Rear Window


My copy is part of the Alfred Hitchcock-Limited Edition-The Essentials Collection.

The movie is described on the back cover as:

James Stewart and Grace Kelly star in this voyeuristic masterpiece about a photographer who becomes obsessed with watching his neighbors and discovers a possible murder.

My immediate thought as the opening credits begin: the jazz score is pretty cool. There’s a hint of classic movie score feel to it, but it’s jazzy enough to make it hip. I wonder if a copy of just the score is available.

The credits are shown over a shot from the inside of our main setting with the window blinds going up as if a curtain rising before a play. Let the show begin!

Having watched the movie many times and being aware of its background by having read up on a few sources, I have so many initial thoughts after seeing just the first three shots post- introductory credits:

  • I’m aware of how the apartment building/courtyard/street is one big set, and I’m amazed at how real and complete it is as, in the first shot, we pan around counter-clockwise. Every detail for such a setting seems to have been considered as we see a stray cat in the courtyard, and birds fluttering around and gathered up on a roof, and withered plant life, and a dog tied to a post in an alleyway. It’s obviously morning, and we see the different activities neighbors are involved in mornings: shaving, preparing breakfast, just waking, or sleeping in, as Stewart’s character is.

  • We learn that a heat wave is going on: a close-up of a thermometer shows it’s over 90° already this morning, some neighbors are sleeping on their balcony, children are seen chasing a water truck down the street (I wonder how long that street was), a bead of sweat is seen running down sleeping Stewart’s forehead.
  • In the third tracking shot we learn Stewart’s character’s name, L.B. Jefferies, as signed on his leg cast, his occupation as a photographer, and probably how his leg was broken by seeing a broken camera and some framed action photos.

… Again, I’m amazed at all Hitchcock was able to teach us in only three shots.

We also learn a lot from the first dialogue scene. Stewart’s character Jefferies (“Jeff”) receives a call from his employer and we have confirmed Jeff’s occupation and the reason for his broken leg. We also learn that he’s a bachelor in no rush to marry and that he’s spent the past few weeks recuperating in his apartment, bored, with nothing to do but watch his neighbors.

Jeff is shown doing this while on his phone call, and we witness the goings-on of some of the neighbors: the dancer (“Miss Torso”) preparing another meal, the musician composing, the old woman annoyed by Miss Torso’s music, the salesman returning home to his nagging wife. Hitchcock described all this in Hitchcock/Truffaut as ‘a group of little stories that mirror a small universe’. I like how Ty Burr, in The Best Old Movies for Families, describes it: “every one of the windows in the apartment complex is its own mini-movie”.

A funny early scene is when Jeff’s broken leg itches, causing him to reach into the cast with a backscratcher. His panicked look replaced by his look of relief … 😁

Thelma Ritter’s character Stella, Jeff’s nurse, has some of the best lines in this movie:

(Putting a thermometer in Jeff’s mouth) “See if you can break a hundred.”

(Discussing economic collapse) “When General Motors has to go to the bathroom ten times a day, the whole country’s ready to let go.”

Stella: “You’ve got a hormone deficiency.”
Jeff: “How can you tell from a thermometer?”
Stella: “Those bathing beauties you’ve been watching haven’t raised your temperature one degree in a month.”

“Look, Mr. Jefferies, I’m not an educated woman, but I can tell you one thing: When a man and a woman see each other and like each other, they oughta come together, wham, like a couple of taxies on Broadway.”

“Intelligence. Nothing has caused the human race so much trouble as intelligence.”

… a whole blog post could be written on Stella’s sayings.

Jeff is shown napping, and a shadow covers him as someone is approaching him sleeping in his wheelchair. Being a Hitchcock film, a first-time viewer might expect that this is a danger situation. But we then see a close-up of Grace Kelly leaning in to kiss Stewart. It’s a great introduction to Grace’s character Lisa Fremont; it reminds me of the zoom-in introduction to John Wayne’s character in Stagecoach.

I have to say that I’m not one to fawn over a character in a movie. But Grace’s performance here is pretty great. Her introduction of herself as she turns on three lamps in the room:

(lamp one) “Lisa …”
(lamp two) “Carol …”
(lamp three) “Fremont”  😊

… I think this is Grace’s best movie performance.

