Rear Window is not Hitchcock’s best film. There are any number of things to complain about. But it’s my favorite summer Hitchcock film. It’s possible to actually feel the heat and humidity even if you’re watching it in New England February. But watching it in July or August just after the sun goes down on a sweltering humid day is absolutely perfect. The mid-century middle-class New York City apartment with all the adjoining backyards spread out in front of the panoramic rear windows of the protagonist Jimmy Stewart who sits in a wheelchair with his leg in a cast provides the correct claustrophobic and uncomfortably hot environment for an irritable murderer and the amateur sleuth stalking him. Sweat drips off the actors and overheated residents try to beat the heat by sleeping on fire escapes or drinking cold drinks. Even the torrential rain doesn’t “cool things off it just makes the heat wet.”
The set-up is Jimmy Stewart as L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies, a famous magazine photographer who is convalescing with a broken leg that he earned by stepping in front of a racing car crash to get a great photo. Thelma Ritter is Stella, the nurse sent by his insurance company to watch over him. Grace Kelly is Jeff’s upper class, Upper East Side girlfriend Lisa Fremont who wants Jeff to settle down to a sedentary existence with her. Jeff also has an old Air Force buddy, Police Detective Lt. Thomas J. Doyle (played by Wendell Corey) who comes in really handy once murder is suspected. And finally there is the murder suspect and neighbor across the yard, Lars Thorwald played with a minimum of spoken lines by Raymond Burr.
The movie resembles a stage play with well-defined scenes and breaks. Each character is added to the mix in sequence and even the various parading neighbors are introduced and given their little scenes and acknowledgements. There’s the newlywed couple, the married couple with the little dog who sleep on the fire escape, the dancer “Miss Torso,” “Miss Lonely Hearts,” the composer, and the slightly crazy old sculptress. We even briefly meet Mrs. Thorwald early on in the show, but that doesn’t last. She’s the alleged victim.
The two plot elements that get twisted into a knot are Lisa attempting to solve the riddle of tying down Jeff and Jeff trying to prove that Thorwald killed his wife. In both of these endeavors Stella acts as a helper and Doyle seems to be a hindrance. Whenever the amateurs try to coax the real detective to bust in on Thorwald and gather up the evidence that they are sure must be “knee deep,” he reminds them of a silly house rule known as “due process” and of the New York State penal code in all eleven volumes that a judge would throw at him if he attempted to get a search warrant based on Jeff’s suspicions and Lisa’ feminine intuition.
I won’t spoil the story because it’s worth watching but I’ll just comment that the story moves along in a pleasant fantasy of mid-century New York City life filled with urban stereotypes and tropes even while the main characters perform the Hitchcock detective pantomime. It’s a lot of fun. And the actors are a pleasure to watch and listen to. I always especially enjoy Thelma Ritter’s quintessential working-class New York City accent and attitude.
Now for the down side. Biggest problem with the movie is trying to pretend that Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly are close in age. At one point, Jimmy Stewart takes off his shirt for an alcohol rubdown from his nurse and destroys any illusion that he is a young man, whereas Grace Kelly was a remarkably beautiful twenty-five-year-old at that time. I guess if they’d owned up to it in the story it wouldn’t be so jarring but at one point, Stella actually calls him a young man and that just explodes the suspension of disbelief for me with a snide snort. The other story element that jars for me is the subplot with Miss Lonely Hearts. I won’t go into the details but the whole subplot is a little too affected for my taste. And finally, there’s a song that becomes kind of the background theme for the romance aspect of the film and is finally played over the end of the last scene. I think it’s terrible. It’s so saccharine sweet that it almost turns my stomach when it plays us out. But those are the only faults. And they don’t amount to much compared to the fun that this movie provides.
See Rear Window the first time on a hot summer night. That should be like some kind of multi-sense version of surround sound. Highly recommended.