Skip to main content

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #103: Rear Window

We live in an age where voyeurism is not only accepted, but also sometimes encouraged thanks to social media tools that lets anybody share photos and videos of themselves to, well, anybody. The concept of peaking into someone else’s life is of course not new, as exemplified in Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Rear Window (1954) in which a wheelchair-bound man kills time by starring at his neighbours through binoculars. A slightly immoral pastime, but it gets him in a world of trouble when he believes he might have witnessed one neighbour disposing of a murder victim.

The concept is so genius and has been repeated so many times over the years that by the time I got the Rear Window DVD as a Christmas present along with a few other Hitchcock classics I already had a pretty good idea of how this story goes. Times have changed since 1954, but the movie’s concept still works and has been copied and/or parodied by everyone from Saturday Night Live to Tiny Toon Adventures. Of course to fully appreciate the spoof, it always helps to watch the classic that inspired it in the first place.

The character of L.B “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart) is already a bit of a voyeur to begin with, albeit a professional one, since he takes photos for a living. In an attempt to get a very good shot of a racetrack accident, he got as close as possible to the action. While the end result was indeed a spectacular shot, it also landed him in his Greenwich apartment with a broken leg. On the up side, he gets regular visit from his socialite girlfriend Lisa Fremont, played by Grace Kelly. If it’s a Hitchcock film, expect a beautiful blond.

Yet Jeff is bored because of his confinement, and since all of his neighbours have left their windows opened due to a heat wave he decides to observe their lives through his binoculars. He sees people of all walks of life, such as sculptors, piano players, single people looking for company, and various married couples. One of those couples is made up of a travelling jewellery salesman named Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) who has a bedridden wife.

Heat waves have a tendency to cause thunderstorms and during one such storm Jeff believes he hears disturbing sounds coming from Thorwald’s apartment. Later he watches Thorwald leave his apartment many times, sometimes carrying his sample case, and sometimes disposing of a large trunk. The sight of Thorwald cleaning up sharp instruments and the sudden disappearance of wife leads Jeff to believe Thorwald might have murdered her during that storm. Jeff tells his suspicions to Lisa, his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), and even contacts his friend Detective Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey) to open an official investigation. Of course they believe boredom has gotten the better of Jeff, especially since from what Doyle can find out Mrs. Thorwald left upstate with the trunk.

One of the beauties of the film is how for a while the audience does not know what to believe even if we see the same things Jeff sees. From his point of view it seems very obvious that something gruesome has occurred in his backyard, but everyone has a reasonable explanation for what he has seen through his binoculars. What Jeff should do is stop looking outside his window and instead should focus his attention on possibly building a life with Lisa. However, what if everyone is wrong and he is not just crying wolf?


In terms of production this is an old-fashioned studio movie, by which I mean it was shot entirely on a movie studio where an enormous set was built. Each of the apartments Jeff observes has their own little stories and characters, as though he were watching different TV channels. James Stewart was one of those actors who specialized in playing the everyman, which suggests we are all somewhat voyeuristic deep down and curiosity would probably lead us to stare at those windows ourselves were we in Jeff’s situations. The fact Jeff may be starring at a potential murderer serves as a pretty important if obvious warning: when you are spying on people, they just might stare back.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #70: Stand by Me

Another clear influence on Stranger Things, Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me (1986) portrays American kids from a lost era in which they could go on an adventure away from home. Nowadays if children go missing for more than an hour parents try to locate them using cell phone apps, but in the story written by Stephen King four boys in 1959 Oregon go walking in the woods during a long weekend to look for, of all things, a dead body. Their lives are sometimes at risk, they have no way of communicating with their parents, but they will definitely have a story to remember for the rest of their lives.
For many North Americans adults this movie fondly reminded them of a time in their childhood despite the inherent danger. Not so for me since, first of all, there was no time in my childhood when I could possibly go out of the house for more than three hours without my mom getting in her car to go look for me. The there is the fact that I spent a good chunk of my childhood living in Chile and Peru, an…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #77: Spartacus

Spartacus (1960) is an interesting movie in Stanley Kubrick's filmography because it doesn’t really feel like a Stanley Kubrick movie. I don’t exactly know why, but his signature style doesn’t seem to be present unlike in classics such as The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, or Dr. Strangelove. It does however feel like one of those big sword-and-sandals epics in which you have British thespians acting as Roman politicians with the occasional big battle sequence. In that respect it is spectacular and features Kirk Douglas at his best as the titular hero.
The story of the rebel slave Spartacus has inspired a bloody and sexy TV series (so far unseen by me, but I hear it’s great) and the story behind how it was made is one of those cases of life imitating art. The Bryan Cranston film Trumbo tells how screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted in Hollywood during the 1950s for his communist beliefs and had to rebel against the system by writing screenplays for cheap movies under a fake nam…

Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #79: The Thin Red Line

I once saw an interview in which Christopher Plummer said that what Terrence Malick needs is a writer. He was referring to his experience shooting The New World, which saw his role considerably reduced. The same happened to a much greater extent with Malick’s war movie The Thin Red Line (1998), which saw the screen time of many movie stars reduced to mere minutes amid a 170-minute running time. However you have to hand it to the guy: he knows how to make anything look beautiful, including the carnage of war.
Malick’s movie came out the same year as Saving Private Ryan, so I think that year I had my fill of ultra violent war films and was no too interested in seeing it. Sixteen years later I finally caught up to it on Netflix, but in hindsight the big screen might have been a better option since this is a very visual story. The plot is pretty loose, following one American soldier and sometimes some of his brothers in arms as they make their way through World War II in the Pacific theat…