There are many films that have been written about Hollywood, but none have done a better job of exploring the relationship between the film viewer and the film than the absolutely brilliant 1954 Rear Window.
The story has James Stewart (playing L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies) as a photo-journalist with his entire left leg in a cast, toe to hip, stuck for two months in his Greenwich Village apartment during a hot summer. Day by day he sits, bored, watching his neighbors through his window with binoculars, from the barely-clad ballet dancer Miss Torso to the sad Miss Lonelyhearts, to the songwriter and newlyweds.
More ominously, however, is Lars Thorwald (played perfectly by Raymond Burr) as the angry man across the courtyard who gets into fight after fight with his wife and then she mysteriously vanishes. Did he finally get fed up and kill her? Did Jefferies witness a murder?
In Rear Window, Stewart plays both the armchair detective, the nosy neighbor and a surrogate for all of us sitting in the theater watching the screen and sneaking into the lives of the people up there on the big screen, the flickering shadows on the wall.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt a bit that Grace Kelly (as media darling and cover girl Lisa Carol Fremont) is his fianceé and is an absolute vision of loveliness. In fact, the scene where we first see her is, in my mind, one of the most beautifully filmed moments in all of cinema. She’s breathtakingly stunning, and director Alfred Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks both know it.
When we watch a film, do we see what we think we see, or do we see what we want to see? Are films a peek behind the scenes of reality or are they their own reality?
As Jefferies’ housekeeper Stella (as played by the great character actor Thelma Ritter) says early in the film: “Mr. Jefferies, we’ve become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.”
This is probably one of my all time favorite films. It says a lot about the voyeur in all of us! We are just as interested in watching these people’s fictional lives on screen as Jefferies is in watching his neighbor. Hitchcock films are so refreshing because he is a puppeteer and you have to just give into his films and let him control your thoughts, feelings, and emotions for 2 hours. Most directors aren’t capable of achieving that.