Perhaps Hitchcock's purest film; tightly scripted, taughtly played, immaculately directed. Suuuuuuperb.
Having your leg in plaster for seven weeks is a royal pain in the arse; just ask J.B. Jeffries (James Stewart). He's a successful and highly respected paparazzo whose last assignment six weeks ago earned him a broken leg and a wheelchair. Living in an apartment block as he does, J.B. passes the time by watching his neighbours go about their private lives, something with which his beautiful socialite girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) is becoming increasingly annoyed. Also breathing down his neck is maid Stella (Thelma Ritter), who props up his pillows, makes him sandwiches and constantly nags him to make Lisa an honest woman. Can't a man just get some peace and quiet?
Already married to his freelancing work, J.B. has no intention of settling down quite yet, a fact which Lisa can't quite come to terms with, and so their relationship borders on demise. The final straw is plucked for her when Jeffries becomes obsessed with the notion that one of his neighbours, salesman Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), has killed his wife. Having witnessed the pair continually arguing, J.B. notices Lars constantly exiting and entering his apartment in the middle of the night, each time taking his metal sample case. The next day he also sees him packing a saw and a butchers knife in newspaper, and binding a large travel case with heavy rope. Concerned for the safety and whereabouts of the wife, J.B. contacts his friend in the police, Lieutenant Doyle (Wendell Corey), insisting that he investigate.
Doyle's preliminary investigation turns up nothing; Thorwald claims he put his wife on a train to visit relatives in another state, and he has tickets and witnesses to prove it. Consequently Doyle suggests his friend might like to give up prying into other people's lives, but J.B. remains unconvinced. Something isn't quite right, and his obsession for spying on Thorwald begins to infect first Lisa then Stella.
Increasingly convinced Lars is escaping justice, the three decide to incite a reaction by sending Lars an anonymous note reading "What have you done with her?" and arranging a false meeting in town so that Lisa and Stella might investigate his apartment. What evidence, if any, will they find? Does Lars suspect who is watching him? Did he even kill his wife, or are Jeffries' observations the paranoid workings of an idle mind? Best watch it yourself and see.
A lot of people cite Rear Window as their favourite Hitchcock. Personally, I don't (that honour goes to North By Northwest), but I can easily see why. Rather than dealing with international spies, cold war paranoia, obsessive dead mothers in run-down hotels, cross country biplane-dodging and other such trivial pursuits, here the Master of Suspense brings tension home, slap bang into your living room, in fact. The whole film takes place in Jeffries' apartment, and as such it can't rely on dazzling locations, immense sets or action set-pieces to raise adrenaline levels. Instead the drama comes from superb scripting, subtle camera work, top-drawer acting by Stewart and most of all razor-sharp directorial merits.
It's a smart move on Hitchcock's part and also that of scriptwriter John Michael Hayes, working from the short story by Cornell Woolrich; in confining the action to a single set, maximum tension can be derived from minimum effort. It's a hugely impressive lesson to the filmmakers of today that with a little effort, a handful of actors and a set that might well have been taken from a stage play you can still have audiences on the edge of their seat.
Stewart excels in his role as the bored everyman who encompasses the voyeuristic instincts in us all. Armed only with his zoom lens, a pair of binoculars and a formidable acting talent (don't forget he's confined to a wheelchair the whole time, negating any opportunity for much physical expression), he draws us gradually into his obsession, questioning just how far into other people's lives we have the right to peek.
Perhaps the only disappointment is Kelly, who although perfectly acceptable (and exceedingly beautiful) doesn't have all that much to do until nearer the end of the movie, but this is forgivable given the necessity for the focus to remain on Stewart's character. Burr also manages to cope with limited (and distanced) screentime well, being requisitely "shady" enough to convince us he may just have committed the supposed act.
It has been said on many, many occasions that this is also Hitchcock's most misanthropic piece, and indeed much delight seems to be taken in observing and laughing at the misfortunes of the various inhabitants of the surrounding apartments. It has in this day and age, however, more bearing in it's scrutiny of the media. In a time where the papers seem obsessed with placing the lives of seemingly ordinary people under the microscope, Rear Window questions just where the line lies between the necessity to unravel the truth and that of preserving the privacy of any one story's protagonists. Maybe it's indicative of our Alfred's personal opinion that despite triumphing in the end, Stewart ends up with two broken legs instead of one?
Never less than consummate in every way, Rear Window is a superbly-paced descent into obsession. Tighter than a duck's arse, it's running time belies the hidden complexity of it's simple plot, but rest assured not a moment is wasted. It's very easy to see why this is one of the best loved of Hitchcock's canon of work, and anyone who appreciates genuine tension coupled with a sly wit and dark humour would be mad not to pay J.B. Jeffries a visit. Just make sure you draw the curtains when you get there.
Craig Disko has awarded Rear Window 5 out of 5 Disko Paranoia Units.
Grace Kelly (Lisa Fremont)
Raymond Burr (Lars Thorwald)