Rear Window (1954): Hitchcock’s Masterpiece, Starring Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly

One of Hitchcock’s best and most commercial pictures, “Rear Window” was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Director for Hitchcock, Screenplay for John Michael Hayes, Color Cinematography for Robert Burks, and Sound Recording for Loren L. Ryder.

The film itself was not nominated, but even if it did, it would have lost since the Oscars in 1954 were dominated by Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront,” which won Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress, Screenplay, and others.

“Rear Window” was the first collaboration of Hayes and Hitchcock, who would also work together on “To Catch a Thief,” “The Trouble With Harry,” and the 1956 remake of “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

With the notable exception of “Pyscho” and Vertigo,” more has been written about “Rear Window” than any other Hitchcock film, and for good reasons. Half a century after it was made, it continues to intrigue viewers and scholars alike.

One of the film’s ad campaigns, back in 1954, read: “If you do not experience delicious terror when you see Rear Window, then punch yourselfyou are most probably dead.”

The method in “Rear Window,” a photographer (Jimmy Stewart) confined to a wheelchair and inspecting his neighbors’ lives in the dark is the very principle of cinematic spectacle, serving as superb commentary on the act of watching films. At first, Stewart’s L.B. Jeff Jeffries amuses himself by using a telescope to spy on the tenants of a Greenwich Village apartment building, but then he begins to suspect that a nasty murder had been committed by his neighbor Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr).

Jeffries is, as Richard Combs noted, a hero-voyeur without the legitimate power or interest in interfering in other people’s lives, except in extreme threatening situations. What Jeffries sees is a portrait of 1950s mass society in microcosm, people who are lonely, bored, shallow, unsuccessful, alcoholic, suicidal and murderous. It’s a pretty condemning view what Americans had become behind the their closed windows or curtains. The theme of complacency comes out in the film in the form of individual indifference to the fate of everything else. Most of the characters are neurotic, self-absorbed, and isolated, engaged in desperate attempts to escape their of social and psychological entrapment.

Jeffries combines certain aspects of the roles of director and spectator. The people he watches are dominated by his will and consciousness but are beyond his control. The flats across the courtyard are sort of cinema screen on which Jeffries projects his wishes and secret desires. Hitchcock created an amazingly insular world not only in the film, but in the production of the film. Nearly all the shots in the movie originate from Jeffries’s POV. The only exceptions are a couple of shots near the end of the film, along with the discovery of the dead dog.

The music, speech, and other sounds come from within the film’s world, what’s known in film studies as diegetic, or actual sound. Directing the film from Jeffries’ apartment, Hitchcock communicated with the actors in their respective flats by radioing his instructions to them through their flesh tone earpieces.

The resolution is ironic: The murderer who killed his nagging wife is “succeeded” by newly weds wherein the bride has become a nagging wife. And there’s ambiguity too, for it’s not clear whether Jeffries and Lisa (Grace Kelly) have resolved their problems. Early on, Lisa is presented as a threatening beauty, hovering over Jeffries while kissing him, and throughout the story, there are images and motifs that indicate fundamental differences and incompatibility between Jeffries and Lisa.

The beauty, meaning, and subtlety of “Rear Window” grow considerably with each successive viewing: One of Hitchcock’s achievements here is the success with which he incorporates the darker tones and psychological intensity of his later works (“Vertigo,” “Psycho”) into an enjoyable, seemingly mainstream picture, which is fondly remembered by viewers and critics alike.

Oscar Context

Burks lost to Milton Krasner’s work on “Three Coins in the Fountain,” a CinemaScope travelogue (the movie was set in Rome) that in strategy is exactly the opposite from the insular and claustrophobic “Rear Window.” Ryder, who captured impressively the sounds and noises of an urban inner courtyard, lost to Leslie I. Carey for “The Glenn Miller Story,” which also starred Jimmy Stewart.

The one shocking loss was John Michael Hayes’s superb screenplay, an adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s short story, “It Had to Be Murder,” who was inexplicably defeated by George Seaton’s pedestrian script for “The Country Girl,” which won Grace Kelly her first and only Oscar. Kelly might have received a nomination for “Rear Window,” were it not for her performance in the Seaton-directed melodrama, in which she appeared dowdy and deglamorized, the kind of thing that tends to impress Academy voters when it comes to beautiful stars.