(United States, 1954)
My belief that Grace Kelly is one of the most beguiling women ever to appear in a Hollywood film is a secondary reason why Rear Window has placed so highly on my Top 100 list. My belief that this is the greatest film of arguably the greatest director of all-time is the primary one. There is certainly no consensus as to what Hitchcock's most accomplished film is. Some argue for Vertigo, others for North By Northwest, others for Rear Window, others for Psycho, and so on... For me, it has always been Rear Window. Part of it is the premise, part is the acting, but the biggest part is the execution. By keeping his camera locked in Jeffries' apartment, Hitchcock makes the movie explicitly voyeuristic, placing us in the protagonist's shoes and imbuing us with his impotence. This elevates the tension to almost unbearable levels. We need to act, but cannot, and, unlike in most thrillers, the hero is unable to act in our stead. I have seen the movie a dozen or so times, and I still get a chill when Raymond Burr enters the apartment while Grace Kelly is snooping. Rear Window is the movie that elevated me from an admirer of Hitchcock to an unabashed fan. It led to my going back and seeing a lot that I might not otherwise have seen, including some of his more obscure films. As for the Christopher Reeve remake, I have only two words: ignore it. Unless, that is, you are curious to see how the same basic story can be turned into one of the greatest thrillers ever made and an insulting piece of B-level trash. For much of the '80s and '90s, Rear Window was only available in a badly washed-out VHS or laserdisc copy which did Hitchcock's original color compositions no credit. Fortunately, a glorious restoration was completed in 1999. After a limited theatrical run, it was transferred to DVD. For anyone who wants to watch or re-watch Rear Window, that is unquestionably the version to get.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart) is a top-flight photographer who, as the result of an accident that left him in a leg cast, is confined to his upper-story Manhattan apartment. He amuses himself by gazing out his window at the building opposite, and builds pictures of each of the inhabitants from the glimpses he catches of their lives. Some of them, like "Miss Torso," a lithe young ballerina who capers around in various stages of dress, and "Miss Lonelyhearts," a forlorn spinster, keep their curtains wide open. Others, like a newlywed couple, pull down the blinds, leaving Jefferies to smile wryly as he guesses about their activities. As Jefferies' days of confinement wear on, his fascination with his neighbors turns into an obsession. Their lives become more important than his. After all, they are vital and mobile; he is trapped and impotent. In his own words, he has had "six weeks sitting in a two-room apartment with nothing to do but look at the neighbors." He has a charming and gorgeous young girlfriend, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), but he is emotionally cool towards her, and their relationship is caught in the same stasis that paralyzes every other aspect of Jefferies' life. When he gropes for a reason why she wouldn't make a good wife, the only fault he can find is that she's "too perfect, too talented, too beautiful, and too sophisticated." Lisa may love him, but she is losing patience. Then, one day, Jefferies observes something that forces him to abandon his safe, cocooned role as a voyeur and become a participant. He sees - or thinks he sees - one of his neighbors, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), commit a murder. When the police don't believe Jefferies, he is forced to take action without their help. Abetted by Lisa, he works to uncover evidence to prove that a crime was committed. However, with his mobility restricted, Jefferies can only watch through his rear window as Lisa puts herself in harm's way, and, when danger strikes, he is helpless to go to her rescue.
One of the most engrossing, and, in its own way, groundbreaking, studies of voyeurism is Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window. The film is universally regarded as a classic, and a strong cadre of critics, scholars, and fans consider this to be the director's best feature. Not only does the movie generate an intensely suspenseful and fascinating situation, but it develops a compelling and memorable protagonist. Simply put, Rear Window is a great film, perhaps one of the finest ever committed to celluloid. All of the elements are perfect (or nearly so), including the acting, script, camerawork, music, and, of course, direction. The brilliance of the movie is that, in addition to keeping viewers on the edges of their seats, it involves us in the lives of all of the characters. There isn't a moment of waste in 113 minutes of screen time. The recent, long overdue restoration is greatly welcome, since it re-invigorates the look and sound of a timeless classic.
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