Alfred Hitchcock made plenty of great movies, but two in particular spoke to his hangups, his fascinations and his fears more than the others. One, “Vertigo,” is the greatest expression of his need for total control and how it tried on others (especially women). “Rear Window,” meanwhile, is still the best look at Hitchcock’s interest in voyeurism, in both its thrills and its limits.
The film’s premise – man confined to room thinks he’s seen a murder next door – is ingenious in its simplicity, but there’s nothing simplistic about how Hitchcock frames it. Working on a remarkably detailed studio set, Hitchcock lets the neighboring apartment building work as a microcosm of human nature and behavior, from feuding couples to frustrated artists. L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) invents narratives for each of them, but they’re as much about his restless state of mind, his fear of marriage and his discomfort with what’s right in front of him as opposed to what he can view from afar. Even murder suspect Thorvald (Raymond Burr) and his departed invalid wife is a reversal of his current situation with his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly, never more luminous), a subtle reminder of Jeff’s fear of marriage.
Hitchcock was a peerless technician, and his distinctive close-ups, use of frames-within-frames and carefully choreographed scenarios perfectly display enough of what’s going on next door to keep the viewer hooked without fully giving the game away. But Hitchcock was also a superb director of actors, and he does a superb job of getting first-rate performances while limiting the tools the actors’ have to work with. Stewart, always an animated performer, cannot move, so he’s forced to convey Jeff’s thought process primarily though his eyes. Raymond Burr, meanwhile, is deprived of his voice for most of the film, and has to use his body to play a seemingly ordinary man who may be a murderer without fully giving the game away. It’s this game of limitations and constant suspense that makes “Rear Window” one of Hitchcock’s most entertaining films.
More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:
Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader
More than anything, “Rear Window,” without ever ceasing to be a grand entertainment, is a moral investigation into what we do and what that implies whenever we follow a murder plot as armchair analysts. Hitchcock explores the question from just about every possible angle, including the issue of whether we ogle our neighbors the way we ogle characters in plays and movies–from a dark place and a safe distance. The movie begins and ends with a theatrical metaphor–the raising and lowering of the window shades in Jeff’s flat as if they were stage curtains, a symmetry that was brutally violated in Universal’s previous rerelease version, which ends instead with the Universal logo. Read more.
Geoff Andrew, Time Out London
Of all Hitchcock’s films, this is the one which most reveals the man…Quite aside from the violation of intimacy, which is shocking enough, Hitchcock has nowhere else come so close to pure misanthropy, nor given us so disturbing a definition of what it is to watch the ‘silent film’ of other people’s lives, whether across a courtyard or up on a screen. No wonder the sensual puritan in him punishes Stewart by breaking his other leg. Read more.
Vincent Canby, The New York Times
All of the film’s production elements are superior, especially the huge set, designed by Hal Pereira and built at the Paramount studio. It represents the best of studio artifice, being a unit that includes the rear of Jeff’s apartment as well as his view of the garden court and buildings that enclose the court. There is one comparatively large, comparatively new apartment building, which is flanked by what appear to be brownstones, one Federal house and other buildings that have been remodeled out of all associations to the past. As lighted and photographed by Robert Burks, this set is as much a character as any of the actors in the film. Read more.
Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com
The remote-control suspense scenes in “Rear Window” are Hitchcock at his most diabolical, creating dangerous situations and then letting Lisa and Stella linger in them through Jeff’s carelessness or inaction. He stays in his wheelchair. They venture out into danger–Kelly even entering the apartment of the suspected wife killer. He watches. We see danger approaching. We, and he, cannot move, cannot sound the alarm. Read more.
Killian Fox, The Guardian
Watching “Rear Window” recently, I realized Stewart’s voyeurism yielded another reward. What stood out for me this time was the film’s panoramic view of romantic attachment and its pitfalls. What Stewart is really observing, in his multi-channel display of neighborhood life, is marriage in its various stages and possibilities: the excited newlyweds pulling down the blinds in their new apartment; the bickering older couple who can no longer conceal their loathing for one another. Read more.
J. Hoberman, The Village Voice
Steeped in fetishism, concerned with l’amour fou, and structured by dream logic, “Vertigo” is Hollywood’s surrealist masterpiece; “Rear Window” showcases another side of Hitchcock’s vulgar modernism. It’s a blatantly conceptual movie, self-reflexively concerned with voyeurism and movie history, the bridge from Soviet montage to Andy Warhol’s vacant stare, as well as a construction founded on the 20th-century idea of the metropolis as spectacle—or, more specifically, on the peculiar mixture of isolation and overstimulation the big city affords. Reveling in the simultaneity of the 8 million stories in the Naked City, “Rear Window” is the slyly alienated precursor of multiple narratives like “Short Cuts” or “Magnolia.” Read more.
Hitchcock often oversold “Rear Window” as an experience of “delicious terror,” but it’s also a subtle romantic comedy. The terror comes as much from the film’s claustrophobia (frequent Hitchcock cinematographer Robert Burks shot from dangerously low angles mostly in the confines of Jeff’s apartment) as it was in its suggestion of the inevitability of incidental invasions of privacy. Read more.