Every so often, I come across a piece of movie news that makes me pause for thought and reflect on the medium that I love so much. Earlier this week on Facebook, I stumbled upon a BFI article proclaiming that Alfred Hitchcock's marvellous suspense thriller, Rear Window, has just turned 60 years old. Click here to read the piece.
60 years old? Surely not. But a quick scan of IMDB indeed confirmed the film's original US release date as 4th August 1954. Blimey o'riley. That got me to thinking – how on Earth does Rear Window continue to be so timeless, so gripping, after six decades of tumultuous change within the film industry? And why does it hold a place in my heart as my favourite movie from the famed 'Master of Suspense'?
The film casts iconic everyman James Stewart as wheelchair-bound photographer L.B. 'Jeff' Jeffries who, bored and sweltering in his apartment during a spell of steaming hot weather, decides to spy on his neighbours, first with his binoculars and then, cleverly, with his trusted camera. His initial voyeuristic endeavours reveal a snapshot of day-to-day life – one apartment houses a newly married couple. Another, a man struggling with his latest musical composition. And just across the way, 'Miss Lonelyhearts', a woman waiting for romance that may possibly never happen.
But then, but then... Jeffries spots peculiar behaviour in the apartment directly opposite his. The bedridden wife of one Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) goes missing. He then sees Thorwald carrying a line of rope and a saw, before spying on him digging in the flowerbed. And not long after, another neighbour's dog starts investigating said flowerbed. It's safe to say Thorwald hasn't been burying Pedigree Chum. And soon Jeffries comes to suspect that the wife has been murdered...
Synopsis ringing any bells? Of course it is – it's been mercilessly (and brilliantly) parodied in shows such as The Simpsons – click here to watch – and The Detectives. Yet even after all this time, there's a freshness and immediacy to Rear Window that makes it an electrifying watch.
The story of the film's production is as famous as the movie itself. Hitch constructed a living, breathing apartment complex on the Paramount Studios lot, with each of the apartments seen in the film featuring electricity and running water. The lighting system was designed to simulate the move from day to night and back again, creating a sense of complete verismilitude. And, in the film's masterstroke, the director only shot from within Jeffries' own apartment, relaying instructions to the other actors via earpieces.
But beyond the mere technical accomplishments is something that lurks at the heart of all Hitchcock's films. By placing the audience solely in Stewart's position, we are complicit in his character's voyeurism as he initially spies on his neighbours for a bit of fun, and later becomes obsessed with the thought that Thorwald has murdered his wife. In other words, we each become peeping toms, like Jeffries himself. And looking into each of the other buildings effectively becomes a microcosm of the way in which we watch movies. After all, entire narratives are unspooling in front of Jeffries' telephoto lens – but we're only privy to glimpses of them. It's both unsettling, thrilling and revolutionary.
This is a regular Hitchcock trait – one need only think of the 'gaze' in his landmark 1960 horror Psycho as Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) spies on Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) through a secret peephole. There are other Hitch hallmarks – for one, the black humour (watch Jeffries' wonderfully disgusted reaction as his nurse Stella, played by Thelma Ritter, puts him off his breakfast by describing the gruesome, ghoulish ways in which Thorwald could have bumped off his wife).
And then of course there's the archetypal Hitchcock blonde, here embodied by Grace Kelly as Jeffries' unfeasibly glamorous girlfriend, Lisa. Although the notion of the two together stretches credibility somewhat, and although Lisa initially appears as little more than a wallflower, she comes into her own during the film's later stages when she breaks into Thorwald's apartment to aid Jeffries in his search for the truth – resulting in one of the most memorably suspenseful showdowns in movie history.
And finally, we have the one-and-only Jimmy Stewart grounding what is a vaguely ludicrous scenario in a sweaty, in-over-his-head reality. By this stage, Stewart had lost his boyish good looks but it's his lack of ego as an actor, his ability to transform into any role, that convince us of Jeffries' obsession. And when it comes to the end game, his fear is palpable (watch out for the moment where Lisa is cornered by Thorwald and Jeffries, watching from the building opposite, is unable to do anything about it). Burr's oft-overlooked performance as the potential murderer is also memorably chilling.
This is why Rear Window bests all those other Hitchcock classics for me (yes, it's better than Vertigo, North by Northwest and even Psycho). Everything comes together beautifully – the script, the acting, the suspense, the humour and Hitchcock's love of theatrical artifice (many of his other films use rear projection to distracting effect; not so here). Even 60 years later, this movie acts as its own window into the inexplicable yet utterly magical world of cinema – and it's a wonderful thing to behold.