In the classic movie category, there are tons of films in the suspense genre that take place in New York City but there were only a few that were directed by the man they call the Master of Suspense–Alfred Hitchcock. One of his best (and my personal favorite) is Rear Window.
It’s been an unusually hot summer in New York City and action photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) has been laid up in a wheelchair after breaking his leg photographing a car racing accident. Hot, tired and bored, Jeff spends his days doing what he loves best…looking out the lens of his camera. Yet Jeff hasn’t been taking photos. Jeff has become a bit of a spy, a voyeur, a Peeping Tom looking out his window which overlooks the rear courtyard of 125 West Ninth Street. And to Jeff’s delight, there’s much for him to observe. On the north side second floor window, there is the blonde, sexy dancer that Jeff has dubbed “Miss Torso”.
Over on the south side, third floor window, there’s the plain Jane spinster that Jeff calls “Miss Lonely Hearts”.
On the upper floor, there’s the music composer who’s feeling tormented while writing his next song.
Yet there’s one neighbor however, that Jeff has become particularly obsessed with –Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) and his incapacitated wife. As Jeff watches daily through his binoculars, he witnesses Thorwald playing the doting husband to his bedridden wife–he brings her meals in bed, administers her medications and straightens her pillows. Yet everything he does for her meets with her anger and disapproval.
On this particular day, when traveling nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) enters Jeff’s apartment, she finds him sound asleep in his wheelchair which of course, is facing the window.
Stella berates Jeff for his nosiness and, in what seems a bit of foreshadowing, proclaims that she smells trouble with Jeff’s Peeping Tom activities. “You broke your leg. You look out the window. You see things you shouldn’t. Trouble.”
That night after Stella has left, Jeff is slowly dozing off to sleep. He is soon awakened however, by the sound of breaking glass and a woman screaming, “don’t!!“. Jeff looks out at the darkened courtyard trying to figure out where the sounds came from. As nothing seems to catch his eye, he slowly drifts back off to sleep.
Several hours later, he’s awakened again by a loud thunderclap. As he starts to get his bearings, his attention is immediately drawn to the window where he sees Thorwald carrying a large aluminum suitcase in the pouring rain. Stella’s words start to ring true as over the course of the night, Jeff watches as Thorwald comes and goes several times more, always carrying the aluminum case.
As Jeff begins contemplating what these actions mean, he slowly falls asleep again but he is soon awakened by a visitor, which brings us to…
In every Hitchcock movie, there’s “The Girl”– usually blonde, a little bit of fire, a little bit of ice. Here, “The Girl” is Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly, in all her splendor). Lisa is the picture of 1950’s beauty and sophistication. She is a proper Park Avenue socialite with a playful, flirty personality.
For all her perfection however, Jeff can’t picture someone as cultivated and stunningly glamorous as Lisa joining him on cargo plane rides around the world as he goes off on his photography adventures. Lisa, who loves Jeff with all her heart, wants Jeff to settle down in New York City and become a fashion photographer. Jeff laughs at the idea and says that’s not him at all. But while they can’t seem to agree on how to merge their lives, they do eventually come to agree on one thing–Thorwald’s suspicious behavior, which brings us to…
As Jeff, Lisa and Stella watch from the window, Thorwald methodically wraps a large butcher knife and hacksaw in newspaper. This makes Jeff think out loud, “how would you cut up a human body?”
Lisa is horrified at this comment but soon everyone’s attention is brought back to Thorwald’s apartment where they watch him going through his wife’s purse, holding a gold wedding band. When Lisa asks Stella if she ever takes off her wedding band, Stella nonchalantly replies, “the only way anybody could get that off would be to chop my finger off.”
The threesome then watch as two moving men arrive to take away a large trunk that Thorwald has just wrapped with heavy duty rope. They then watch as Thorwald begins emptying his dresser drawers and places the items in suitcases. Finally, they notice that the bed where the incapacitated Mrs. Thorwald was usually seen, is now fully stripped. Jeff, Stella and Lisa are now fully convinced Thorwald has murdered his wife and that it’s her wedding ring he’s holding and it’s her body that’s inside that trunk! Jeff decides to call his friend NYPD Detective Thomas Doyle for help in solving this possible crime.
When Doyle (Wendell Corey) listens to Jeff’s story however, he is not terribly convinced a crime has been committed. After doing some digging, it looks to Doyle like Thorwald’s actions have been thoroughly misconstrued by Jeff and company.
