A masterpiece of suspenseful storytelling with a deeper comment on voyeurism and feminism. It’s neighbourhood watch element makes it all the more interesting as we see multiple story arcs along with the main character.
The plot centres on the gazing eyes of Jefferies (James Stewart) as he’s confined to a wheelchair after a photography accident. A carer (Thelma Ritter) and his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) pop in now and again pushing the idea of love and marriage as he continues to suspect a neighbour opposite his apartment has murdered his wife.
Just from the opening shot alone we are gifted the main theme of this film, as the three window blinds roll up we move in towards the backyard area of Greenwich Village. It’s a movie of seeing or of what you don’t see and we are put in the same searching eyes of Jefferies as he spends his crippled days watching the goings on around him. It’s even more fitting as Stella, his insurance company carer comments on the world becoming a race of peeping toms as we too are just the same, wanting to see what happens in each place. The idea of voyeurism is a fascinating tool and with the additional help of binoculars and a camera lens we see even more behind the scenes goodies as it zooms into the properties. A voyeuristic lust is some hidden want in all of us, we like knowing what people are up to and this film does a great job of relating to that desire and feeding it.
To further this idea, the voyeurism of the female gender becomes a hot topic for the feminist debate as Grace Kelly’s character, Lisa could be viewed as a subject of the male gaze. The introduction is at first looming with her shadow over Jefferies more a threat than anything else, but then comes the stylised Hollywood kiss between them and her fondness for dresses and turning on lights to show herself off fits as another thing for Jefferies to look at. This idea of looking becomes even more useful when Lisa actually steps away from the presence of Jefferies and appears in the Village scenery that he has been looking at for days. She is now another character in his soap opera window and the look he gives when she returns to his apartment shows how he now views her with pride. I don’t really get the argument of this movie being against women as it clearly demonstrates that Lisa holds her own with smarts and braveness, Stella too is clever and witty and the end showcases how the man hasn’t really won as Lisa pretends to read something for Jefferies benefit but she’s still the same person and not under his influence one bit.
The direction is beautiful from Alfred Hitchcock as the camera zooms in to numerous windows and pans around the atmospheric gardens of the Village. The windows that Jefferies and we as the audience look at serve as small sized rations of television screens helping reinforce the notion of each window displaying a different story. We see the flirty nature of Miss Torso/Ballet Girl as her story goes on (perhaps the only real point of misogyny with her described as just a body and looked at in the same way), there’s plenty of other stories that unravel too with the Newlyweds, the Lonely Heart and the Couple with the Dog. It feels like some engaging series of dramas that we keep getting snippets of, the pleasant and fitting mood wafting from the sounds of the pianist help create a more homely soapy feel to the developments also.
I really think this is Hitchcock’s best because it’s so interesting, it’s funny and witty and the lines of dialogue are sharp and keep the story at a great momentum. It’s in fact one of my favourite films in general, it looks glamorous and dangerous in equal measure, Kelly is superbly stunning and assured as the ballsy Lisa. Ritter gets some of the best things to say and delivers with punchy sass and Stewart is manly but flawed in his wheelchair bound role but you empathise with him too. There’s credit too for Raymond Burr who plays the possible wife murderer who has a shifty and menacing look as he goes back and forth under the watch of our eyes.
The climatic moment of Jefferies actually facing Lars (Burr) is a bit silly with the cliffhanging dangle looking dated and the odd speeding up of neighbours rushing outside was an odd choice to go for in directorial/editing terms. Honestly aside from this moment of slight problems, which could have paid off with more chilling tension some other way, it’s a near flawless film that dishes up suspense, mystery, playfulness and voyeurism in gripping equal measure.
A classic thriller film that has and should still continue to stand the test of time in story and thematic terms. It’s exciting and uses film as a platform to highlight the pleasure of human curiosity.