Release Year: 1954
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: John Michael Hayes, Cornell Woolrich (short story)
An Xfinity Triple Play subscription, maybe a Netflix or Hulu account, and all of this trouble could have been avoided. L.B. Jefferies could've spent his convalescence catching up on Survivor and Duck Dynasty episodes and binge-watching some MMA instructional videos and ugly-dog contests, and he wouldn't have had to kill time spying on his neighbors. Scratching his voyeuristic itch would have been as easy as KUWTK—um, we mean ABC.
Fortunately for us, there wasn't much else to do in 1954 after you'd watched The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and The Ed Sullivan Show. Otherwise, we wouldn't have Alfred Hitchcock's suspense masterpiece, Rear Window. Released in 1954, the film draws us in as co-conspirators as Jefferies (you can call him Jeff), confined to a wheelchair in his apartment with a badly broken leg and a plaster cast up to here, gets morbidly obsessed with eavesdropping on his neighbors around his courtyard … and becomes convinced that one of them has murdered his wife.
Rear Window is one of the best from the Master of Suspense. We're talking one of cinema's greatest directors at the top of his game with the kind of story that he was born to tell. A huge box-office hit, the film scooped up four Oscar noms (no wins) and is #48 on the American Film Institute's latest list of 100 Greatest American Films of All Time. A simple structure, an uncomplicated narrative, and a single setting (Jeff's living room) somehow add up to a masterpiece.
But Rear Window wasn't important just for its brilliant camera techniques and its ability to create a thriller out of one man's very limited POV. It also exploded the barrier between the audience and the object of its gaze. The film begins as the blinds in Jeff's apartment are raised and he begins to look out his window. Stuck in our seats as firmly as Jeff, we're witness only to what he sees; the plot unfolds for us along with him. And as we see plenty of things that are none of our business, we feel a little guilty.
Long before voyeurism—in the form of reality TV—became the national pastime, Rear Window predicted that it could.
Rear Window finds Hitchcock hitting his stride, in full command of his visual storytelling. From a technical standpoint, the movie is almost perfect: well paced; exciting; full of sharp, clever dialogue; and with a great murder mystery as a hook and two of the biggest stars of Hollywood's Golden Age knocking it out of the park.
If straight-up entertainment is your thing, Rear Window is a great way to spend your evening.
But beyond that, the film dives deeply into ideas that are almost more relevant today than they were in 1954—ideas about being watched and judged.
To be fair, it's no coincidence that the film was made during the height of the Joseph McCarthy and House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings when Americans, including many Hollywood actors and directors, were being subjected to a witch-hunt aimed at ferreting out alleged Communists in the industry. People were asked to testify against each other and, as they say, "name names." Those suspected of being Communist sympathizers were blacklisted and not allowed to work in film. Everyone had the feeling of being watched, and Hitch knew how destructive it could be.
Today, Rear Window taps into our morbid curiosity about the lives of other people. And we don't even need binoculars like Jeff did. We can do it on our TVs and phones, assured that nothing we watch can ever come back to bite us. Every time we turn on that computer—you know, the one you're sitting in front of right now—or TV, we can see people ready to show us everything, and we love watching them do their thing. We can safely make assumptions and judgments about them and enjoy the spectacle of watching their lives fall apart around them without feeling like any of it can touch us.
Of course, that safety is just a fantasy. We love to watch and eavesdrop until we're the ones being watched or eavesdropped upon, and suddenly what feels like harmless fun turns into something not so fun.
Rear Window explores all of this decades before anyone had even dreamed of the Internet or reality television or People magazine or Edward Snowden. But it's more relevant than ever: It asks why we need that voyeurism in our lives. Why do we like peeping across that backyard fence, real or electronic? What drives that curiosity about other people, only to resent the way they look at us? Are we really a community that cares about our neighbors, or are we just a world full of judgmental busybodies?
Rear Window asks all of those questions, and it aims its sharpest barbs at us, the moviegoers: as big a pack of privileged voyeurs as you're likely to find. In Rear Window, we're snooping on the neighbors right along with Jeff.
Ask yourself—would you have put down the binoculars?
The costumes for Rear Window were designed by Edith Head, one of the most famous costume designers in Hollywood history. Hitchcock used her a lot (in Notorious, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, and The Birds, among other films), and her fantastic clothes were all over Hollywood in the '50s and '60s. Here's a picture of her. If she looks familiar, that's no mistake. She served as the inspiration for Edna Mode in the 2004 Pixar movie The Incredibles. (Source)
Hitchcock chose Raymond Burr to play the villainous Thorwald because of his resemblance to David O. Selznick, the famous producer Hitch worked with on three films. The two famously battled over control of the films, and the result, according to Hitchcock scholars, was the end of the Hollywood era where producers held all of the cards. The murderous Thorwald was an "in yo' face" from Hitchcock to Selznick. (Source)
Hitchcock directed the actors in the apartments via earpieces that remotely transmitted his direction. During the scene where the couple sleeping on the fire escape has to drag their mattress back inside during a rainstorm, Hitch deliberately radioed each of them different instructions on how to drag the mattress. The result was a lot of confusion and bickering, which Hitchcock loved and kept in the film. (Source)
The Hitchcock Zone
The Hitchcock Zone covers all things Hitch, and they have a page set aside for Rear Window.