Of each of the ‘mini-movies’ of Jeff’s neighbors, the one of the woman referred to as Miss Lonelyhearts is the one that I find most interesting. She’s a single woman who’s very lonely, and, in our introduction of her story, we see her setting a table for two. She then walks to open her apartment door, although we can see that there’s no one waiting there. She acts as if she has a guest, a date, and she mimes as if inviting him in, taking his hat, receiving a kiss on the cheek, pouring wine … and she then breaks down crying because she’s actually alone. What I find most interesting about her part of Rear Window is the reactions of our main characters to her story. While Jeff and Lisa watch the scene just described and initially seem sympathetic, they’re quickly distracted by activities of surrounding neighbors. This happens often in the movie, situations of concern regarding Miss Lonelyhearts being quickly overshadowed by other happenings, some not as serious. I see this as evidence of Hitchcock’s well-known wicked sense of humor.

I think a nice detail is that, just before we notice that there’s trouble in the living situation of the movie’s antagonist, among the background sounds of the neighborhood, we can hear a siren of, I think, a fire truck. It kind of sets the stage for what’s to come ⚠

While Jeff is watching those two just-mentioned neighbor moments, Lisa is preparing a meal for herself and Jeff, and Jeff makes slightly rude comments about their relationship as he talks about what they see across the courtyard. This is followed by a scene where Jeff and Lisa discuss the difficulty of being together with their widely-different individual lifestyles. These scenes are uncomfortable to watch, in my opinion, because I’ve already come to like both characters, and I want them to be happy together. It’s one of my least-favorite scenes in the movie: Jeff seems to be acting too rude to Lisa, and Lisa seems to be acting too stubborn to accept Jeff’s reasoning. I’m no film analyst (and I’m definitely no analyst of relationships), but I do see how these scenes play an important part in the development of the story of their relationship, but they’re not my favorite part of the movie.

The next few scenes have almost no dialogue. They occur overnight as Jeff dozes off-and-on while watching his neighbors: we hear what was probably the antagonist’s crime being committed, a light rain starts and catches the neighbor couple that sleeps on their balcony (a funny scene), the dancer and the musician are each seen returning to their homes after evenings out, the antagonist suspiciously leaves and returns a few times. This all happens with no dialogue but only ambient noise and Stewart’s reaction-acting to set the mood. It’s masterful moviemaking, evidence of Hitchcock’s genius, in my opinion.

Another of my favorite scenes (I have many favorite scenes 🙂) occurs the next morning. The couple who sleep on the balcony have rigged up a pulley system to lower a basket containing their small dog from the third floor to the courtyard. I dig animals in movies, and I like that the dog patiently waits in the basket as he’s lowered to the pavement.

Stella: “You’d think the rain would have cooled things off. All it did was make the heat wet.”

Jeff (referring to Miss Torso): “She sure is the ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ girl.”
Stella: “Yeah, she’ll wind up fat, alcoholic, and miserable.”

A cool effect occurs when Stewart’s character decides to commit to his investigation. When he uses binoculars, and also when he uses a long-focus lens, to spy on the criminal, the building across the courtyard is seen reflected in the lens glass. Movie posters and publicity photos often use reflections in lenses to show significant details. It’s interesting to see such detail in an active scene.

And now a scene that includes the pet owner whistling for the little dog and his coming to his basket, climbing in, and being towed up to their third-floor apartment. Animals in films are cool 🐶

That scene segues into what I consider Stewart and Kelly’s best scene in the movie. It starts with the two of them kissing, Jeff and Lisa having reunited and made up. But Jeff is obviously distracted by what he thinks has happened across the way. He speculates about the crime and again uses his binoculars. Lisa’s frustrated , not just by not having Jeff’s full attention but also by his spying actions, and she pulls his wheelchair around away from the window, and she scolds him. They argue a bit … and then Lisa’s look changes as her attention is caught by something she notices past Jeff, out the window, and across the courtyard. She slowly stands and asks Jeff to tell her again all his suspicions, she having now been convinced a crime has been committed.

A funny scene occurs the next morning. Stella has served Jeff his breakfast, but he’s not able to eat it while she shares her gruesome thoughts about the crime.

I’m not a fan of Doyle, Jeff’s detective friend who comes over to help Jeff with his investigation. Although the actor’s performance is adequate, it can only pale in comparison to the performances given by Stewart, Kelly, and Ritter.

Another chapter of the Miss Lonelyhearts story occurs. She’s shown bringing to her apartment a young man she’s met. She serves him and herself drinks, but, too soon after, he gets too friendly with her, causing her to slap him and throw him out of her apartment, and she again collapses in tears, all while party guests at another apartment sing “Mona Lisa”. Jeff and Lisa again idly watch, although this does cause them to question the ethics of their spying activity. But neither lifts a finger to come to Miss Lonelyhearts aid. Hitchcock was a cruel man 😈

Doyle appears in a scene that’s my earliest memory of Rear Window. Lisa has served snifters of brandy, and the three characters swirl their brandy as they discuss the case. Many years ago my mom was watching Rear Window, and I, a young boy, was kind of watching along while doing something else I thought was more interesting, like reading a book. At this scene, I didn’t understand why the people on the screen were swirling around their drinks, and I asked Mom about it. I don’t remember what her explanation was, but my takeaway was that it was a grown-up activity and not anything I’d take part in for many years. I didn’t realize at the time what movie Mom was watching, and I was pleasantly surprised when I saw this scene again when I discovered Rear Window for myself many years later.

