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Nostalgia June 2018

Silver Screen, Golden Years

Rear Window – An Ordinary Neighborhood, a Complicated Set

By Jacqueline T. Lynch

For a guy who spends the entire film in his jammies in a wheelchair, James Stewart has one of the most interesting roles of his career, in part due to his reactions displaying his changing attitudes towards his neighbors.

Rear Window (1954) is shot on one of the most intricate sets ever created for film, and is so much fun I’m surprised someone hasn’t re-created it as a theme park. Showing the backs of several multi-level apartment buildings in New York, it is its own character in the film. It has moods and secrets.

Director Alfred Hitchcock allows the audience to become, much as L.B. Jeffries, played by James Stewart has become, a voyeur sneaking glances into the private worlds of his neighbors. Their private worlds are not just the tangle of fire escapes and studio apartments and kitchenettes, but the rejection and disappointment, the loneliness and troubles they face.

In a swift opening shot we see the backdrop of apartments out Jeffries’ windows, his wheelchair and leg cast after an accident on assignment, his smashed cameras and photographs, and a stack of Life magazines which tell us he is a man of action, and already a sort of voyeur as a professional photographer. The first shot we see of Grace Kelly, who plays his girlfriend, is stunning, with an almost slow-motion feeling of her leaning over the camera and leaning over him for a kiss while he is sleeping. We soon learn, despite this sensual encounter, that there is trouble between them. She is trying to coax him into marriage; and he does not want to be tied down.

The dialogue in the film is reflective, witty, bitter, sometimes overlapping, deceptively simple and spare. There is as much conveyed in a camera glance into one of the apartments, or a facial expression from James Stewart, as much is revealed through the spoken word, though the insurance company nurse, played by Thelma Ritter, gets some good lines.

“We’ve become a race of peeping Toms,” she says, and one wonders what her character would think of today’s omnipresent cellphone cameras.

She senses impending trouble for Stewart, disapproving of his spying on his neighbors, including the nubile dancer dubbed “Miss Torso,” with his telephoto lens.

When a lonely woman who lives by herself, dubbed Miss Lonelyhearts, pretends to entertain in a candlelight dinner for two, she raises her glass of wine, as Stewart, wryly and condescendingly observing her, raises his own glass and toasts her, playing her imaginary partner from a distance. We hear street sounds, car horns and sirens, distant muffled voices of the neighbors, and music as if from a distant radio.

When he begins to suspect his neighbor across the way, played by Raymond Burr, of killing his invalid wife, James Stewart’s boredom with his neighbors and his sarcasm toward them changes. He becomes fascinated, and with the help of Kelly and Ritter, tries to prove to the police that a murder has happened. His relationship with Kelly changes as well, and his face lights up with admiration as she reports back on her spying attempt to get information. She has become his legs.

For a guy who spends the entire film in his jammies in a wheelchair, James Stewart has one of the most interesting roles of his career, in part due to his reactions displaying his changing attitudes towards his neighbors. He and Thelma Ritter disgustedly watch a distasteful scene of Miss Lonelyhearts fending off an aggressive date, and later fear her attempted suicide. His attitude towards this neighbor, and the others, has moved from bored disinterest, to fascination, to compassion. Her suicide attempt is stopped suddenly by the rapture she feels at the music coming from the apartment of the bachelor composer.

Grace Kelly, sneaking into Raymond Burr’s apartment is also transfixed by the music, but the music that saved Miss Lonelyhearts is Grace’s doom. She is distracted, and Burr catches her, and Stewart is agonized by his helplessness when she screams and the lights are turned out. After she is rescued by the police, Stewart realizes Burr knows he has been watching him. Stewart’s only protection when Burr eventually comes to get him is to confuse and blind him with the flash device on his camera, frantically popping off bulbs one at a time.

Rear Window is one of Hitchcock’s best and he dazzles us with stylish cinematography. That a grisly murder could happen under such everyday circumstances and missed by all the neighbors, even in such close quarters, is creepy. The magnificent set, so intricate despite appearing so ordinary in this working class urban neighborhood, is like theme of this movie; that the aura of normality is deceptive.


Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and several other non-fiction books on history and classic films, as well as novels.

Meet Jacqueline