It’s unlikely Director Alfred Hitchcock appreciated just how right Rear Window’s Stella was back in 1954 when she said we had become a race of Peeping Toms: “What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.”
In the constantly connected culture of 2013, the boundaries of privacy are blurred more than ever before and surveillance is a 24/7 worldwide phenomenon. This makes a trip back to ‘the good old days’ of simple astute observation – with neighbours (allegedly) looking out for and caring about each other – all the more appealing.
James Stewart is fed up. After six weeks of being laid up at home with a broken leg, following an unfortunate incident on a motor racing track, and nothing to do but gaze out of his window at the comings and goings of his neighbours. Quite unexpectedly, the unusual behaviour of one man catches his eye, and so begins one of the finest thrillers the Master of Suspense has to offer.
The lead character is key in a story all about perspective. Immediately you relate with James Stewart’s globe-trotting photographer L. B. Jefferies, a man who lives to be on the move stuck in one place with the same view day in, day out.
Equally interesting is Grace Kelly as Lisa Fremont, who steps up to make the role far more than it could have been. At first she dismisses Jefferies’ wild theories about murder and cover-up as paranoid suspicions, and as an audience every time you think you have worked out what is going on, something changes. Fremont’s perspective change is so quick you almost miss it, but the interplay between the two is vital at holding your attention and in building the suspense and intrigue as the story thickens.
Hitchcock’s legendary status is well-founded here, so much so that it gained him a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Director, and it’s easy to appreciate the talent a honing of a craft built up for decades beforehand with films such as The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Rebecca, Strangers on a Train and even Dial M for Murder the same year.
Largely the film stands up to modern scrutiny expertly well. The occasional technical relic such as the sped-up-footage technique or some laboured panning creeps in, but really it’s hardly noticeable and all reflects the charm of the era.
The plot flows along at an impressive pace for a film set entirely on one set and the romantic sub-plot remains just that, rather than encroaching on the drama itself. The location, the Chelsea borough of New York City, is well-suited to the mood the film wants to get across. To be in the midst of the hustle and bustle but unable to see it save a small slither of roadway just through the gaps in the houses, the audience shares Jefferies’ feeling of entrapment bordering on claustrophobia.
It is a tried-and-tested setup, but it is also a shining example of how to do it right (which is why it is the first film to be awarded This Is Entertainment’s ‘Classic Film’ accolade). There was a TV remake in 1998 featuring former Superman Christopher Reeve as a paralysed shut-in surrounded by technology, and a ‘re-imagining’ in 2007 in Disturbia. In fact the latter was sued for copyright infringement on the original short story on which the 1954 film was based, but was, in the end, absolved.
In all the film delivers on it’s slow-burn build up with all the expertise you would expect from a name like Alfred Hitchcock. Far from pretentious, overly deep or lazy, this film has something for viewers at many different levels, offering a social commentary more appropriate than ever or just a simple, well-composed thriller, which demands your full attention.
In a nutshell: Broken legs, binoculars and brain-scratching in this accomplished thriller. A perfect introduction to the legendary Alfred Hitchcock.
(Here’s a taster, the trailer to the 80’s re-release)
James Michael Parry