By Judy Berman
Just how quickly can you size up a person and a situation?
“Rear Window” opens with sweat rolling down James Stewart’s forehead as he sleeps. The thermostat in his apartment window reads 94 degrees. In the Greenwich Village courtyard outside, an ad blares on a neighbor’s radio, a clock’s jarring alarm awakens another couple who is sleeping on the fire escape, and a woman across the way is exercising in her tiny apartment.
The camera slowly pans around inside the apartment. Director Alfred Hitchcock reveals how Stewart wound up in a wheelchair, what he does for a living, and what his neighbors are like.
On his cast: “Here lie the broken bones of L. B. Jefferies.”
The focus shifts to a broken camera atop a table near photos of a car crash at a racetrack. It looks like the cars are about to topple onto the photographer. Among the photos, a negative of a woman. Then her finished print is on a cover of a stack of magazines.
Within 2½ minutes, without saying one word, Hitchcock shows you plenty about his main character, L. B. “Jeff” Jeffries, played by Stewart.
Stewart is a top photographer for a magazine. He was injured six weeks earlier, taking that dramatic shot of the race car. He’s itching to get out of his plaster cocoon and back into action.
Meanwhile, in his boredom, he admits he has nothing to do but watch his neighbors. We become unwitting partners in his rear-window ethics as he moves from “people watching” to “peeping Tom.” We never avert our eyes when what we see is the very personal stories of people’s private lives.
“All of the stories have a common denominator in that they involve some aspect of love. James Stewart’s problem is that he doesn’t want to marry Grace Kelly. Everything he sees across the way has a bearing on love and marriage,” said Francois Truffaut in an interview with Hitchcock about his films.
Stewart’s voyeurism narrows in on one couple in particular – Lars Thorwald (played by Raymond Burr) and his invalid wife. They bicker constantly.
One night, Stewart hears a loud crash and a scream. The next morning, the wife is missing and Burr is acting suspiciously. He’s rolling up his wife’s bedcovers and wrapping a knife and saw in newspaper.
Then, late at night, Stewart sees the salesman carrying his sample suitcase to and from his apartment. Stewart suspects Burr murdered his wife.
At first, Kelly, who plays a high-society fashion consultant, dismisses Stewart’s hunches.
Jeff (Stewart): Why would a man leave his apartment three times on a rainy night with a suitcase and come back three times?
Lisa (Kelly): He likes the way his wife welcomes him home.
Stewart’s physical therapist, Stella, (played by Thelma Ritter), also downplays his fears.
Soon, however, all three suspect foul play and watch Thorwald’s every move. At Stewart’s request, his old Army buddy investigates. The buddy, now a police detective, Thomas J. Doyle (Wendell Corey), tells Stewart that there was no murder. He says the missing wife moved to the country.
They’re disappointed and feel a little foolish … until, one evening when Stewart and Kelly hear a piercing scream cut thru the courtyard. A neighbor’s dog is dead, killed. All the neighbors rush to their windows to see what happened. All of them … but, one.
Only the burning ember of the suspected killer’s cigarette is visible as he sits in his darkened apartment.
The motive? The dog was digging in Thorwald’s garden shortly after something was buried there. Kelly decides to break into Thorwald’s apartment to search for evidence that would prove his wife was dead. First, Stewart calls Thorwald to arrange a meeting at a bar down the street as a pretext to get Thorwald out of the apartment. Stewart hints at blackmail.
Kelly gains entry to Thorwald’s apartment and finds the evidence she needs. But Thorwald returns before she can escape.
Here, Hitchcock, the Master of Supsense, builds tension in that encounter and in another inside Stewart’s apartment.
Hitchcock made no apologies for the 1954 film’s hero spending all his time peeping out of the window.
“Sure, he’s a snooper, but aren’t we all?”
Video: movie trailer, “Rear Window,” (1954) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m01YktiEZCw
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