The main protagonist in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” is trapped in a wheelchair, and we’re trapped too – trapped inside his point of view, inside his lack of freedom and his limited options. When he passes his long days and nights by shamelessly maintaining a secret watch on his neighbors, we share his obsession. It’s wrong, we know, to spy on others, but after all, aren’t we always voyeurs when we go to the movies? Here is a film about a man who does on the screen what we do in the audience – look through a lens at the private lives of strangers.
The man is a famous photographer named L.B. Jeffries. He’s played by James Stewart, a man of action who has been laid up with a broken leg and a heavy cast that runs all the way up to his hip. He never leaves his apartment and has only two regular visitors. One is his visiting nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), who predicts trouble (“the New York State sentence for a Peeping Tom is six months in the workhouse”). The other is his fiancee, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), an elegant model and dress designer, who despairs of ever getting him to commit himself. He would rather look at the lives of others than live inside his own skin. Stella lectures him, “What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.”
Jeff’s apartment window shares a courtyard with many other windows. As the days pass, he becomes familiar with some of the other tenants. There is Miss Lonleyhearts, who hosts dinner for imaginary gentleman callers, Miss Torso, who throws 100-proof parties for several guys at a time and a couple who lower their beloved little dog in a basket to the garden below. And there is Thorvold (Raymond Burr), a man with a wife who spends all her days in bed and makes life miserable for him.
Jeff begins to suspect that a murder has taken place. He sits in his wheelchair, holding a camera with a telephoto lens, and looks first here and then there, like a movie camera would. What he sees, we see. What conclusions he draws, we draw – all without words, because the pictures add up to a montage of suspicion.
In “Rear Window,” Jeff is not a moralist, a policeman or a do-gooder, but a man who likes to look. There are crucial moments in the film where he is clearly required to act, and he delays, not because he doesn’t care what happens, but because he forgets he can be an active player; he is ensconced in a passive role. Significantly, at the end, when he is in danger in his own apartment, his weapon is his camera’s flash; he hopes to blind or dazzle his enemy, and as the man’s eyesight gradually returns, it is through a blood-red dissolve that suggests passion expressed through the eyes.
Hitchcock long ago explained the difference between surprise and suspense. A bomb under a table goes off, that’s surprise. We know the bomb is under the table, but not when it will go off, and that’s suspense. “Rear Window” lovingly invests in suspense throughout the film, banking it in our memory, so that when the final payoff arrives, it becomes the thriller equivalent of foreplay.