Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is often cited as his best. The ultimate nosy neighbor movie, he provides social commentary on the good and the bad of voyeurism.
Cooped up in his small apartment with a broken leg, photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) is fascinated by the goings-on of his neighbors, whom he spies on all day from his rear window. He’s following their stories and using them as distractions from his own life.
Jeff’s socialite girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly), wants to get married, but her lifestyle isn’t appealing to him. He prefers roughing it in the jungle to take pictures rather than attending galas and fancy dinners all the time. He says she’s “too perfect”.
Through observing his neighbors, he also learns of their habits and personalities. One night, he spots one neighbor, Lars Thorwall (Raymond Burr), acting suspicious–coming and leaving his own apartment many times in the middle of the night. Thorwall’s bedridden wife, who Jeff always sees nagging at the man, isn’t there the next morning. Jeff is convinced Thorwall has killed her, despite those around him, including his detective friend (Wendell Corey), telling him he’s nuts. Nonetheless, Jeff insists, even obsessing over the matter, but he can’t do anything but watch because of his condition. He gets Lisa on board, who does some ground work for him.
Hitchcock keeps the movie in one location, but the script by John Michael Hayes gives is so good that it creates a big world in such a small space. The smart dialogue keeps us engaged even when not much else is going on. But the movie’s real prize is found in how it ramps up to its gripping climax.
Rear Window’s biggest accomplishment is making us doubt ourselves, and the characters as well. The film shows all sides of the argument presented, even having us sympathize with the suspected murderer.
It plays as a commentary on voyeurism, very obviously so, insisting that even when society doesn’t know the whole story, they concoct the rest of it, usually hoping for the misery of others rather than no misery at all.
Hitchcock holds our curiosity the entire time, but doesn’t quite keep us in suspense until about two-thirds of the way through the movie as the plot thickens.
To be honest, I thought the story was going to go in a different direction once the 3rd act hit. One that would have punctuated a poignant message and allowed Rear Window to fully commit to its impactful theme. But I suppose that would be an idea more relevant to a later era. Perhaps it wouldn’t have meant as much to society back in 1954, or simply would have simply been too dark. If you’re not sure what I mean, I don’t want to risk spoiling the film by telling my preferred alternate ending, but I’ll say it has to do with the character Miss Lonelyhearts. And if I hadn’t whole-heartedly expected things to result in a completely different way, I wouldn’t have been as disappointed.
Not that Rear Window doesn’t give us a spectacular ending, because it does. But what the film has to say remains on the fence between two opposing sides, ultimately giving us what it thinks we want. And maybe that’s the point. However, for those of us who are part of the choir to which this movie preaches, we may be better suited getting the slightly different, and ultimately darker ending.