Humanity has always had a certain voyeuristic tendency about it. Even before Nicéphore Niépce took what is widely considered to be the first photographic image in 1826, prurient eyes would often wander, and the desire to look where one probably should not often wreak havoc socially and in the human heart. Certain films examine this instinct in a thoughtful way, reflexively turning the cinema lens in on itself as cinema is an intrinsically voyeuristic medium. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) is one such film, which, in fact, was unavailable for decades (and re-released in theaters around 1984) because its rights, along with the rights to Rope (1948), The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and Vertigo (1958) were all bought back by Alfred Hitchcock and given as his legacy to his daughter. These films became known as “The Five Lost Hitchcocks.”
“Alfred Hitchcock” is a name on so many lists of “greatest filmmakers of all time” for good reason. From his early white-knuckle thrillers like Sabotage(1936) and The Lady Vanishes (1938), to the film noir classic Rebecca (1940), Strangers on a Train (1951), and Vertigo, North by Northwest (1959), to the genesis of so much in the modern horror flick, Psycho (1960), Hitch has undoubtedly touched every aware cinephile with at least one of his films.
Rear Window is undoubtedly a film that really dissects those psychological themes mentioned in the first paragraph, and offers a commentary on how the ubiquity of the camera in modern culture can have a tendency to amplify them. July 2 is also the 21st anniversary of Rear Window lead actor James Stewart’s death from a pulmonary embolus that resulted from a thrombosis in his right leg.
Rear Window really dissects the instinct to voyeurism (and how, at times, it can oddly be used for good too, not just evil), using Hitchcock’s trademark brand of the thriller (“Hitchcockian”, indeed), brilliant acting from Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter, and really the entire cast, and indeed a great story to use as its dramatic base from screenwriter John Michael Hayes and the writer of the short story the film itself is based upon: Cornell Woolrich.
L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jeffries (Stewart) is used to a relatively fast life as a field photojournalist but is stuck in his New York City apartment in a wheelchair with his leg in a cast after an accident while shooting in the field.
As this is an era before the Americans with Disabilities Act, Jeff is basically stuck in his apartment without much to do but watch his neighbors across the courtyard. He has done this often enough that he has names for each: Ms. Torso (Georgine Darcy) the amateur dancer across the way, Ms. Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn) who we see in her very unlucky interactions with men (if it weren’t for the Hays Production Code, these could have been portrayed as something closer to “dalliances”, still it is likely audiences of the day understood them as such), The Songwriter (Ross Bagdasarian, the man who wrote Alvin and the Chipmunks in real life), the woman on the fire escape (Sara Berner) accompanied by the man (Frank Cady), the elderly Ms. Hearing Aid (Jesslyn Fax), Newlyweds (Rand Harper and Havis Davenport), and finally The Salesman, a man we later find out is named Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), and his sickly, bed-ridden wife Mrs. Emma Thorwald (Irene Winston).
Jeff’s apartment and the courtyard compromise the entire set of Rear Window. The set itself was constructed at Stage 18, Paramount Studios, in Hollywood. The courtyard was actually a disused basement that was gutted and built up, this means Jeff’s apartment is not actually on the 2nd level, but rather at street level.
The courtyard set measured 98 feet wide, 185 feet long, and 40 feet high, and included 31 apartments, 8 of which were completely furnished. This required considerable planning on the part of the studio and the army of artisans that had to build it and was featured in a number of magazines and Hollywood tours of the time even while the film was being shot (usually these things are kept somewhat secret during filming). The set costs ran somewhere between $75,000 and $100,000, about $680,000 to about $910,000 in today’s money. Hitchcock himself stayed in Jeff’s apartment, out of sight during filming, with a radio, where he could speak instructions to the actors in the other apartments who were wearing flesh-colored earpieces to receive them.
It is interesting to consider that Jeff’s boredom is really what stirred his instinct to voyeurism in spying on the lives of his neighbors. In doing so, he notices the Salesman acting very strangely in his apartment across the way, with his wife having disappeared.
He shares his concerns with the nurse who visits him daily (played with the trademark wit of Thelma Ritter), and his girlfriend, the striking, quick thinking Manhattan socialite Lisa Carol Fremont — played exquisitely by Grace Kelly, who once said James Stewart was one of the most masculinely attractive men she ever worked with; for his part, James Stewart, along with all the men on the set, praised Kelly’s instincts as an actress quite often too — and the three keep close tabs on the Salesman, and soon, try to solve the mystery after Jeff convinces them something is there.
Hitchcock’s telling of this important story also probes how this kind of voyeurism can cross into obsession and also makes one question whether Jeff wasn’t somewhat predisposed to it because of his always functioning eye as a photographer (he uses his binoculars and massive telephoto lens to spy on the Salesman’s seemingly nefarious activity). The threesome rapidly becomes enthralled with figuring out what happened to the Salesman’s wife, with Lisa even breaking into his apartment to collect intelligence that can then be conveyed to Jeff’s police contact Detective Thomas J. Doyle (Wendell Corey), who at first plays polite skeptic to Jeff’s observations and deductions about the admittedly strange happenings across the courtyard at the Thorwald’s apartment (we learn the name from Lisa’s reconnaissance at the apartment).
Did the three witness the covering up of a brutal crime? In characteristic fashion, Hitchcock ratchets up the tension peaking at a most satisfying payoff. His most deft hand as a director, artist, and storyteller really knows how to guide and thrill the viewer, every time. Rear Window, being buttressed by an all-star cast, and a very well-calculated story, is still a satisfying must-watch in his seminal film canon.