Review: Rear Window (1954)

This may be my first review for a movie that predates my birth. Even more surprising, I saw this famous Alfred Hitchcock movie in an actual movie theater, specifically the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring, Maryland. Some years ago the American Film Institute, which used to show movies at The Kennedy Center, renovated the old Silver Theater. It is good that they did because otherwise this historic theater would have met with the wrecking ball. My father, whom I took there as a Father’s Day present, remembers taking girls to the Silver Theater as a youth.

This was my first trip to the AFI Silver Theater and I will definitely be back. For a film junkie this theater is something of a nirvana. Here you can see historic (and some modern) films the way they were meant to be seen: on the screen. In this case, Rear Window has been digitally remastered. Even so, the film is surprisingly grainy. Either Hitchcock was using poor film stock or the film degraded considerably over the years. This film is part of a Jimmy Stewart film festival at the AFI.

Rear Window is not one of Hitchcock’s better-known films, nor is it the only one to star Jimmy Stewart. (His best-known Hitchcock role was probably as Detective Ferguson in Vertigo.) Rear Window deserves more attention because it is a surprisingly engaging and well-done film. Current cult director M. Night Shyamalan was clearly inspired by Hitchcock. One only has to see Rear Window to see elements that Shyamalan has borrowed from Hitchcock.

For example, Shyamalan’s movie Lady in the Water takes place in an apartment complex. Rear Window also takes place in an apartment complex. While Rear Window does not have Lady in the Water‘s mysticism, both films have a collection of oddball apartment dwellers. Jimmy Stewart, playing L.B. Jefferies, is a convalescing international photographer with a broken leg. He is stuck in his apartment with nothing else to do during a hot, sticky Brooklyn summer than watch his neighbors. His apartment happens to face inward onto a courtyard, giving him an intimate view of the comings and going of his neighbors across the courtyard. These were the days before air conditioners. We find a couple sleeping on their balcony to avoid the heat. Much of the movie literally drips with sweat. At the start of the movie, we find a hobbled Stewart in a leg cast and wheelchair sweltering with his neighbors in 92-degree heat.

For a movie this old, it is surprisingly racy. Indeed, the MPAA belatedly gave it a PG rating. It includes scenes of a dancer always practicing her dance steps through her open window in little more than a bra and panties. It also includes Grace Kelly in lingerie and the (then) shocking suggestion that as an unmarried woman her character planned to spend a long weekend nursing her boyfriend.

Jefferies discovers his apartment complex is a real Peyton Place. The cast of eccentrics include Miss Lonelyheart, who stages elegant dinners for a boyfriend that does not exist, the Songwriter who seems to have parties every night, and the newlyweds who remember to shut the blinds at the last moment. It is at these times that you realize parts of Lady in the Water are homage to this important Hitchcock film. Through Jefferies, Hitchcock quickly draws us into the lives of these strangers across the courtyard. Jefferies’s attention though soon focuses on Lars Thorwald (played by Raymond Burr, who was obese even then). Lars and his wife have a fight. Yet his wife mysteriously is never seen again. Jefferies wonders what happened to her, and through the open window, he watches his neighbor engage in some very peculiar actions. He grows convinced that Thorwald murdered and dismembered his wife.

The movie also stars the entrancing Grace Kelly in her prime. If you have never seen Grace Kelly in a motion picture, this movie is a great one to watch to make her acquaintance. She is both achingly beautiful and an excellent actress. In this movie she plays Lisa (that’s “Leeza”) Fremont who is something of a fashion snob. Their difference in values suggests to Jefferies that their relationship is doomed, but he cannot quite find the courage to end it. An insurance company nurse also visits Jefferies daily. She performs physical therapy, changes his sheets, makes him meals and most importantly gives Jefferies the opportunity to spout his conspiracy theories about his neighbors. Jefferies is also pals with Lieutenant Detective Doyle (Wendell Corey). After seeing enough suspicious activities, Jefferies tries to enlist Doyle’s help for some shoe-leather work.

While Doyle remains skeptical throughout, Lisa and Jefferies’s nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) eventually become fully engaged in the Lars Thorwald mystery. Did something happen in that apartment or is Jefferies making much ado about nothing? Hitchcock of course keeps you guessing.

The result is a taunt character driven movie that quickly sucks you in. The camera never even leaves Jeffries apartment. Jefferies watches all his neighbors’ comings and going. Since he is a photographer with a telephoto lens, he can also capture much of it. As a suspenseful movie, there is lots of mystery but little in the way of jeopardy until the very end of the movie. Suffice to say that when Stella and Lisa start to become private investigators, things turn dicey quite quickly.

What I also really liked about this movie is the way that Hitchcock so accurately captures life in noisy Brooklyn. You can hear the tugboats wailing on the unseen East River. You hear the constant sounds of the city, and of people noisily engaging in life. It was doubtless all staged on a Hollywood set, but it feels very much like Brooklyn. I also enjoyed its authenticity to period. This was the life my parents knew but that largely passed me by. Hitchcock makes use of his roving camera and shadow to accentuate the film’s engagement and mystery.

While probably not Hitchcock’s most suspenseful film, it may well be his most intriguing. You should see it if the opportunity presents itself.

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