Beginner’s Guide to Alfred Hitchcock: Rear Window (1954)
Alfred Hitchcock can be an intimidating filmmaker. He made 53 feature films. About a third of those are stone cold classics, and the rest are immensely watchable, influential, and surprising. The thing is, where does one start? Psycho, his most well-known film? Start at the beginning? Because so much of Hitchcock has been paid homage to, parodied, and merely absorbed through pop culture osmosis, it’s a little hard to find a good starting point. In my opinion, the best film to start with is the 1954 film Rear Window.
Alfred Hitchcock’s career spanned almost fifty years. My favorite period in his career is the 1950s. The films in this period were his most glamorous, with the best stars, and some of his most delicately crafted sequences. Rear Window is probably Hitchcock’s most accessible film—it’s suspenseful, romantic, and funny, and boasts such memorably characters. The film stars James Stewart as adventure photographer L.B. Jeffries or “Jeff,” who is laid up at home with a broken leg. To pass the time, he watches his neighbors act out the little dramas in their lives. He’s visited by his fashion model girlfriend, Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly), and a wise-aleck insurance nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter). When Jeff witnesses a murder across the courtyard, he becomes obsessed with solving it—bringing in Lisa and Stella as well.
This is the second film directed by Alfred Hitchcock starring James Stewart. They previously made Rope together in 1948, and will go on to do The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956 and Vertigo in 1958. This is also Hitchcock’s second time working with Grace Kelly after Dial M for Murder in 1954 and before To Catch a Thief in 1955. Neither actor scored award nominations for their performances in Rear Window, though Grace Kelly did win an Oscar that year for The Country Girl. Thelma Ritter was a beloved, snarky character actress at the time. Wendell Corey and Raymond Burr, future Perry Mason, round out the cast.
Alfred Hitchcock scored an Oscar nomination for Best Director (he lost to Elia Kazan for On the Waterfront), and the Oscar-nominated screenplay by John Michael Hayes is adapted from the short story “It Had to Be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich. Hayes and Hitchcock worked together an additional three times (To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry, and The Man Who Knew Too Much). Rear Window is perhaps their best collaboration. The duo made numerous changes to the short story, including adding the romantic element between Jeff and Lisa, and making Jeff a photographer. Both of these changes really add layers to the film. Hitchcock isn’t just making a simple thriller. Through the film, Hitchcock is making a commentary on the experience of watching films itself. Jeff’s obsession with his neighbors recalls an audience member peering into lives of film characters, and his investigation into a murder is like someone trying to figure out the mystery at home (seems like Hitchcock predicted the Westworld “mystery box” becoming a cultural phenomenon).
The love story between Jeff and Lisa is also rife with social commentary. They are somewhat mismatched, but Lisa is head over heels for Jeff. The neighbors play out Jeff and Lisa’s romantic tension: Jeff thinks Lisa is like Miss Torso, a sexy dancer who entertains men at home. Lisa feels like Miss Lonelyhearts, a woman unlucky in love. Jeff’s stalled career reflects the songwriter with writer’s block. There are two married couples: one just married, unable to keep their hands off each other; one older, who bicker but have affection. Finally the Thorwalds, with an invalid wife driving a fed up husband to murder. Jeff is laid up, and his unwillingness to commit to Lisa drives her mad, so he sees himself as Mrs. Thorwald. But Jeff also fears that marriage to Lisa could only lead to her being nagging and shrewish, so maybe Lisa is the Mrs. Thorwald. Hitchcock allows for these interpretations to play out through his elegant plotting and rich characterization.
Alfred Hitchcock had a fear of the police after being “locked in jail” by his father as a child, so incompetent policemen or heroes on the run from the police are often recurring motifs in his films. In Rear Window, we have Wendell Corey as Det. Lt. Doyle, a friend of Jeff’s who assists in the investigation. Doyle is often skeptical of Jeff and Lisa’s theories. Modern viewers might find him a tad sexist when talking to Lisa. Objectively, he might have reason to doubt foul play; within the film he is essentially spoiling the party. It’s a thankless role, with little to do and few memorable lines.
For me, Rear Window provides an accessible entry point into the Hitchcock canon. It’s crowd-pleasing, and thematically rich. The film offers some dazzling performances from James Stewart and Grace Kelly, and skillful work behind the camera. Alfred Hitchcock doles out the clues to the mystery with restraint and glee, and throws in some social commentary, comedy, and romance to spice it up even further. Rear Window is a major Hitchcock classic, and it provides a solid glimpse into his legacy as a filmmaker.