In just under two months of being quarantined due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have found many ways of passing the time, and technology has certainly helped with that.
That is one of the main reasons why a story like Rear Window would not be able to be told today. There would be too much else for a protagonist to do in order to combat the boredom.
It isn’t that L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) entirely wants to watch his neighbors: it’s that he has nothing else he can do. After a freak accident that has left him in a wheel chair for weeks with a broken leg, the photographer Jeffries is forced into his own form of social distancing during the hotter days of the year when everyone has their windows open. His only real visitors are his caretaker Stella (Thelma Ritter) and his high-class girlfriend Lisa (the immortal beauty Grace Kelly). It is Stella who worries more of Jeffries’ spying activity: “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms.”, she states.
Despite all this, he continues his observations. Ms. Torso the ballet dancer, the single Ms. Lonely Hearts, the struggling songwriter, and the newly married couple are some of the neighbors he tries to keep up with at a distance. Suspicion begins to truly arise when the salesman (Raymond Burr) across the courtyard has had events occur that result in the salesman’s invalid wife no longer being present. Jeffries surmises that murder has occurred.
The whole film is told in Jeffries’ shoes (or cast, as it were). We can only piece together certain bits of dialogue that certain neighbors speak (sometimes drowned out by the musician in his practice sessions). We never look out the window as audience members, but as Jeffries. If a naïve filmmaker remade the film nowadays, there may be scenes outside the window when Lisa or Jeff’s old friend Detective Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey) go out to investigate. That would ruin the intimacy that the audience has made with the main character, and make us care far less for him and his situation.
Of course, most directors would not even dream of trying to improve upon works from the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. I have yet to discover another director who was better at hijacking the psyche of their audience (which, he once said, should be played “like a piano”). The audience is a marionette puppet, and he masterfully controls the strings.
He also was, I feel, horribly underrated when it came to comedy: Hitch’s talk show appearance on The Dick Cavett Show is still funny nearly 50 years later. In Rear Window, the comedy (mainly given by Thelma Ritter’s character) reveals his sense of humor as nothing short of unique, though some may call it an acquired taste.
He knew also how to use his stars as well. With James Stewart, Hitch used Jimmy’s “every man” persona (which Stewart was most known for along with his supreme kindness off screen) to make us feel even more for the disabled photographer. The director was also a fan of using blondes in leading roles, and here he gives Grace Kelly one of the most sensational character entrances in any film ever made.
Despite all that, he is still known as having been difficult to work with if you were an actor (most notably Tippi Hedren). He once said that Walt Disney had the best cast system: “If he doesn’t like an actor, he just tears him up.” (Remember what I said about his humor?)
Parents, when Hitchcock films were released, there was always talk about how much “sexual content” was allowed on the screen (which increased more in his later films, especially 1972’s Frenzy). Rear Window is rather mild, with only shots of the ballet dancer in revealing clothing being watched from a distance. I would say middle school at above.
If someone told me they had never seen a film by Hitch and wanted to start a binge watching session, I would tell them to start with Rear Window, which I would easily rank in his top three or four films he has ever made. Toward the end, when the shades of the window are drawn down, we realize that we are doing what all great movies make us do: stand outside our lives and look in.