The Quarantine Stream: 'Rear Window' is More Relevant Than Ever

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The MovieRear Window

Where You Can Stream It: Peacock

The Pitch: Jimmy Stewart plays a gruff photographer named L.B. Jeffries who broke his leg on the job. To recover, he’s sentenced to spend seven weeks at home, wheelchair-bound in a full leg cast, visited only by his company’s insurance nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and his high-class girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly). With not much else to do, Jeffries kills time by looking out his window and observing his neighbors, all of whom have their windows open because of a heat wave that’s settled over Manhattan. But as he watches, he begins to suspect that one of his neighbors may have murdered his own wife, and Jeffries becomes obsessed with solving the case.

Why It’s Essential Viewing: Considered by many to be among the best films ever made, Alfred Hitchcock‘s 1954 classic is a study in voyeurism and a masterwork of suspense. If you haven’t seen it, now is a particularly excellent time to take the plunge, because the film ended up being an unwitting predictor of our current quarantine experience. (I haven’t spotted any murders out my window yet…but since this pandemic isn’t going away any time soon, there’s still plenty of time for that.) I’m far from the first person to point this out, but Jeffries being confined to his apartment reflects how many of us are still staying home as much as possible as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, making the movie possibly more relevant – and definitely more relatable – than ever.

It had been many years since I’d seen this, so I was surprised to rediscover how weird the relationship is between Stewart and Kelly. The movie puts them on opposite sides of a societal line, with Stewart’s photographer wanting to continue his on-the-go lifestyle as a globetrotting photographer and Kelly’s high society woman wanting him to settle down. Their relationship becomes the focus of the movie any time the potential murder isn’t being discussed, and it’s fascinating to think about how much our culture has changed since the mid-’50s and yet how much it’s stayed the same.

It was also surprising to rediscover just how much time Hitchcock takes to set the stage before the action ramps up near the end of the film. So much of the movie is made up of reaction shots of Stewart simply glancing one way or the next as he takes in the mundane activities of his neighborhood – yet the movie is riveting, because you know there could be a clue hovering in the corner of any frame. Stewart’s a charismatic, physical performer who finds himself slightly hamstrung here by his character’s situation, unable to fall back on his regular bag of acting tricks and utilize his lanky body in the way he’s used to. But star power isn’t reserved for those who are always standing, and his character, the audience avatar, is still a compelling, engaging presence on screen.

The last time I watched this movie, I was too young to realize that the whole film works as a commentary about McCarthyism, which had torn across the nation for years and was just starting to die around the time this film was released. The idea of actively spying on your neighbors was promoted in some circles as a way to try to ferret out communists and communist sympathizers; when a dog is murdered in Rear Window and its owner gives a heart-wrenching speech about how neighbors are supposed to act toward each other, it feels like the movie’s refutation of the McCarthy-era mindset. But then again, Stewart’s character spies on a neighbor who ends up being a murderer, so the film’s stance is more complicated than it appears.

Still, putting all of its messages aside and viewing it purely as a visceral suspense thriller, Rear Window straight-up rules. The moment when Raymond Burr‘s character stares directly into the camera lens may be the movie’s most chilling moment: not only has Stewart been caught looking at him, but so has the audience. Its turbulent climax (even with some dodgy VFX) is still masterfully staged and executed – I found myself accidentally holding my breath, even though I’d seen it before. Hitchcock! Filmmaking! What an art form! What a movie.

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