For my fifth choice in this movie bonanza, I take care of the Action/Adventure/Thriller category with an oldie but a goodie. There’s not a whole lot of action but there is nail-biting adventure and suspense in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Rear Window.
Any writer who’s ever taken any rudimentary writing course knows one of the first “rules” you’re told is “show, don’t tell.” Saying “Billy was frightened” is boring. Having Billy creeping down the hallway, sweating and cringing when the door he opens creaks a little is much more effective. Movie makers tend to know that too. But when it comes to murder, mayhem as well as things erotic, sometimes the viewer’s own mind is even more evocative than anything the screen reveals. Less can be more. That’s something many have forgotten these days but Hitchcock was the master of.
Which leads us to Rear Window, a tale of murder most foul in which we have little evidence of an actual murder even being committed. The premise of the story is that a globe-trotting, adventure-seeking photo-journalist, LB Jefferies (played by post-It’s A Wonderful Life Jimmy Stewart) is laid up at home in his New York apartment due to a broken leg. He’s restless and itching to get back out into the fray…anywhere but in a sweaty Big Apple apartment complex. Jefferies busies himself by watching all his neighbors from the window, with the help of his camera’s telephoto lens. “We’re becoming a race of peeping toms,” he states prophetically some 40 years before the advent of reality TV. Mind you, that doesn’t prevent him staring through his camera at his shapely young neighbor working out in a bikini of scandalous scantiness for the era. There’s her, there’s the lonely man playing piano (watch for Hitchcock to make one of his famous cameo appearances in his apartment), there’s the older woman with the little dog out in the courtyard. And the middle-aged bickering couple across the way.
All the while the photog’s girlfriend, elegant socialite Lisa (played by Grace Kelly) is attentive and hoping her man will see the attraction of staying home. She promises while he’s in a cast “I’m going to make it a week you’ll never forget.” An innocent enough remark in this day and age but doubtless a shockingly suggestive one for the 1950s. We can’t quite see the reason they are a couple to begin with, but she seems in love with him and the nurse who looks in on him tries to nudge him towards settling down with the lovely lady. He clearly seems to think something’s missing and that Lisa could never understand his need for excitement and investigation.
Until that is, the wife of the bickering couple comes up missing and Jefferies begins to suspect foul play is involved. He comes up with a scenario in his head, but being immobile can’t investigate. Perhaps the husband has killed his wife. Which is when Lisa shows there’s more to her than pearls and furs and puts herself in the line of danger to do the footwork for her boyfriend. Which is where the nails start being bitten and the tension heats to the boiling point just as the summertime city was doing simultaneously.
Do the duo crack a murder case or merely fall victim themselves… to over-active imaginations? You’ll have to watch for yourself to find out. What is clear is that the gruff photographer comes to see his hometown as less dull than he imagined it and his lady a lot more interesting and adventurous than he’d given her credit for. As a romance, Rear Window is lukewarm. As an edge-of-the-seat thriller, it’s hard to beat.
At the time of its release, it won generally good reviews (the New York Times for instance note that “what it has to say about people and human nature is superficial and glib but it does expose many facets of the loneliness of city life” but still call it “a tense and exciting exercise”) and made about five times its million dollar budget back at the box office in its first run. It received four Academy Award nominations but lost out, including the Best Screenplay which ended up going to another Grace Kelly film, Country Girl.
Rear Window may be the least bloody murder movie made…but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the best as well. I give it three-and-a-half Nikons out of five.