The brandy scene also adds dimension to the character of Lisa. She started off as, although intriguing, too much a society girl, a bit superficial and too concerned with image and class status, in my opinion. But almost immediately after believing Jeff’s suspicions, she becomes cooler: in the next scene, she’s gone over to the criminal’s building, looked up the address and name of the persons involved, and called Jeff with that information. It’s like she’s now willing to leave her high society position to come down to our level of the investigation of the crime. But it’s not like she’s now a superhero. During the brandy scene, she shares her speculations about the crime, but each one is explained away by Doyle’s detective reasoning. Actually, Lisa is kind of made to look foolish in this scene. It’s like she’s not the brains but the brawn of the operation. But she wins, in my opinion, when, after Doyle leaves, she closes the blinds, walks by Jeff, shows him her overnight bag, and says, “Preview of coming attractions”.

Although Jeff and Lisa were convinced by Doyle that no crime had been committed, a small tragedy in the courtyard changes their minds again. What they see is the criminal sitting in a darkened apartment, smoking a cigarette, only the glow of the lit end visible. It’s kind of an eerie sight, but it’s cool that we’re allowed to understand what’s happening without too much explanation; we’re able to piece it all together because of a similar scene earlier. It makes me think of another situation where we’re allowed to discern what’s going on: Earlier there’s a scene where a character lays out on his couch to take a nap, but we can’t see the couch because it’s just below our line of sight. In a later scene, we see the same view, but with puffs of smoke rising from one end. Obviously the man is again reclining on the couch and is smoking a cigarette. I appreciate that Hitchcock doesn’t oversimplify everything but trusts that his audience is intelligent enough to follow along.

The investigation really picks up now when Jeff, Lisa, and Stella are together in Jeff’s apartment considering how to prove the crime. Lisa’s ideas are again inadequate, but she again wins over any doubters by her willingness to act on what they know. My favorite of all of Grace’s scenes is when she’s taking a message to the criminal’s building and she stops and gives a little wave to Jeff from across the way. And, after almost being seen by the villain, she returns to Jeff’s apartment, and the admiring look on his face show that he’s overcome also any doubt he had about her being the right girl for him.

I dig the three-dimensional nature of the scene where Lisa delivers the note. We see her at the end of the alleyway, waving to Jeff. We don’t see her enter the building or ascend to the second story. But we see her come into the far end of the hallway and quietly walk up toward us, to the criminal’s door. She bends down, and, while we can’t see her slip the note under the apartment door, we see the criminal’s reaction to it: going to the door, opening it, and looking down the hallway, having just missed seeing Lisa. From Lisa’s entering the hallway to her leaving, everything’s seen in one static shot, Lisa’s actions visible through a window on the left side of the screen and the villain’s reaction through a window on the right. Masterful moviemaking in my opinion.

The ‘3D’ action continues. We see the villain, after having read the note, go down the hallway after Lisa, and, simultaneously, we see Lisa on the next floor down come up that hallway to the courtyard. She hides just outside the doorway until she hears the criminal come back up the second-story hallway and out onto the balcony above her, causing her to run back down the first-floor hallway. I’m no film student, but I dig when film takes advantage of all directions in scenes: up and down, left and right, front and back. And I dig how the Rear Window set is not just a façade but has depth and dimension; I wish I could have toured it.

During this action, we see another chapter, probably the most significant, in the Miss Lonelyhearts story. After Lisa leaves the scene across the courtyard, Stella notices Miss Lonelyhearts pouring out a large handful of sleeping pills, get herself a glass of water, and sit holding a Bible. But, while Stella and Jeff start discussing what such a quantity of pills could mean, Lisa bursts into Jeff’s apartment, after avoiding being noticed by the criminal, and Jeff and Stella are distracted from Miss Lonelyheart’s situation. Actually, our attention is also turned and mostly kept away from her and onto the main investigation. There is a quick cutaway while Jeff, Lisa, and Stella are planning their next move, where we’re allowed to see Miss Lonelyhearts letting down the blinds in her apartment, but nothing is said by our main characters about it because they probably didn’t notice it.. A few minutes later Jeff sees, through the blinds, Miss Lonelyhearts sitting to write a letter, and he comments that Stella was wrong about the sleeping pills. But a few more minutes after that, at the same time as one of the most critical scenes of the movie, Stella notices that her assumption was correct when Miss Lonelyhearts is ready to take the sleeping pills. Stella and Jeff are calling the police to intervene when Miss Lonelyhearts stops due to the actions of a tenant in a nearby apartment. What’s cool is that Hitchcock had this other activity occurring in the background throughout most of what we’ve been witnessing. The Miss Lonelyhearts story isn’t over yet, but, despite not being our main focus, it still has a lot of emotional effect.

