1954 / Best Director

Film #605: Rear Window (1954)

I feel in quite a few of my recent posts in this blog I’ve been disparaging about films that have been primarily set in one location as I’ve found them fairly static. To be fair this assessment is often apt, especially when the film is based on a play, but occasionally a movie based all in the same set can still be thrilling. That’s certainly true of a number of films directed by Hitchcock not least his masterpiece Rear Window; which is almost entirely set within the confines of the flat of James Stewart’s injured photographer L.B. Jefferies, best known to all his friends as Jeff.

As I mentioned in my last post, Hitchcock is perfect at building up suspense and in the case of Rear Window the tension is built up the mundane nature of Jeff’s situation. Confined to his apartment after injuring himself at work, Jeff has taken to staring out of his window at the various characters in the building over the street in order to stave off boredom. Jeff has even created names for his neighours including the sad single woman ‘Miss Lonelyheart’, the aspiring ballerina ‘Miss Torso’ and the pianist ‘The Composer’. Jeff’s only visitors to the flat are his insurance company nurse the formidable Stella and his gorgeous girlfriend Lisa who feels that her other half should stop trotting the globe to settle down with her. This being a Hitchcock film, Rear Window doesn’t stay mundane for long as Jeff feels like he’s spotted a murder after he notices salesman Lars Thorwald acting suspiciously and leaving his apartment several times during one evening. Jeff voices his suspicions to Lisa and Stella who both have their own reasons for believing him and he enlists his detective friend Tom Doyle to investigate. However, Doyle can’t find anything to incriminate Thorwald and it’s only when a dog is found murdered that Jeff’s amateur investigation picks up again. This leads to another gripping final act in which Lisa and then Jeff both find themselves in danger as the truth about Thorwald is finally revealed.

I feel part of the brilliance of Rear Window is the fact that you believe in these characters and the usually mundane lives they lead. Part of the credit for this has to go to screenwriter John Michael Hayes, who adapted a short story by Cornell Woolrich, as he created a lot of the plot points as well as the characters of Lisa and Stella. Hitchcock and Hayes must furthermore be credited with creating separate identities for all of the characters that Jeff spies on in the apartment over the road. The fact that we are invested in all of these smaller stories is a credit to the film as by the end the likes of Miss Lonelyheart and Miss Torso also get their own happy endings. One of the best elements of Rear Window is the use of sound as the majority of what is heard on screen is diegetic sound which I feel adds a sense of realism to Rear Window whilst also building up the suspense. In fact it put me in mind of Blow-up; a film which owes a great debt to Rear Window, as both deal with photographers who feel they’ve witnessed murders. Whilst the sound mixing team were nominated for an Oscar at that year’s ceremony, the production design team were not and I feel that’s a crying shame. The construction of the whole exterior apartment set was incredibly expensive and the final result is, in my opinion, one of the most enduring images of Rear Window.

Another element of Rear Window that deserves a whole heap of praise are the performances by the lead cast most notably James Stewart who appears in almost every frame of the film. Stewart turns Jeff into an affable everyman who is forced to deal with a situation out of the ordinary and in a condition where he is forced to turn to others for help. I do feel Stewart deserved an Oscar nomination for his role as did Grace Kelly who was astounding in her role as Lisa; making her more than just than damsel in distress but insteadthe action hero of the piece. Thelma Ritter was equally great in the role of Stella, which she turned into something more than just comic relief, something the actress often did during her career. Rounding off a quartet of great performances was Raymond Burr who, as Thorwald, almost gave a silent performance as the antagonist of the piece and did so convincingly. I believe that Burr had the toughest job, given that he had very few lines of dialogue, and if I was in the academy at the time I feel I would’ve at least considered him for a Best Supporting Actor nod. Hitchcock and Hayes were both nominated for Oscars as were the men behind the film’s sound mixing and brilliantly intricate cinematography. Although there’s more to come from 1954 I can say without a shadow of a doubt that Rear Window definitely deserved to be nominated for Best Picture and over sixty years on it still stands out as a brilliant piece of thrilling cinema.

Next time we finish off the Hitchcock trilogy with another of the director’s films that takes place entirely in one location.

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