“Jeff, you know if someone came in here, they wouldn’t believe what they’d see? You and me with long faces plunged into despair because we find out a man didn’t kill his wife. We’re two of the most frightening ghouls I’ve ever known.” – Lisa (Grace Kelly)
In Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, it’s not the assumed killer who’s the most devious villain, nor the confined photographer who’s the most admirable hero. Instead, a film that relies heavily on a singular set turns environment and mindset into its greatest assets.
Confined to a wheelchair thanks to a broken leg, photographer L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart) amuses himself on hot days with window gazing at the other apartments. There’s plenty to see, too, as he spies on a composer, “Miss Lonely Hearts” the spinster, a ballet dancer and the elusive salesman Thorwald (Raymond Burr). But one night Jeff’s game turns dark when he’s convinced he’s witnessed Thorwald murder his wife. Stuck in his chair, he’ll have to enlist sharp-tongued nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and friend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), who adores him but can’t seem to win his affection back, to help him solve what really happened across the courtyard.
Despite the talents of Kelly and Stewart, the most important character in Rear Window isn’t portrayed by an actor but by the camera. Stuck inside Jeff’s apartment, the audience is given a limited perspective that incurs emotions, plants false ideas in other players’ heads and drives the plot. When Hitchcock filmed the movie, he worked solely in the apartment, using beige earpieces to communicate with the actors in the window sets — an immersion technique that translates to the myopic view he gives the audience.
But another non-human character also takes a life of its own in Hitchcock’s film. Urban life is a popular subject in mid-20th century works, and most of the time it is turned into the villain. In Rear Window, city life is at its worse; the main character spies on his neighbors not because he cares about them but because he’s simply interested. This shows how city life makes people not really care about each other, perhaps because we become so lost in the populations that we feel as if we can stare without getting caught. Among Stella’s poignant observations is the Readers Digest quote “What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change,” a key statement that sings along with the movie’s anti-urban voice, especially when paired with Jeff’s yearning to get out into the world and explore again.
But who would want to leave when Hitchcock places such an intriguing film in front of audiences that not only piques curiosity but also scares and causes self-doubt? The greatest piece of Rear Window is its ability to make viewers question not only what Jeff believes (after all, this is a man uninterested in marrying Grace Kelly) but also themselves. It’s a film that creates a dazzling image from desensitized urbanity, then scolds us for looking out our windows at it. But aren’t we glad that we did?