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.