I completely and utterly love this movie. I can’t remember when I saw it the first time, but I’ve gone back to it several times over the years and everytime I love it just as much. Its a masterclass in old school film making and suspense.
The premise of the flick is genius- photographer LB “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) is confined to his New York apartment after breaking his leg while working on an assignment. Used to traveling the world and a life of adventure he’s incredibly frustrated and passes the time staring out the window, spying on his neighbours.He’s increasingly fed up and as a commitment-phobe and a bit of an inverted snob he’s worried about his relationship with Lisa (Grace Kelly), a wealthy socialite who’s clearly besotted with him.
A heatwave grips the city and as he watches he begins to suspect that one of his neighbours, Thorwald, (Raymond Burr) has bumped off his wife, after hearing a scream in the night. Observing Thorwald’s suspicious behaviour he becomes convinced this is the case and obsessed with trying to prove it, drawing Lisa and Detective Doyle (Wendell Corey) into it, although Doyle feels evidence is lacking.
Lisa becomes his legwoman, popping across in the hunt for clues, leaving Jeff powerless to do anything else other than watch through his camera, in the process impressing him with her courage and resourcefulness. One scene where an excited Lisa discusses the case results in Jeff looking at her with a look of such captivation you sense that he’s forgetting his reservations about their relationship.
Things take a turn for the worse however when Thorwald rumbles his spying neighbour. Can Jeff prove the crime? Will he and Lisa sort out their issues despite their differences?
The simple premise works wonders, the claustrophobic setting of Jeff’s apartment and his physical inability to influence events makes him similar to the nature of the audience, peering into the lives of others and unable to intervene, aside from shouting at the screen/windows.
It also means that as events begin to unfold the other characters’ skepticism is understandable, it could all be in the imagination of a man who’s used to adventure forced to remain in his house. Stewart is brilliant, his regular Joe likability ensures that Jeff remains a sympathetic and relatable hero, despite the fact the spying on neighbours could be seen as ever-so-sleazy.
Once he stumbles onto the case he’s passionate and convincing as he argues the case, and we share his frustration when his policeman friend explains he’s unable to act. Jeff’s not just some perfect hero, he’s deeply flawed in his ways- the issues in his relationship with Lisa show his own prejudices, a snobbery aimed towards the upper class and a distrust of all things sophisticated, which echoes the attitudes of the character he played in an earlier film, The Philadelphia Story.
Then there’s his attitude towards Lisa, at several points he makes thoughtless comments that clearly injure her and shows a slightly callous side in his demeanor, although, and this may just be my reading, I found myself that wondering that his reservations regarding Lisa and himself as a couple stemmed from a desire to protect her from the harsh realities he confronts in his job, or possibly because he believes she is too good for him. His offhand cruelty maybe his attempts to drive her off sooner, rather than have their relationship continue and make its ending more painful.
I really love is the character of Lisa, who, played by the stunningly gorgeous Grace Kelly, is pretty much the perfect woman. She’s heart stoppingly beautiful as well as being extremely feisty and rather sweet. Clearly head-over-heels for Jeff you can’t help but sympathize with her when he says off hand things that wound her, and she genuinely impresses when it comes to the investigation, as well as intelligently reasoning and setting out her own theories.
Its rather charming and realistic how both leads, along with Jeff’s nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter), get caught up in their suspicions and begin to play amateur sleuth, creating ideas and discussing how Thorwald would’ve done it. Even the professional Doyle is drawn into it. Its realistic, as they discuss it with an odd detachment, more involved with the what and the how and the why, in the same way you’ll find people discussing high-profile crime stories, losing sight of the human aspect and victim at the centre of it.
Some of the dialogue is delicious, particularly Jeff and Lisa’s verbal sparring, the no-nonsense philosophies of Stella or Doyle’s jaded skepticism coming through in his sarcastic manner.
The plot unfolds masterfully and Hitchcock rings massive amounts of tension from the set up, most notably in the nail biting sequence where Lisa is snooping around and Thorwald returns home. Its edge of your seat stuff and like Jeff you just want to yell “Get out of there!”
There are delicious twists in the plot and some fantastic moments, especially the oddly chilling sight of Thorwald’s cigar flaring in the darkness as he sits in his apartment, or the chilling moment where he appears to stare right at Jeff. Hitchcock yet again earns his nickname as “the Master of Suspense”.
The set design is magnificent, with the entire city scene recreated on a soundstage in Hollywood. Its a testimony to the old way of doing things and it means that the setting has real geographic realism and continuity. You get the feeling of knowing the courtyard and surrounding flats, and it feels like a real city block.
The insight into the lives of others is a wonderful touch, the newlyweds, the bickering neighbours and the ballet dancer Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy). Throughout the neighbours’ lives seem to reflect the ups-and-downs of the central narrative, as well as providing Jeff and Lisa with conversation topics, with both using them at different times to make their points as they bicker about their relationship.
There’s also the rather tragic Miss Lonelyheart (Judith Evelyn), a single woman who in one heartbreaking early scene is shown having dinner by herself and acting out a romantic date before breaking down. Its genuinely moving and a later scene where a real date goes wrong means that despite this character never having any dialogue and only appearing at a distance or through Jeff’s zoom lens we’re totally involved with her. Its a touching, subtle subplot which shows Hitchcock’s knack for emotional storytelling, something which is often overlooked in favour of his technical abilities and skill at creating suspense.
All in all, its a well crafted thriller with a clever, engaging premise and a compelling murder mystery. Stewart and Kelly are on fine form as the amateur sleuths and a couple working through their differences, and Hitchcock delivers a masterclass in pacing, building the tension and layering in the mystery.
Its also an example of old school Hollywood at its best.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.