Another favorite scene is when Stella and Lisa first mention taking impulsive action in the investigation:

Stella: “Let’s go down and find out what’s buried in the garden.”

Lisa: “Why not? I’ve always wanted to meet [the victim].”

Jeff: “What are you two talking about …?”

Stella: “You got a shovel?”

Jeff: “Of course I don’t have a shovel.”

Stella: “Probably one in the basement.”

Lisa: “Jeff, if you’re squeamish, just don’t look.”

Even though Jeff stops them before arranging matters to keep them safe, we see that these are brave women of action.

This is mostly evident in Lisa’s decision to climb up the fire escape and into the criminal’s apartment. She’s searching for evidence when we notice that the criminal has returned home and is coming up the hallway to his apartment. The suspense is heightened by our seeing Jeff and Stella’s nervously watching this take place; the camera angle of their reactions is from beside and a bit low, looking up at them … I don’t know why, but this makes them seem more anxious and the whole scene more suspenseful. I’ve never fully understood how camerawork affect scenes, but these filmmakers obviously did.

Not as immediately evident, there are additional moments that add to what I’ve been referring to as the ‘three-dimensional’ nature of the film. Lisa’s in the criminal’s apartment, has just found the evidence she was looking for, and is ready to leave. But she stops before opening the door to exit the apartment. We see that the criminal is approaching the apartment door. Lisa must have heard him coming, so she doesn’t exit. We don’t hear him coming up the hallway; we’re in Jeff’s apartment across the courtyard, and other noise (street and city noises, talk and music from other apartments) prevent us from hearing his footsteps.

Lisa runs back through the apartment into the bedroom and hides somewhere out of sight of our view. As we’re looking in the bedroom window, we see reflected in the open window the criminal entering the apartment. And, after entering the bedroom and noticing that someone’s been looking through his things, he turns, and his body language tell us that he’s found Lisa. Again, a reflection in an open window shows us what’s happening as Lisa backs out of the room away from the criminal. Her actions and gestures show that she’s trying to explain what she’s doing there, but we have difficulty hearing what she’d saying because of music that’s playing in another apartment. And when the criminal grabs Lisa and they struggle, her calls to Jeff for help are at the volume expected in this setting. I’m fascinated with how the window reflections and the sound and volume (or lack of it) add to the dimensions of this film.

Well, the police arrive, and Lisa is arrested. But, while arranging for Stella to bail her out and also explaining to Doyle over the phone what’s happened, Jeff loses track of the criminal: after Doyle’s call, Jeff looks across to the criminal’s apartment, and the lights are all off. He soon realizes that the criminal is coming around to Jeff’s apartment.

Hitchcock has described how he employed a few special effects in the scene where the criminal meets with Jeff. A color effect is used when Jeff tries defending himself when the criminal arrives. And as they struggle, neighbors hear and come out of their apartments; Hitchcock has mentioned having their reaction shots sped up a little to heighten anxiety. And some kind of superimposed technique is obviously used at the end of the struggle. It’s mostly effective.

I say mostly because I’m reminded of a time many years ago when I watched this with a friend, and he commented that the sped up and the superimposed shots looked funny to him. We were watching this on laserdisc (remember laserdiscs? 🙂), and my friend kept rewinding and fast-forwarding over these shots, and we couldn’t stop laughing at how silly they looked. Kinda ruined that part of the movie for me now ☹

Well, the crime is solved, and the criminal is caught, and the final scene is shown. It’s similar to the first scene in that it pans over the apartments across the courtyard. We receive closure in the stories of Miss Lonelyhearts, the musician, the dog owners, Miss Torso, the newlyweds. We see Jeff asleep again in his wheelchair. And we see Lisa reading a book about the Himalayas and dressed casually, not in a usual designer dress, but wearing jeans. The adventure has obviously affected her … but it hasn’t completely changed her: seeing that Jeff is asleep, she puts down the book and picks up one of her fashion magazines. And the blinds are drawn closed. The End.

Is it obvious how much a fan I am of Rear Window? It’s definitely my favorite of Hitchcock’s films and one of my favorites of all movies 😁

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