WARNING: The following article assumes the reader has seen the movie being discussed. It may likely include key plot points, spoilers, and references to the movie's ending.
Rear Window (1954)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
So Much More Than Just Its Famous Plot
I had seen this movie parodied so many times. This was the most memorable parody: an episode of "The Simpsons," in which Bart Simpson becomes incapacitated and relegates himself to spying on the next door neighbor, Ned Flanders. He is convinced that Flanders has murdered his wife, so he sends his sister Lisa to go to the house and investigate. In the end, it is proven that Bart let his imagination run away with him, and all that had happened was that Flanders had killed his wife's houseplant while she was on vacation.
This and various other shows have often satirized the famous plot of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, which features James Stewart as L.B. "Jeff" Jefferies, a man who is incapacitated and relegates himself to spying on his neighbors in the apartment complex across the courtyard. I watched the movie in anticipation of the plot, looking forward to how it would turn out. I think that's why it was able to surprise me. Rear Window offered me so much more than just its main storyline. I was joyed to find myself watching one incredibly wonderful movie.
One of the coolest surprises was the presence and performances of some great actors. Jimmy Stewart was so adept at playing the normal Joe, and here he's provided us with a sympathetic voyeur. With his leg broken, nowhere to go, and, perhaps most importantly, nothing resembling a TV to watch, Stewart's character Jeff watches the neighbors in their everyday lives. He doesn't see any harm in checking them out, and, in a sense, he feels that he is even watching over them. His nurse is the acerbic Stella, played effortlessly by Thelma Ritter. Stella and Jeff's commentary on the state of life provides great dialogue. And then there's Grace Kelly. What does one need to say about Grace Kelly? She is such a glamourous presence in this movie. She makes her character, Lisa Carol Fremont, as classy as a woman can be, and yet still seem down-to-earth. Her character is perfect: she's the woman who wants all the pretty things, is true to her love, and harbors a curious and possibly reckless girl inside.
Another cool surprise in the movie was the construction of its soundtrack. Instead of the usual brilliance of Bernard Herrman, we are treated to a background "score" of the natural sounds of the neighborhood. The music is usually provided by one of the neighbors across the way, a musician who often sits at his piano and plays what comes in to his head. When he's not playing in the evening, he often has a phonograph pouring out the bopping tunes of a jazz number. This usage of the music works fantastically. When no music is playing, just the sounds coming from outside are heard: cars driving on the street beyond the apartment building or distant snippets of random conversations. Each piece of background noise or music fits the mood of the moment: the piano for when Jeff and Lisa converse, the jazz for the adventurous moment when Lisa and Stella do personal investigating, and then just silence and some street noises for the tension-raising moments. It's masterful.
The best surprise about Rear Window to me was that the movie was really less about the mystery plot than it was about what was going on around it: life! The murder plot provides the base and suspense for the story, but it's played out in contrast to all the other interesting things that are going on with the neighbors. We get to know each of them as Jeff does, and we know them by the nicknames he gives them. There's "Miss Torso," a dancer who seems to entertain a lot of men-friends. The musician struggles with his craft day-in and night-out. Poor "Miss Lonelyhearts" is starting to let isolation and loneliness get to her. The husband of a couple of newlyweds soon learns what domestic life with his wife might really consist of. A couple and their dog fight the heat in their own unique way. Just one apartment complex is teeming with life and all its different aspects. One of the tenants draws so much attention to the viewer because it looks as if he's murdered his wife, but the other neighbors give it all a broader perspective. Even as we can dwell on the possible evil of the event, look all around: life goes on. Even as we live in our own private isolations, look around: there are others doing the same, day-to-day, just like us. The dog owner's plea to the neighborhood, I believe, illustrates the real theme of the movie. "What kind of neighbors are you?", she asks. She laments that they're so isolated that they can't even watch out for what may have happened to one neighbor's beloved pet. The murder proves really to be a sideshow; true resolution comes at the end of the movie when we see what becomes of the other friends we've made throughout the course of the film.
And the film has yet one other surprise to share. In this day and age, when we have become so used to expecting a twist ending, or an ending in which our suspicions of what's been going usually get turned upside-down when we find out the truth, the biggest surprise in Rear Window may be the fact that our heroes assumptions were exactly correct! Thorwald (Raymond Burr, of all people!) really did kill his wife, chop her up, and spread her body parts about the city! I had been conditioned by the numerous parodies to believe that the truth was going to be something our heroes would have never suspected, possibly even something harmless, but, nope, they were right the whole time. Sometimes it's scarier to find out that your crazy suspicions were confirmed all along; sometimes you don't want to be right.
Rear Window has a world of perspectives and insights to offer. Jeff and Lisa talk about their relationship, and the roles they expect from each other. You want them to get together, but it is obvious that some kind of compromise must be made. It's identifiable. There's also Lisa making the point of how sad it is that she and her spying boyfriend may find it disappointing to find out that perhaps Thorwald didn't kill his wife, that perhaps there is a rational explanation to it all; that it's pretty pathetic to see how much they prefer such sensationalism to the humdrum of everyday life. There's Wendell Corey as Detective Doyle, acting as the voice of reason and conscience that we all would usually hear in our own heads. We need such reasoning to keep us grounded. And when there isn't this philosophical and conversational stuff going on, we're treated with suspense and an ending that is a real squirmer.
This is my favorite Hitchcock movie. It is so much more than its murder plot, and that in itself is its own best observation. Life is so much more than some of the things we find ourselves fixating on. Rear Window encourages us to take a look out of our own windows once in a while and try to notice everything that goes on around us. What a great movie.
©Jeffrey Chen, May 29, 2000