In 1954, Alfred Hitchcock made one of his best movies, Rear Window. The film is about L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (played by Jimmy Stewart), a professional photographer who took a huge risk to get a great picture and ended up breaking his leg.
The film tells you this in a very unique way. Instead of showing us the accident, the camera pans passed Jimmy’s leg in a cast to a broken camera, and then to a picture of a race car mid-wreck, clearly heading towards the camera (thus the broken leg). The camera then pans to the left showing us that he is a professional photographer with many awards and featured in magazines. We learn all this without a single word having been spoken yet, and all in the first shot.
Due to his injury, Jeff is forced to stay in his apartment and look out over the apartment courtyard, observing his neighbours. I am a huge fan of character development, and this film does an amazing job at that with characters that we don’t even know the names of. The neighbours each have distinct personalities, habits, and lives. And most of them never speak or have any real importance to the story except for being in it. You watch these people and really believe it, because Hitchcock had a way of making everything seem like it was really happening. What adds to it is that Hitchcock used real sounds of people living. So there will be long stretches of time where you will be watching a neighbour doing something, and instead of music, you will hear kids playing, traffic in the distance, birds and other city animals. If there was music it was coming from one of the other neighbours.
Jimmy Stewart is my favourite actor, and it’s performances like this that is the reason. Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) wants to marry Jeff, but he feels she deserves a better life than he could ever provide. His lifestyle requires that he always be on the move, and he doesn’t think she would be able to keep up with that and wouldn’t be suited for it. She keeps trying to prove that she is up for it, even going as far as to buy a small suitcase.
But while Jeff is watching his neighbours one night, he begins to suspect that one of them may have murdered their wife. At first Lisa and his nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter) think he’s lost his mind, but they eventually see enough for themselves and realize he is onto something. Jeff constantly watches from that point on, using his camera lens to spy on who he suspects for murder.
When the neighbour, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr, and the only neighbour with a name) realizes what Jeff is doing, he confronts him in his apartment leading to bit of a frightening encounter.
The film ends with a panning of the courtyard, showing that all of the characters had an ending to their story. Even though you never knew their names, and they weren’t technically essential to the story, they had a full character arch. The film is that detailed.
Update on 28 September 2017: In 1998, there was a remake starring the recently paralysed Christopher Reeve. This could have been a great remake, seeing as he was really wheelchair bound. However, the things that made the original great, such as subtlety and character development, are missing from here. Instead of being a photographer who gets into gets hit by a crashing racecar, Reeve’s character is an architect who is in a car accident. You actually see the accident, and then the next five minutes of the film is him in the hospital, in a coma, coming out of the coma, and generally suffering in the hospital. In the original, it’s only implied that the neighbour killed his wife and you don’t actually know if he did. Jeff simply pieces the clues together on his own. In the remake, Reeves actually sees him beat her to death. It’s on Netflix, which is how I saw it. It’s definitely not worth watching, unless you just feel like watching it. The only part that was even remotely suspenseful was when the neighbour cuts off Reeve’s oxygen supply, because you know he’s really in that position, so it a little scary seeing. I’m sure he didn’t really lose oxygen, but still…