According to Doyle’s investigation, Thorwald’s wife, whose first name is “Anna”, is taking a holiday in Merritsville, a small town 80 miles west of NYC. She and Thorwald were seen leaving their building at 6 am the previous morning and were then seen at Grand Central Station where Thorwald dropped “Anna” off at the train. Finally, the trunk that Jeff, Lisa and Stella were so concerned about was full of women’s clothes and was picked up by “Anna” in Merritsville. But as thorough as this information may seem however, the threesome don’t believe that this “Anna” is Thorwald’s wife. They believe that “Anna” is the woman that Thorwald killed his wife for and is now posing as Mrs. Thorwald. More importantly, they believe that if Doyle doesn’t act quickly, Thorwald will literally get away with murder.
And there appears to be another believer in the suspicious disappearance of Mrs. Thorwald…a fellow neighbor’s dog. As Lisa and Jeff watch, Thorwald tends to his garden while the dog appears to be honing in on something. Thorwald can be seen gently ushering the dog away. Unfortunately for the dog however, his curiosity gets the better of him as he is found dead the next morning with his neck broken. After the dog’s owner cries out in pain and anguish, all the neighbors come running to look out their windows…everyone that is except Thorwald. As Lisa and Jeff watch, Thorwald sits very quietly in his darkened living room, calmly smoking a cigar.
The next morning, Stella, Jeff and Lisa wonder what and/or whom is buried in the flower bed that aroused the dog’s curiosity. Their attention however, is then drawn to Thorwald’s apartment as they watch him thoroughly wiping his bathroom walls which leads the threesome to believe that Mrs. Thorwald was dismembered in the bathtub (Stella’s priceless comment?… “must have splattered a lot.“).
As Stella and Lisa then hatch a plan to dig out whatever is buried in the flower bed, Jeff starts hatching his own plan to stop Thorwald in his tracks…
The “Got Him”
In order to get Thorwald out of his apartment so that Lisa and Stella can safely dig up the flower bed, Jeff gets Thorwald’s number from the phone book and calls him telling him to meet him at the neighborhood bar to discuss his late wife. Lisa, Jeff and Stella watch as Thorwald nervously hangs up the phone and leaves his apartment. As soon as Thorwald is safely out of the building, Lisa and Stella run outside to the courtyard and start digging up the flowerbed.
Alas however, they soon discover there is nothing to be found.
Suddenly, without warning, Lisa decides to make a run for it and climb up the fire escape (wearing fabulous heels, of course!), to enter Thorwald’s apartment. But just as she enters Thorwald’s bedroom and starts looking through his belongings, Jeff sees Thorwald returning to his apartment, opening the door with his key.
In order to head off a possibly dangerous situation for Lisa, Jeff quickly decides to call the police reporting a man assaulting a woman. Jeff then watches helplessly through his camera lens as Thorwald catches Lisa in the bedroom. Lisa tries to run past Thorwald but as she tries to escape, Thorwald grabs her brutally by the wrist. Jeff and Stella (who has now returned to Jeff’s apartment), are in a terribly helpless panic. Thankfully however, they see the police have arrived and Jeff and Stella watch as the police talk to Thorwald trying to sort things out. Just as she is about to be escorted out by the police however, Lisa puts her hands behind her back and points to her ring finger…she’s wearing Mrs. Thorwald’s wedding ring!
Unfortunately however, Thorwald notices this too and his eyes follow where Lisa is gesturing to. Suddenly he spots Jeff and Stella looking out the window! Jeff has Stella quickly turn out the lights then he gives Stella money to bail Lisa out of jail.
As soon as Stella leaves, Jeff calls Doyle to tell him what happened. Doyle says he’ll be right over. Seconds after he hangs up, the phone rings and Jeff thinking it’s Doyle, says that if he doesn’t act quickly, Thorwald may leave town very soon. Jeff however, soon realizes it’s not Doyle on the other end–it’s Thorwald. After several seconds of quiet, the line goes dead. Jeff then looks across the street and realizes that Thorwald isn’t in his apartment. Suddenly, Jeff hears footsteps right outside his door. The door opens. It’s Thorwald! Thorwald calmly asks Jeff for him to get the ring back from Lisa. Jeff loudly says, “no!“.
