Three of Alfred Hitchcock‘s most famous films, Rope, Lifeboat and Rear Window, work around a very restricted geography, two New York apartments and a lifeboat. Of the three, Rear Window is the most successful as a film. It takes place almost entirely with the Greenwich apartment of globetrotting photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart), marooned for the last six weeks with a broken leg suffered on his last assignment.
His only human contact has been his girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly), and Stella (Thelma Ritter), the nurse from the insurance company. Stella hounds him to finally marry Lisa, but Jeff is reluctant. Apparently, he suffered a head injury, too. Reluctant to marry Grace Kelly? Inconceivable.
New York is in the throes of a heat wave and Jeff’s only pastime is watching his neighbors across the courtyard overlooked by his apartment. There’s “Miss Torso” (Georgine Darcy), a dancer who beats the heat by bouncing about without much on. A bickering couple sleeps on their fire escape. “Miss Lonelyhearts” (Judith Evenlyn) entertains imaginary gentleman callers. A newlywed couple disappears into their bedroom and doesn’t emerge for several days. A frustrated composer labors over a new song.
In the center of all this is the apartment of the Thorwalds, Lars (Raymond Burr) and Anna (Irene Winston). He’s a grumpy salesman and she’s his bedridden wife. She’s demanding and he often looks like he’s at the end of his rope.
One rainy night, Jeff hears what he thinks is a scream. He opens his windows to see the Thorwalds’ blinds drawn. Soon, Lars leaves with his sample case, at two A.M. on a rainy night, only to return an hour later and repeat the trip again. Jeff’s suspicions are aroused and further strengthened when he spies Thorwald wrapping up saws and knives in newspaper. There’s no doubt in his mind. Thorwald has murdered his wife.
At first, Lisa and Stella both think Jeff’s spying and speculation are umseemly and rather ghoulish, but the more they learn, the more they start to share his suspicions. Lt. Doyle (Wendell Corey), an old war buddy of Jeff’s who’s now a cop, is skeptical, especially when Mrs. Thorwald apparently turns up alive somewhere else.
Sharp, literate dialogue and first rate acting, especially from Stewart and Kelly, combined with a genuinely suspenseful plot, make Rear Window one of Hitchcock’s best. Keeping the viewpoint confined to his apartment seems a lot less like a device than it did in Rope, but rather was the only way to effectively handle this story. By tying us down to Jeff’s point of view, Hitchcock is able to emphasize his impotence to act and his dependence on others to do his leg work. It’s one of the master director’s most assured films, a great choice for his first widescreen movie.