AFI Countdown Challenge #42: Rear Window

I am typing this on the hottest day to date of the summer, with a predicted high of 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  That’s highly appropriate for a film set during a heat wave in New York City, not too far from where I live.  Something about Rear Window seems to work best when it’s hot out.  That’s probably why when The Simpsons did it, the story was set in a summer when Bart was unable to use the family pool that only existed for that one episode.

Of course, part of the joke there is that a Jimmy Stewart lookalike is also watching Bart while Bart watches the neighborhood.

Before we go any further, that opening scene is brilliant in that it tells you everything you need to know about Jimmy Stewart’s main character and his condition is laid out for the audience without a single line of dialogue.  We see the sweat on his forehead and a thermometer to tell us how hot it is.  We see the cast.  We see the smashed camera and the photograph of the race car accident that put Stewart’s L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies into that cast.  And we see his apartment, particularly the window he views the world through.

This film actually conveys more information through a lack of dialogue than through anything else.  Sure, if we missed a few things, we see Jeff, a globetrotting magazine photographer, get a phone call from his editor to ask if the cast came off after the seven weeks, but no, the cast comes off next week.  Jeff can’t wait as he’s been reduced to watching his neighbors and fending off his girlfriend’s insistence to get married.

By the by, I love how much the script and other characters keep talking about how Jeff, played by a man in his late forties with streaks of grey in his hair, is a young man who should get married.  I can buy that a man his age might be reluctant to get married, but what I don’t buy is the constant talk as if he’s still “young”.

At any rate, he’s been coped up so long in his apartment, sweating it out, that he has also become incredibly familiar with the lives of his neighbors, many of whom he knows by self-appointed nicknames like Miss Lonely Hearts (a visibly lonely older woman) and Miss Torso (a ballerina who often dances in her underwear in her apartment).  Director Alfred Hitchcock did a great job of actually establishing smaller stories around the apartment complex without giving most of the various characters anything in the way of dialogue you can hear.  And given a 1954 release date, there’s a lot of sex bubbling beneath the surface.  Among Jeff’s neighbors are a newliwed couple who, when we first see them, are kissing like crazy before they pull the drapes down.  After that, we see the increasingly tired-looking husband being called back by his unseen wife who apparently just wants a lot of lovin’.

Not wanting so much lovin’?  Jeff.

Jeff, see, has a longtime girlfriend named Lisa Fremont, a high society girl played by actual high society girl Grace Kelly (no relation).  Lisa wants to get married.  Jeff’s editor and his insurance company nurse Stella want him to get married.  Jeff doesn’t want to get married because he thinks Lisa is too good for him and that she won’t take to living his sort of professional lifestyle, and he might actually might have to give up his job.  He keeps telling her as much and somehow she doesn’t dump him for it.

That was baffling to me., but it was the 1950s.

As it is, the relationship drama, the weakest part of the film, soon takes a backseat when Jeff realizes the traveling salesman Thorwald (a menacing Raymond Burr) has killed his bedridden wife and somehow gotten rid of the evidence.  Jeff is stuck in his apartment, able only to watch everyone around him but unable to do much more.  He has Lisa and Stella on his side, and a cop friend doesn’t exactly disbelieve him so much as repeat how limited he is by legal procedures.  All that leaves Jeff to do is spy on Thorwald to get some incriminating evidence.

Hitchcock keeps Jeff and the film confined to Jeff’s apartment for most of the film, only going outside of it when Jeff finally leaves the place.  Admittedly, he does so forcibly after Thorwald tosses him from the title window, but Jeff survives and Lisa still loves him, so I guess it’s all good.  But the way the script that only tells you what Jeff knows reminds me of one of my personal favorite movies, Chinatown.  And it turns out while Lisa may come across as little more than a high class socialite, she’s very knowledgeable in her own way of things that point towards Thorwald’s guilt, mostly in the form of what a woman would do with her wedding ring that Thorwald still has after telling the police his wife took a trip somewhere.  Likewise, Stella is there for support even if it aims more for grisly comic relief as she discusses what sorts of ways Thorwald could have used to dispose of a corpse.

It wouldn’t be much of a film if Thorwald didn’t discover Jeff’s spying and attack the wheelchair-bound man, allowing Jeff to finally come face-to-face with his adversary, as well as to finally show him the conseuqences of his spying.  This isn’t a Miss Lonely Hearts or a Miss Torso that he can passively watch and make up a narrative for.  This is a real person showing the real consequences for Jeff’s actions.

Did Jeff learn a lesson?  It’s hard to say.  Like a lot of Hitchcock films, it ends somewhat abruptly.  The cops arrive quickly enough and Thorwald confesses after dumping Jeff out the window.  Jeff lives and we see he and Lisa are lounging around his apartment when she puts down some headier reading material for a fashion magazine as soon as she sees he is asleep.  The two may be closer together.  But they may not.  It may not matter.  The heat wave is broken, both Miss Torso and Miss Lonely Hearts are having company, the newlyweds are bickering, and life goes on.

NEXT UP:  There’s a lot of Hitchcock coming up in this part of the countdown, but we’ve got something in-between first in the form of the 1961 musical West Side Story.


Defender of the faith, contributing writer, debonair man-about-town.

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