Thorwald starts coming closer. Feeling helpless in his wheelchair, Jeff visually scours his apartment looking for something to defend himself with. Suddenly, he sees the light!…his camera’s flashbulb lights, that is! As Thorwald gets closer, Jeff quickly attaches a flashbulb to his camera and flashes the bulb. This causes Thorwald to become temporarily blind and start stumbling. Soon however, Thorwald gets his bearings and starts approaching Jeff again. Once again, Jeff uses the bulbs to blind Thorwald…
Meanwhile across the street, Lisa, Stella and Doyle look for Thorwald in his apartment but they realize he’s not there. Instinctively, Lisa and Stella look up at Jeff’s apartment and there they see Thorwald attacking Jeff who’s now screaming for their help. Quickly, the group runs out the door and down to the courtyard.
Just as the group has made it to the courtyard, Thorwald pushes Jeff out the window. Miraculously, he lands on two detectives who are there to catch him. Lisa then runs over and cradles Jeff in her arms. The other detectives meanwhile, run upstairs and arrest Thorwald who confesses to his wife’s murder and says he’ll take them on a tour of the East River.
Jeff, now with two broken legs, is napping in his wheelchair (which by the way, is turned away from the window). Lisa, meanwhile, dressed in blue jeans, a flannel shirt and penny loafers, is stretched out on the sofa reading an adventurer magazine. When she looks over at Jeff and sees him napping, Lisa puts down the adventurer magazine and picks up the latest issue of Harper’s Bazaar.
New York City Locations
Though in the film, the address of the building was given as 125 West Ninth Street, in actuality, no such address exists in NYC. But thanks to film historian (and longtime West Village resident), Donald Spoto, the address was traced to 125 Christopher Street. And while all the action takes place in the apartment and courtyard of the apartment building, not one single shot was filmed in NYC. It was all filmed on a Paramount studio lot in Hollywood which is still deemed the largest movie set ever built in Paramount’s history.
According to the Paramount Pictures press book from the opening of the movie, such a perfectionist was Hitchcock, that he personally scouted various Greenwich Village locations to ensure authenticity. He then hired four photographers to shoot photos of these locations from various angles and in all kinds of weather.
In 2014, on the sixtieth anniversary of the opening of the movie, a reporter from the New York Post, was given exclusive access to the actual courtyard that inspired the one we see in the film.
Here’s the actual courtyard the film version was based on:
Though I’ve seen the movie numerous times, I do sometimes wonder if the story could take place in another city. Truth be told though, I do believe there’s something about New York City that lends itself to the story (and no, I’m not just saying that because I’m a born and bred New Yorker!). Actually, the author Cornell Woolrich, who wrote the short story upon which the film is based, didn’t even specify a city or neighborhood where the story takes place. That was all Hitchcock’s idea.
The Film Set In Miniature
As part of the 2015 Philadelphia Flower Show, professor of anthropology and artist Louise Krasniewicz, created an intricate miniature replica of the main movie set from Rear Window. Created in 1/12 scale, the work was displayed at D. Thomas Fine Miniatures and achieved Best in Show. For this Rear Window connoisseur, the replica is truly a marvel to behold!
What I Love About the Movie
While there have been volumes written about Rear Window and its statement about our society and voyeurism, I love it purely for its entertainment and suspense value. And though it’s usually categorized as a thriller/suspense film, there is not a drop of blood to be seen. The most violent scene is towards the end when Thorwald shoves Jeff out the window. As for thrills/chills, the most chilling scene for me is when the dog is found dead and all the neighbors run towards their windows to see the commotion… all that is, except for Thorwald. During this scene, all we see of Thorwald is the darkness of his apartment and the glowing embers of his cigar.
I also love the peripheral characters (Miss Lonelyhearts, Miss Torso, the composer, etc.) and though they aren’t a part of the main story and may not have many scenes or dialogue, they just add so much flavor and give a taste of what living in Greenwich Village was like in the 1950s.
Also being a fan of 1950’s kitsch, I love the set design. Every time I see the film, I always manage to catch a new something that I’ve never seen before both in Jeff’s apartment and the other apartments as well.
And of course, being a sucker for beautiful clothes, l love the costumes designed by the one and only Edith Head. There’s one costume in particular though, that always takes my breath away, and I simply call it THE dress. I have seen hundreds of movies in my lifetime and I have seen Rear Window maybe a little bit less than that but every time I see Grace Kelly in THE dress, it always makes me swoon.
As any Hitchcock fan knows, the director usually pops up in cameos in many of his movies. In Rear Window, Hitchcock can be seen a half hour into the film, in the songwriter’s apartment, winding a clock.
Rear Window was nominated for 4 Academy Awards: Best Director, Alfred Hitchcock; Best Screenplay, John Michael Hayes; Best Cinematography (color) Robert Burks and Best Sound Recording, Loren L. Ryder. It lost in all categories.