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Rear Window

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Rear Window

Starring: James Stuart, Grace Kelly
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Rated: PG
RunTime: 112 Minutes
Release Date: September 1954
Genres: Drama, Mystery, Suspense, Classic


*Also starring: Georgine Darcy, Judith Evelyn, Ross Bagdasarian, Frank Cady, Sara Berner, Irene Winston, Raymond Burr, Thelma Ritter



Review by Dragan Antulov
4 stars out of 4

Cinema as an art form owes its popularity and very existence to the fact that human beings tend to like experiencing things, people and situations they are not likely to encounter in their normal lives. That natural curiosity becomes especially appealing in situations that don't require physical contact nor have any direct consequences. That lack of immediate contact or consequences is often enough to turn some banal, ordinary images and situations into interesting experiences. This psychological phenomenon was until recently branded as nothing more than sexual anomaly called "voyeurism". In modern world, success of tabloids and reality TV shows like BIG BROTHER indicate that voyeuristic tendencies have more universal appeal and that they couldn't be brushed off as mere sexual perversion. One of the cinema authors who understood that and based some of his greatest films on it is Alfred Hitchcock. REAR WINDOW, his 1954 thriller, often cited as one of the greatest film ever made, could be seen as some kind of ode to voyeurism.

The film is based on the story by Cornell Woolrich and screenplay by John Michael Hayes. Plot takes place in one Greenwhich Village apartment, occupied by L.B. "Jeff" Jeffries (played by James Stewart), adventurous photographer who broke his left leg while trying to make an action shot during the auto races. Now he is wheelchair-bound in his little Greenwich Village apartment. The only form of entertainment comes in the form of rear window, which provides excellent view to the apartments surrounding the courtyards. Because of summer heat and lack of air conditioning, most of the windows are open and shades never closed, so Jeff can watch private lives of his neighbours almost all the time. This provides insight into many real life dramas, including unhappy marriage between jeweller Lars Thorwald (played by Raymond Burr) and his nagging bed- ridden wife. That drama becomes most interesting after Mrs. Thorwald disappears, and Jeff is soon convinced that her husband murder had killed her and began disposing the body. His old friend and police detective Lieutenant Thomas J. Doyle (played by Wendell Corey) doesn't share Jeffries' suspicions and demands more proofs before he could launch the official investigation. On the other hand, Lisa Carol Fremont (played by Grace Kelly), glamorous fashion consultant and Jeff's love interest, and his nurse Stella (played by Thelma Ritter) are more open-minded and volunteer to help him in his gathering of evidence.

REAR WINDOW was made by Hitchcock during the zenith of his career - 1950s and early 1960s - time when he became object of worship among film critics and established cult following he enjoys until this day. This film clearly demonstrates why Hitchcock enjoys such reputation. Like in many of his classic thrillers of that period, relatively simple mystery plot is opportunity for Hitchcock to deal with some more interesting topics like alienation or aberrant sexuality. Actually, this film explores sexual themes with boldness quite unusual for 1950s standards. Many of the real life dramas that entertain the protagonist explicitly or implicitly deal with twisted sexuality - newlywed young man (played by Rand Harper) must deal with his wife's sexual insatiability; Miss Lonely Heart (played by Havis Davenport) can't express her own sexuality; Miss Torso (played by Georgine Darcy) is an exhibitionist; couple who sleeps on fire escape (played by Sara Berner and Frank Cady) uses their dog as surrogate for children, implicitly suffering from sterility; struggling songwriter (played by Ross Bagdarasian) is suffering from writer's block which could be read as metaphor for impotence. Even the protagonists have problems that could be viewed as sexual - Jeff, apart from his obvious voyeurism, is also faced with impotence, while his glamorous girlfriend might be viewed as cold, distant and frigid. Hitchcock, whose best film were dealing with various forms of sexual aberrations, explored not single, but many of such phenomena.

Another Hitchcock's trademark in his golden phase was inclination towards experiment. REAR WINDOW represents exactly one of such occasions when he decided to use unconventional structure of film. Entire plot takes place in a single room, and the audience is able to witness only events seen and heard by the protagonist. To make an interesting, exciting film in such circumstances might represent unsolvable problem for any less experienced director, but Hitchcock managed to produce not only one of the best films of his career, but also one of the most successful experiments in history of cinema. Secret of his success was in superb use of editing and clever manipulation of viewer's expectations - suspense is gradually increased through seemingly banal events of everyday life. Voyeuristic effect is increased with Hitchcock's wise decision not to use Franz Waxman's original music except in credits. Such music would be too distracting, and Hitchcock finds alternative in radios which play popular 1950s songs in the background - these songs sometimes can be used as ironic comment on the plot, but they mostly add to the utterly realistic atmosphere of the film. While today's filmmakers would make this film cheap by shooting on location, Hitchcock was fortunate to enjoy benefits of the largest indoor set in history of Hollywood. Thus the film could be meticulously planned up to the most insignificant detail, and REAR WINDOW is therefore, in strictly technical sense, one of the most perfect films in history of cinema.

Another Hitchcock's trademark is ability to extract the best out of actors at his disposal. One of such actors was James Stewart, then in the latter stage of his career, when he successfully transformed his all-American on-screen personality in order to play darker, imperfect and more complex characters. His Jeff is just one of such characters - when we meet him, he has already established himself as irresponsible adrenaline junkie, and his reluctance to burden himself with permanent relationship makes him even less appealing. His actions in the film are at first caused by boredom, but afterwards his crusade against potential murderer is nothing more than an excuse to satisfy his more down-to-earth voyeuristic impulses. Until the truth is discovered in the end of film, we can't be sure whether an innocent man might suffer because of Jeff's boredom, voyeurism and too much imagination. Grace Kelly, another great Hitchcockian actress, again shows that she could be more than just a pretty face. Her role of stunningly beautiful, glamorous, but distant and cold woman become more complex when Lisa Fremont becomes infected with her boyfriend's voyeurism and adrenaline addiction. It can be said for Thelma Ritter, talented supporting actress whose character of preaching nurse goes through similar transformation. Wendell Corey as Jeff's sceptical friend is also good, as well as Raymond Burr as down-to-earth but therefore even more menacing figure of potential murderer.

The only possible argument against REAR WINDOW as perfect film might be found in Hitchcock compromising his original idea and allowing some scenes not to be shot from Jeff's window. But this little and unnecessary nit-pick shouldn't deprive REAR WINDOW of well-deserved position among the best thriller ever made.

Copyright 2000 Dragan Antulov

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