A news photographer, a restless man of action, is confined to his apartment and a wheelchair by a broken leg. He spends weeks looking out of his window at people who live in the apartments across the courtyard. Afraid of committing to his high-class girlfriend, he takes refuge in the petty lives of the semi-strangers who are his neighbours. The camera stays with the leading man inside his flat, and supporting characters appear only in long-shot, joys and miseries glimpsed and half-understood.
Sounds like an art movie, doesn't it?
Depending on the degree of wry comedy or domestic tragedy, it could be a delicate French comedy, an Italian neo-realist masterpiece or a despairing slice of Swedish miserabilism. All the hallmarks are there: a technical gimmick (staying on one set throughout), thematic complexity (a voyeur whose involvement in human stick figures is exactly that of a cinema audience), an unconventional mode of narrative (the hero and his few visitors discuss the stories they observe, like a chatty group at a hard-to-follow movie).
But one of the neighbours is a murderer. And the director is Alfred Hitchcock. The rotund Englishman was already well-established in America, but this was the first of a run of huge hits or true masterpieces that would last ten years. Having won long-sought independence from a contract with tyrannical producer David O. Selznick (the murderer of Rear Window is made up to look like Selznick), Hitch was declaring himself an auteur. Well before the craze for possessory credits, the title card boldly announces "Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window". So it's a thriller, with big Hollywood stars.
In 1954 they didn't come bigger than James Stewart, a real-life ageing juvenile who had surprised fans by becoming an authentic war hero and showing real depth in It's A Wonderful Life (1946) and a run of outstanding Westerns. Grace Kelly, a few years away from transformation into a genuine princess, was so beautiful and blonde she could only be convincingly cast as a fashion model. Rear Window is a murder story with big stars from a famous studio director. All of which doesn't mean it's not an art movie.
The first third contains not a mention of crime, as L.B. "Jeff" Jeffries (Stewart) grumbles at enforced confinement and tries to worm his way out of engagement to Lisa Fremont (Kelly). She wants him to remain permanently crippled (as he sees it) by switching from photographing wars and disasters to a life of moneyed ease shooting fashion spreads. Stella (the marvellous Ritter), a sour but funny nurse, comes every day and gossips with Jeff about the neighbours as if they were keeping up to date with a soap opera.
All the characters around the courtyard keep Jeff thinking about love, sex and marriage. "Miss Torso" jives in underwear and fends off wolfish young men while "Miss Lonelyhearts" prepares romantic candlelight meals she eats alone. Newlyweds pull down the blinds and spend the whole film having sex. A middle-aged couple sleep on the fire escape because of the New York heatwave, their dog a substitue child. A songwriter struggles with a melody, getting drunk or elated as a hit ("Lisa") coalesces. And weary jewellery salesman Lars Thorwald (Burr) is nagged by his shrew of a wife.
One night as Jeff dozes and watches, Thorwald struggles out with his sample case. The next morning, his wife is gone. In his apartment, Thorwald wraps used knives and saws for disposal. The dog digs at Thorwald's floral border, and Jeff notices some zinnias have shrunk. The dog is killed. Keen to switch the subject from marriage, Jeff tells Lisa he thinks Thorwald has murdered his wife and Stella fills in the gruesome details. Scenarist John Michael Hayes, like original author Cornell Woolrich, is a master of the horrid hint: the problem has been disposed of "in sections", the deed would have had to be done in the bathroom, under the zinnias is buried something "in a hatbox".
It is a measure of Hitch's genius that the murder story doesn't completely take over. At a crucial point, Jeff and Lisa are distracted from snoopy sleuthing when Miss Lonelyhearts seems on the point of suicide only to be dissuaded by the songwriter's piano-playing. When Thorwald realises he is being watched and comes to Jeff's flat, he is not a fiend in human form but a pitiably trapped little man who has found no relief in escape from his intolerable marriage, who has no money to pay off a blackmailer, and is puzzled that anyone would care about him and what he has done.
Rear Window ends with all stories resolved: the song is finished, Miss Torso welcomes home her tubby soldier boyfriend, the couple have a new puppy, Miss Lonelyhearts is with the songwriter and Thorwald's apartment is being redecorated. But Hitchcock doesn't let up: Jeff now has two broken legs and is asleep in domesticity with Lisa, who still thinks of taming him; and the sex-happy honeymooners are starting the whole cycle again, the wife having turned into a nag.