged spinster (Judith Evelyn), dubbed 'Miss Lonelyhearts,' sets a table for two, putting a bottle of wine on the table and lighting the candles. She fantasizes a gentleman caller's entrance and pantomimes his arrival. She ushers him to the table, and then toasts.

[In a parallel to the scene in 'Miss Lonelyhearts' apartment, Lisa prepares their wine and food in the background. He is involved with his own voyeuristic view of other people's lives rather than with Lisa. With his back to Lisa, Jeff raises his glass in a toast to 'Miss Lonelyhearts.' His gesture is unanswered - it is symbolic of his own loneliness, his inability to commit, and his emotional distance from Lisa.] During her entertainment of a phantom lover, Bing Crosby's To See You Is To Love You is heard, ironically, from the radio in a neighbor's apartment. The woman sadly buries her head in her hands at the table, as Lisa returns and joins him to watch and sympathize:

Jeff: 'Miss Lonelyhearts.' Well, at least that's something you'll never have to worry about.
Lisa: Oh? You can see my apartment from here, all the way up on 63rd Street?
Jeff: No, not exactly...


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