The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Rear Window (1954/USA/dir. Alfred Hitchcock) appeared at #66 on my original list.
What it is • L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) is a globe-trotting photographer at home in exotic locales ranging from remote wilderness to combat zone. In the skies over Europe or the Pacific in World War II, he befriended co-pilot Thomas Doyle (Wendell Corey), now a police detective in New York City. Jeffries is in New York too, recovering after an accident on a car race track which broke his leg (but the picture was worth it). Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly), a lovely high society girl, flits from social event to social event on Park or Fifth Avenue, but her heart is in humble Greenwich Village with Jeffries, whom she hopes to marry (he's resistant both to accepting and breaking off their relationship, preferring the non-commital status quo). Meanwhile, the man who lives across the courtyard from Jeffries, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) has sent a woman off to the countryside - perhaps to Connecticut or Long Island, and perhaps she's his wife...or his mistress. But if it's his mistress, where is his wife? Buried somewhere else? Stashed away in the apartment? Ghoulishly scattered across the city and in the East River? (I just now got Thelma Ritter's "I want no part of it" pun for the first time.) Our story of adventure, romance, and murder spans all of these various locations...
Except it doesn't. Rear Window takes place entirely within a single apartment (save for a few one- or two-second shots in the courtyard). Even when we look into other rooms we are doing so from Jeffries' vantage point. This is the brilliance of Rear Window: it locks itself down to one location despite its multiplicity.
Why I like it •
The above should offer some clues, but let me elucidate. Actually, the first time I saw Rear Window, I wasn't crazy about it. I think it was the fourth Hitchcock film I had seen. The Birds didn't do a whole lot for me, although I loved the concept. But Spellbound and Vertigo were my gateway into Hitch fandom, and so I eagerly slid my rental copy of Rear Window into the VCR (this was the mid/late nineties, after all) expecting wide-open mystery, dark psychological intensity, and a feverish style bordering on surrealism. Needless to say, I was disappointed. There are few surprises in the procedural, the film's tone is more playful than brooding, and it has its feet planted firmly on the ground (a bad turn of phrase given Jeffries' injury, but you know what I mean). Its appeal lies entirely elsewhere and over time this has become one of my absolute favorite Hitchcock films for reasons entirely different than what I initially expected. I adore its sense of world creation, the way it is able to summon up that more sprawling story through suggestive dialogue that never feels too wordy - because it's accompanied and complemented by the action we glimpse out the window. From a filmmaking standpoint, this movie is an absolute master class: its meta conceits never get in the way of its momentary charms, and we can enjoy it either on a superficial level or by digging deeply into the elaborate games Hitchcock plays. Much has been written about the way that the situation with Thorwald echoes (in exaggerated fashion) Jeffries' own anxieties about marriage, but watching it again tonight I realized how the murder mystery interacts with the personal melodrama even within the world of the film. Jeffries and Lisa are quite self-consciously investing themselves in what's going on outside of their room in an effort to avoid what's going on inside, and even the final shot emphasizes that this escapism can only be a temporary salve. In that sense, Rear Window is a deceptively light-hearted complement to the feverish intensity of a Vertigo or Spellbound in which the characters can't escape their personal crises (indeed the central mysteries only lead them deeper into these crises). I was also reminded how in some ways, the mystery hook is actually the least enticing aspect of the movie, although the suspense - especially when Lisa breaks in - is certainly effective. The whodunit (or rather, didhedoit) serves its purpose, but I find myself taken more with the endless possibilities of where to look and what to see than with the question of whether Thorwald killed his wife. This is a film where the mystery itself seems to be the MacGuffin, our key into this life-size playset whose repercussions reach all the way from Jacques Tati to Wes Anderson.
How you can see it • Rear Window doesn't seem to be streaming anywhere, but it is available on DVD from Netflix. I've written a full review, including thoughts on its relationship to Dial M For Murder (which Hitchcock directed the same year), and several years later I created a video essay expanding on this premise. A clip is featured at 5:15 in "The Restless Fifties", a chapter in my 32 Days of Movies video series.
What do you think? • Is this Hitchcock's masterpiece? If not, what is? Do you prefer his lighter, more playful movies, or the darker ones? Were you absorbed in the mystery? Did you wonder if Thorwald did it? Have you read the Cornell Woolrich short story on which this is based, and if so how did it strike you in comparison? Do you think Jeffries and Lisa have a shot, or is their romance doomed? Do you find Stewart's age at all distracting, since the character seems to be written to be a little younger (an issue common with Hitch's middle-aged protagonists in his fifties films)? What was the most suspenseful moment of the film for you? The funniest? Did you know where it was going when you began watching it, or were you curious which of Jeffries' neighbors would provide the central narrative hook?
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Previous week: The Apu Trilogy (#67)
Next week: Au Hasard Balthazar (#65)