5 Dec 2023

Fifty best films: Rear Window

From Widescreen, 1:47 pm on 5 December 2023

Up from number 54 to 38 in the 2022 Sight & Sound 2022 top 50, Hitchcock's Rear Window is almost flawless entertainment, says Dan Slevin.

James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 thriller Rear Window

Photo: Paramount

There are times when this project can feel a little bit like homework but that feeling disappears whenever the name Alfred Hitchcock appears.

Arguably, the most famous film director of all time, Hitchcock made audience-focused, beautifully crafted entertainments and it was only late in his career – thanks to French critics – that he was seen as a colossal artist that we know today. It was the writers from Cahiers du Cinéma in the early 60s who championed his right to be considered an author (or auteur) – a writer with the camera.

To be an auteur, rather than just a craftsman, viewers should be able to see a consistency of theme or subject as well as identifiable visual style and Rear Window – from 1954 and his 43rd credited feature as director – is as good an introduction to the concept as anything by the great master.

James Stewart plays a magazine photographer, confined to his Greenwich Village apartment after an unfortunate incident getting too close to a moving race car. After six weeks in plaster, he is bored out of his adrenaline-seeking brain and only has regular visits from the insurance company supplied nurse (Thelma Ritter) and his beautiful girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) to keep him occupied.

His living room looks out over a courtyard between several apartment blocks and the plot is, ostensibly, about him witnessing something suspicious in the flat opposite and then deciding to investigate further. Has he discovered evidence of a murder or has his imagination got the better of him?

But the film is also about the relationship between Stewart and Kelly, revealing something perhaps of Hitchcock’s own attitude to women. Kelly’s character is besotted with the action-man hero and would do anything to tie him down to marriage. Stewart doesn’t want to give up his exciting globe-trotting career and doesn’t believe that a Manhattan society girl could ever change her ways to become part of that life.

The twenty-year age difference is not remarked upon.

Movie still from the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock thriller Rear Window featuring James Stewart and Grace Kelly

Photo: Paramount

The bickering is incessant and Stewart is something of a chauvinist, obsessed with his new hobby, and refusing to accept that he might have to compromise for love. Also, there’s a lot of drinking in this picture – in his apartment and all the neighbours! The 1950s, eh? Strong liquor never seems to be too far away.

Of course, true love eventually conquers all and Kelly manages to persuade Stewart that she can hold her own in the adventure department, but Hitchcock doesn’t seem too persuaded by that happy ending if truth be told.

Apart from Hitchcock’s contradictory, or should we say ‘Catholic’, attitude towards women and sex, there are other regular obsessions on display. Mistaken identity or being wrongly accused. The transference of one’s own guilt complex on to others. How deeply the truth can be buried and how you can never be too sure about it, right up until the end.

Still from Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 thriller Rear WIndow showing the view from Jimmy Stewart's apartment to the apartment buildings opposite (constructed in the Paramount studio in Hollywood)

Photo: Paramount

And then there is the craft. Hitchcock, famously, disliked the uncertainty of location shooting and preferred studios – and rear projection when necessary. The setting for Rear Window is constructed entirely on the Paramount lot and was the most complex ever built to that point with multiple apartment levels and full drainage for a heavy rain sequence.

The set allowed Hitch free reign over what he called his ‘geography’, the camera moving fluidly in and out of windows and focusing on the many inhabitants who look down on the courtyard. Despite not having hardly any dialogue, those characters are richly drawn and thematically important but – because they are not involved in a murder – only provide passing amusement and interest to our central characters.

Something I hadn’t noticed in previous viewings was how important the sounds of the city are. This is a noisy film because Manhattan is a noisy place. There’s music coming from several apartments – a boozy songwriter lives across the way – and there’s traffic, chatter, weather, all hemmed in by the apartments surrounding the courtyard.

Rear Window is still an incredibly entertaining watch. Hitchcock manages all his elements masterfully, especially time as the long slow sticky days of a Manhattan summer give way to the tension-filled excitement of that final evening where the difference between life and death literally flashes before our eyes.

Rear Window is available as a digital rental from Apple. There were Blu-ray and 4K UHD editions available at one time here in Aotearoa, but they appear both be out of print (although Alice in Videoland in Christchurch will rent you a Blu-ray copy).

If you want a 4K physical copy of it your best bet is probably the Alfred Hitchcock Classics box set which is still available from Amazon and also features Psycho and Vertigo from this top 50 list.

Dan Slevin is spending 2023 watching each of the Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time (according to the BFI/Sight & Sound magazine).

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