By Carter B. Horsley
I grew up in a brownstone apartment at 20 West
10th Street in Greenwich Village in New York City and the view
out my bedroom window was almost identical to the view from James
Stewart's apartment in "Rear Window," Alfred Hitchcock's
great 1954 movie about a convalescing photographer who cannot
resist the temptation to be a voyeur of his neighbors' activities.
My neighbors, unfortunately, usually kept their
windows curtained, but there was a pianist, allegedly Leonard
Bernstein, who practiced regularly somewhere in the apartments
facing the rear-yard gardens on the block just like the pianist
in the movie so it is not surprising that this film holds a special
part in my cinematic nostalgia.
Also, like many of my generation, I fell in
love in Grace Kelly, who stars in this movie, but it would take
me a quarter of a century of so before I would actually meet her
and then I never got around to declaring my love.
In this film, she is the quintessential Hitchcock
beauty, elegant, strong-willed, witty, sophisticated, very, very
stylish, and sexy. Here, as Lisa Carol Fremont, she is very much
a high-society gal, perfectly at home with food delivered from
the "21 Club," and not intimidated by slumming in the
Greenwich Village pad of L. B. "Jeff" Jefferies, a successful
magazine news photographer played with considerable sarcasm by
Jeffries is recuperating from a broken leg
suffered in the line of his duties and has spent the past five
weeks claustrophobically in his small apartment rather than traveling
around the world on photo assignments. He has one week to go before
the cast on his leg is removed and he has been attended to a nurse,
Stella, played memorably and also sarcastically by Thelma Ritter.
Early in the film, it is clear that Lisa has
grand designs on Jefferies and is slightly disapproving of his
preoccupation with the lives of his neighbors, who include a song
writer, played by Ross Bagdasarian, Miss Torso, played by Georgine
Darcy, Miss Lonelyheart, played by Judith Evelyn, and Lars Thorward
played ominiously by Raymond Burr. Miss Torso and Miss Lonelyheart
are names given by Jefferies to identify two of the neighbors.
While not immune to Lisa's great charms, Jefferies does not believe
that a socialite can abide by the rigors of his profession.
Jefferies, who uses binoculars and a long telephoto
lens attached to an Exacta single-lens-reflex camera to spy on
his neighbors, notices that Thorward has a nagging wife and that
one day she is gone and Thorward is observed packing a trunk.
Soon thereafter, another neighbor's dog that used to play in the
garden is missing and found dead and Jefferies begins to suspect
that Thorward has butchered his wife and perhaps buried her in
Lisa offers to assist the bed-and-wheelchair-ridden
Jefferies by breaking into Thorward's apartment when he is out,
but she is caught by Thorward but not before she finds his wife's
wedding ring. Jefferies manages to get the cops to show up as
Thorward is questioning Lisa and she is released.
Jefferies then enlists the aid of an old friend,
Lieutenant Thomas J. Doyle, played with delightful skepticism
by Wendell Corey with just the right amount of New York casual
wit and suspicion. Doyle does not believe Jefferies's hypothesis
and disapproves of his voyeurism, admonishing him that he was
invading "secret, private" worlds, but makes some inquiries
that do not support a case for murder.
Jefferies is undeterred as he continues to
spy on Thorwald who appears to act suspiciously.
Almost the entire film is shot in the confines
and from the perspective of Jefferies's apartment.
In frustration, Jefferies decides to taunt
Thorwald and has Lisa put a note under his door that anonymous
states that someone knows what he has done. As Jefferies watches
through his telephoto lens, Thorwald turns to his window and sees
Jefferies, who quickly tries to move back from his window.
Thorwald surmises that it is Jefferies who
sent him the note and decides to visit him in the film's climax.
Jefferies fends him off by firing flashbulbs
that momentarily blind Thorwald but not enough to prevent him
from throwing Jefferies out the window just as Lieut. Doyle arrives.
Jefferies survives, but both legs are now broken.
The film's fine screenplay by John Michael
Hayes was adopted from a 1942 short story entitled by "It
Had To Be Murder" by Cornell Woolrich. In an interview with
Mr. Hayes that is included on the DVD edition, he notes that the
original story did not have a romance and that many of the characters
such as Miss Torso and Miss Lonelyhearts were not in the original
story. The DVD also includes an excellent documentary about the
movie and its restoration as well as many still shots of original
posters and scenes from the film. The movie's rather jazzy score
is by Franz Waxman, who also did "A Place In The Sun."
The film's main set is marvelous and captures
the atmosphere of Greenwich Village residents very authentically.
Stewart gives his customary, fine, droll performance that has
subtle hints of Jack Bennyesque-mirth and fabulous timing. Unlike
many of Hitchcock's films that use the theme of mistaken identity,
"Rear Window" focuses on helplessness, or impotence.
The viewer can tell from the photographs on the apartment's walls
that Jefferies is not only fearless but most likely a daredevil,
but in the film he is incapacitated by the cast on his leg. Many
of Hitchcock's famous films involved spectacular settings such
as Mt. Rushmore in "North by Northwest" (see The
City Review article), or the Statue of Liberty in "The
Saboteur," but he also indulged in claustrophic settings
such as in "The Rope" and "Dial M for Murder."
The biggest problem with this film is that
it is inconceivable that he would think of not spending his life
with Lisa as played by Grace Kelly.