Directed by Alfred Hitchcock (The 39 Steps (1935), Torn Curtain (1966)).
Written by John Michael Hayes (The Trouble with Harry (1955), Iron Will (1994))
Starring: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr, Frank Cady, Ross Bagdasarian and others.
We follow a middle-aged photographer played by Jimmy Stewart. His whole leg is in a cast, so he’s reduced to sitting in a wheelchair inside his apartment, looking out his apartment window the whole day. It’s the 50’s, they didn’t have cable yet. He overlooks an inside yard and the building across it.
There’s only a small alley that leads to a street so there’s barely any feeling of the world outside this apartment block. This adds to the claustrophobic and intimate mood of the film. If that’s all you see all day, than you might start feeling like there’s nothing outside your field of vision. The obvious sound stage look in that way helps the film. But soon you forget its fakeness and start seeing it as this weird surreal contained snow globe of a world.
To be fair, the building across have a lot of stuff going on, there’s not one single apartment where something peculiar isn’t happening and people rarely close the curtains. And one day the photographer becomes pretty sure that what he is witnessing is a murder. As the movie progresses, he tries to figure out what is happening and how to convince others, that he is not going nuts, cooped up in his apartment.
The photographer has a girlfriend played by Grace Kelly. She wants to marry him, but he is apprehensive, because she comes from a different social background and they have colliding lifestyles. He rejects her and at first you’re glad that he does, because they really don’t have any chemistry and just feel like a forced couple. But later on, the girl gets interested in his little investigation and they sort of open up to each other. Which is kind of messed up if you think about it.
Jeff, the photographer isn’t that nice of guy either. After all, he snoops, he assumes, he is a dick to basically everyone he comes in contact with. Even his girlfriend he starts treating better only after she becomes involved in his unhealthy obsession with his neighbour. Jimmy Stewart is very well cast, he’s good at combining being essentially a nice guy with a selfish fast-talking dick. He was in the 40’s and 50’s what Jeff Goldblum was in the 80’s and 90’s.
Another exploration of their relationship is just the vast array of people in the apartments across, they symbolically represent the ways his life might turn out, depending on how he chooses to proceed with their relationship.
From a filmmaking standpoint this is a great set-up, because it allows the movie to be entirely subjective, being from the point of view of a single person and the building across is like a movie screen, where something horrible is happening, you wish to intervene but you can’t. Since Hitchcock was a master at manipulating with the viewer, this is a perfect canvas for him to work on. Another great aspect is how the movie conjures a fear of the possibility, that someone might look straight into the camera and see Jimmy Stewart looking at them and in a way see you, the viewer. You beg for the fourth wall to stand.
Overall, a great murder mystery with multiple layers, showcasing Hitchcock’s brilliance. Probably, one of his best movies. It’s just excellent filmmaking, hard not to enjoy. Definitely recommended.