Remember when AMC showed movies instead of spin-offs of The Walking Dead? Neither do we, but apparently they did. Here's their write-up on Rear Window.
AFI Loves It, Too
The American Film Institute loves putting out Top 100 lists to commemorate great movies. Rear Window has graced three of them, as the AFI's website is happy to tell you about.
The Short Story
The movie was based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich called "It Had to Be Murder." Here's a copy of it for your perusing pleasure.
The TV Movie
TV remakes of established classics usually give us the hives, but in 1998, one showed up that actually did quite well. It starred Christopher Reeve in the James Stewart role. The actor was paralyzed from the neck down following a horseback riding accident in 1995, and his character suffered from a similar malady. It made for a nice twist on Hitchcock's formula and gave this version enough distinction to justify the exercise.
Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon
At press time, a stage version of Rear Window, also based on Woolrich's short story, is totally sold out in Hartford, Connecticut. The reason? Hartford theatergoers are the most sophisticated in the whole world. Just kidding. It's because Kevin Bacon is playing the role of Jeff.
As homages go, it's pretty subtle, but the classic '80s horror movie Fright Night (and the not-at-all-bad 2011 remake) takes a big page from Rear Window's playbook. The only difference is that the guy our hero is spying on just happens to be a vampire. Nice twist, guys. (And, parental warning: this scene has some nudity.)
In 2007, another remake was attempted, featuring Shia LaBeouf as a teenager under house arrest instead of a man with a broken leg. Please forgive us for mentioning LaBeouf. We promise we won't do it again.
The Simpsons: "Bart of Darkness"
A show like The Simpsons couldn't resist taking a crack at a pop culture icon this big. Bart breaks his leg one summer, forcing him to stay inside while the other kids enjoy his swimming pool. Soon enough, he begins spying on the neighbors, and a familiar, if much funnier, pattern starts to emerge. He even has a girl named Lisa to help him out.
Roger Ebert's Take
The late, great Roger Ebert hits us with his thoughts on one of Hitchcock's greatest films. Verdict: Thumbs up.
Turner Classic Movies Digs It
The good people at TCM know classic movies; here's their take on Rear Window.
Screenwriting Tips From a Classic
Here's a really insightful look at why the script for Rear Window works so well.
Editing Makes a Masterpiece
No Film School gives us a clip-heavy look at Rear Window's editing.
My Favorite Hitchcock: Rear Window
The Guardian showers the masterpiece with a whole lotta love.
Classic Films Reloaded
Another great piece on the film, for your reading pleasure.
A comparison of Grace Kelly's sheer peignoir with what Daryl Hannah wore in the 1998 remake. Hmm, sheer negligee or power suit, that is the question …
Back before video, they'd re-release movies into the theaters in order to get a little more money. Here's a trailer for a re-release of Rear Window after the success of Psycho.
Filmmaker Jeff Desom recut Rear Window into a time-lapse panoramic video using just the views out of the window. He thought it was amazing that Hitchcock filmed the movie in a way that made this possible. Here's the 3-minute version; it's pretty cool.
Martin Scorsese Waxes Rhapsodic
You know who loves this movie? Martin Scorsese. Here, let him tell you about it.
A television interview with Hitch about his filmmaking technique.
Masters of Cinema with Alfred Hitchcock
The show Masters of Cinema speaks with Hitchcock.
The Man Loved to Talk
Another interview, this one with newsman Tom Snyder on NBC in 1973.
French director Francois Truffaut turned his 1962 interviews with Hitchcock into a book that had an enormous influence on later directors. In this 2015 film, well-known contemporary directors talk about what the book meant to them and their work. If you're interested in listening to the tapes of the original interviews, see our "Audio" section.
Jimmy Stewart Interview
Jimmy Stewart speaks to Armed Forces Radio during the premiere of the film. (Stewart served combat duty in World War II, so he was well disposed toward our boys in uniform.)
Here's a vintage interview with Alfred Hitchcock, who talks about Rear Window and a whole lot more.
Here are some highlights of the famous interviews between Hitch and iconic French director Francois Truffaut. Truffaut idolized Hitchcock and interviewed him over the course of a week in 1962.
A snazzy-looking one sheet from the film's release.
Here's another retro poster, helping the two stars look their best.
A Little Post-Psycho Push
Here's a rather cheeky poster for the film's re-release after Psycho. A small word of explanation: before Psycho, movies didn't have set start times. You just went into the theater, and if you showed up in the middle of the movie, you stayed until the end and then watched the first part. (Hence the expression: "this is where I came in.") Psycho changed that because Hitchcock didn't want anyone finding out what happened to Janet Leigh in the shower, so they set specific start times for that film. With this poster, the studio is obviously hoping to catch some of the same mojo for Rear Window.
Grace and Hitch
The director gives some advice to his leading lady.
Here's an awesome reimagining of the movie in swell poster form.
Another reimagined poster from the wilds of Deviant Art.
Jeff and Miss Torso
Stewart gets intimate with Georgine Darcy, aka Miss Torso.
The DVD Cover
Universal's cover for the DVD release cuts to the chase, as it were.
We don't normally put up stills from the film in this section, but this one bears noting: it's the picture Jeff supposedly took that landed him in the cast.
Stewart poses for a publicity still for the movie.
Hitchcock with his leading man and lady.