In one of Hitchcock’s best films, Jimmy Stewart is a globe-trotting photojournalist temporarily confined to his Greenwich Village apartment by a broken leg. Grace Kelly is his devoted girlfriend, rich, classy, and heavily involved in the fashion industry. She wants him to marry her and settle down, offering to get him a safer and higher-paying job as a fashion photographer. But he loves his work, worries she wouldn’t be happy traveling the world with him, and doubts he’d be comfortable in her circles either, so he’s reluctant. Thelma Ritter, his visiting nurse, thinks he’s nuts.
Stewart deals with his boredom by watching his neighbors who live in the apartments surrounding the courtyard he can see from his window, a group that includes a pair of newlyweds, an eccentric female sculptor, a lonely spinster, a salesman and his disagreeable semi-invalid wife, and an older married couple who sleep on the fire escape in hot weather and lower their dog to the shared courtyard in a basket.
Then one day the salesman’s wife is no longer there and Stewart starts to suspect foul play. At first nobody believes him, including a friend (Wendell Corey) who’s a police detective, but they gradually come to take his concerns seriously.
Hitchcock supposedly cast Raymond Burr (later famous as Perry Mason) as the salesman because with the right glasses and hair he looked remarkably like David O Selznik, the producer of Rebecca (reviewed here) and several other Hitchcock films, who took a hands-on approach to producing that Hitchcock found very annoying.
The set is almost a character in itself. Based in part on photographs taken in Greenwich village, it was built into a huge Paramount soundstage, and Hitchcock even persuaded the studio to tear out the floor so the deep basement (normally used to store furniture) could serve as the ground level of the set, thus adding more total height.
A total of 31 apartments overlooked the courtyard, at least eight of them fully functional with water and electricity. Georgine Darcy, who plays the beautiful young dancer Stewart’s character calls Miss Torso, spent all day in her apartment during shooting, even when she wasn’t needed, entertaining herself by watched the filming and as a result becoming enough of an expert on Rear Window that she later advised film historians about it. Hitchcock insisted that Darcy invent her own dance routines without the help of a choreographer in order to get a more natural performance. Her character is surprisingly well-realized and memorable for someone seen for only a few minutes of the film. (This might also have to do with the fact that she’s hot.)
The distinctive loft apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows on the far right is occupied by a songwriter working on a composition that’s one of the film’s main themes. Almost all the music is sourced on set, from radios, record players, or in the case of the songwriter his piano. The music was recorded by microphones in Stewart’s apartment in order to capture a realistic ambiance. Almost all the shots are seen from his apartment’s viewpoint as well. Hitchcock even directed most of the film from there, communicating with the cast in the other apartments or the courtyard through flesh-colored earpieces they wore.
The songwriter, by the way, is played by Ross Bagdasarian, a real-life professional singer and songwriter better known under the stage name David Seville. While the song in the film was actually composed by Franz Waxman, Bagdasarian wrote a number of hits of the 1950s and 60s including “Come on-a My House,” and “Witch Doctor.” He also invented Alvin and the Chipmunks, writing their songs and singing all the voices.
The script for Rear Window was by John Michael Hayes, who wrote it based on a mystery short story by Cornell Woolrich that’s much more narrowly focused. The hero’s love interest and the other neighbors were invented by Hayes and Hitchcock. Since Hitchcock was heavily occupied with Dial M for Murder (reviewed here) he largely left Hayes alone during the writing process, mainly giving him notes on completed drafts.
Grace Kelly also starred in Dial M for Murder and is quite good in it, but Hitchcock thought he’d get a more natural performance from her if she played a character with a personality closer to her own. So he had Hayes spend a week and a half hanging out with Grace Kelly to get to know her (and amazingly enough getting paid to do it).
Hayes found her charming, funny, and sexy, just as she comes across in the film. (Stewart basically plays himself as well.) Hayes based her character’s career on that of his own wife, a former model turned fashion professional. At the premiere his wife recognized references to stories she’d told him about the industry. Letting his wife know he was thinking about her when writing for Grace Kelly was a smart move.
Meanwhile Jimmy Stewart’s wife was reportedly a little nervous, since not only was Grace Kelly young, beautiful, and immensely likable but also known for having romantic flings with her leading men, and on top of that she’d been quoted in the press as having said that Jimmy Stewart was possibly the most attractive man she’d ever met. But Stewart remained a loyal husband, or at least a careful one.
Besides the mystery, suspense, and humor one expects in a Hitchcock film, there are some interesting insights into human relationships. Almost all the couples depicted have problems, and most of the male characters are varying degrees of obnoxious to women. The single most affecting piece of dialog is uttered not by a major character but by a distraught woman who lectures her neighbors on their lack of neighborliness.