It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly two months since Ponty’s #6 pick in our countdown of the Top Ten Best Films. A combination of Thanksgiving, Cyber Monday, and Ponty struggling through a gnarly sinus infection pushed back our foray into the halfway mark of his reviews until now. We also went into reviews of two classic Christmas films across three different authors, but now we’re back!
I grew up in a house full of Alfred Hitchcock. My mom has always been a big fan of the portly director, and issues of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine still clutter bookshelves and spare crannies all over my parents’ Queen Anne-style home (built in 1901!).
It’s a tad remarkable, then, that I have not (yet) considered any of the director’s films in my own list. That is a massive oversight on my part. Thanks for Ponty for expanding beyond my 1980s myopia with a classic Hitchcock gem.
As always, he delivers. Just reading his review reminds me of how intense this thriller is—and makes me eager to watch it again.
With that, here is Ponty’s review of 1954’s Rear Window:
Tina and I always said that if we won the lottery, we’d find a great country pile on the outskirts of a lovely little village, a good half mile away, and settle down in peace and quiet. We’re not unsociable types and do like contact with other people but only now and then. Having people, neighbours living so close is not our idea of heaven. Some people don’t mind. In fact, many people actively seek accommodation where they have other people close but that’s just not us.
Where we live at present, we have a small garden out front, with a hedge separating us from the street and other people and yet, despite this, you get dog walkers or random pedestrians walk past on occasion and look straight into our living room. Or they try to. We have a voile curtain on our window, which means that while neighbours try to look in, they can’t see anything. The point is that they try and I find that very weird indeed. What is it that some people are eager to see? Are they hoping to catch me on one of my morning jaunts into the kitchen, usually when I tend to wander straight out of bed to make a brew, with Tina yelling at me to put some clothes on? I guess that’d be something to gossip about, if it wasn’t for the fact that they’d have to wander right into our garden and literally peer through the window to see anything. Some people, though.
I’ve watched shows where people who live in skyscrapers have telescopes, not to look out at the wide horizons above their cities but to look into other apartments. I don’t believe that your average person in real life is as much the exhibitionist as your average film extra, but in this day and age, you never know. And that is the vision Jimmy Stewart has in my number 5 pick, Rear Window, my favourite of Alfred Hitchcock’s collected works.
Convalescing at home after a work injury leaves him with a broken leg, photographer L.B. Jefferies (Stewart) finds himself, in the absence of a camera, watching the lives of his neighbours, coming to the conclusion that something insiduous may be going on in the apartment of a man who lives directly opposite him. With the aid of his nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter) and girlfriend, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), he attempts to ascertain the disappearance of his neighbour’s wife. In his boredom, he watches a woman he nicknames Miss Lonelyhearts trying and struggling to get a date. He watches a dancer doing stretches in her room; an old couple sleeping on their fire escape, occasionally letting their dog run around the courtyard below by lowering it in a basket and raising it when he’s done his business; a composer writing music or throwing parties; and a newlywed couple. Eventually his sharp eyes fall on Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) who is behaving rather oddly and so, our mystery begins.
The main story here is the murder mystery. Who is Lars Thorwald? Where is his wife? Is there something going on or has Jefferies tedium got the better of him, his mind inventing a story for him to alleviate his current predicament? And yet, despite the fascination this one particular space holds for Jefferies, there are several other stories developing in other apartments, the windows of each thrown open, their lives played out to all within spitting distance. From where Jeffries sits, he can see virtually everything; the apartments to the front, on the left and right; the sidestreet that leads out into town. In many ways, it’s like looking at a doll’s house with animated inhabitants. Perfect for the way the plot unfolds. When Lisa enters Thorwald’s apartment, Jefferies watches in horror as Thorwald returns to the apartment, walking down the sidestreet on the left, entering the building and emerging outside his door at the top of the stairs, while Lisa is still seen in his bedroom on the right. It injects a thrill and anticipation, in this case of being discovered, that you wouldn’t get in another setting, certainly when it’s all being played before your eyes. The camera barely has to move. In this case, it’s one straight shot where in one event, you have Lisa searching an apartment and Thorwald returning home.
Modern filmmakers could learn a lot by returning to the classics. You don’t need new technology to define a film or scene and you don’t have to be too clever in how you get the shot. You just need to tell a story and have your audience gripped by what is happening on screen and Hitchcock managed this so well. There were no pretensions. He just knew how to tell a story.
The dynamics and development of the Jeffries/Fremont relationship were great too. Fremont, a wealthy socialite, has fallen in love with Jeffries and wants marriage but he doesn’t. He can be quite aloof with Fremont, thinking of her as either too good for him or that neither of their world’s mesh. However, he starts to see that there’s more to her than he originally thought, as she goes above and beyond to prove Thorwald’s guilt, putting herself at risk and Jeffries on tenterhooks. In short, if he wasn’t in love with her at the start of this film or thought her too prissy, he’s definitely in love with her at the end. Stella, his nurse, is the classic working class type: no nonsense, not afraid to speak her mind, feisty. She and Jeffries work perfectly together.
And when the dust has settled on one story, we start to see that with others. Does Miss Lonelyhearts find a connection? Is the composer happy with his new work? Well, you’ll have to find that out for yourself. Either way, you won’t be disappointed. This is Hitchcock at his best. He points the camera and asks you to enjoy what is unfolding before your eyes.