Rear Window has been one of my all-time favorite movies from the very first time I saw it.
To me, it’s Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece: memorable, endlessly watchable, and nerve-wracking. For one thing, I wanted to live on that gigantic set: it was spectacular. Didn’t hurt that the film starred not only Jimmy Stewart, who oozed sincerity from every pore, but also Grace Kelly, who vied for my teenage heart with Maureen O’Hara (Maureen usually won that one, though: I had a weakness for redheads back then).
The movie’s premise is simple enough: Jeff (Stewart), a photographer with a broken leg who’s recuperating in his New York City apartment, spends his time spying on his neighbors from his window and becomes convinced one of them has committed murder.
Thus, we’ve got a murder mystery with Hitchcock, Stewart and Kelly, three ingredients which by themselves would guarantee it’d be phenomenal. But what made it all work, what really put it over the top, was the object of Jeff’s obsession, Lars Thorwald.
Raymond Burr’s Thorwald isn’t some scenery-chewing villain like Terence Stamp’s General Zod, nor a creepy-yet-brainy maniac like Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter. He’s not intimidating, or brilliant, or all that evil.
He’s sort of, well …rather pitiable, really.
Thorwald is a thoroughly beaten man from the moment we set eyes on him: beaten down by life, by his job, by his marriage. Despite his size, we get the impression that he has little strength remaining. Even his crumpled hat and wrinkled suit seem to say “What’s the use? This is all I’ve got left…”.
And that’s the subtle magnificence of Burr’s performance: with a bare minimum of screen time, he somehow has us feeling sorry for a dude who murders his invalid wife, cuts her up, and disposes of her body all over the city.
Even more amazing, it isn’t until the very end of the movie that we truly get to see and hear Burr, close up. Jeff is trying to keep on eye on Thorwald when he grabs the phone and starts speaking, thinking it’s his buddy, NYPD detective Doyle. Instead, it’s Thorwald. Silence greets Jeff on the other end of the line, as he (and we) realize his error:
Namely, that right now Jeff is alone in his apartment, utterly defenseless in his wheelchair with no means of escape, and Thorwald is coming to get him.
In a matter of moments, we see the outer hall light extinguished and then hear the heavy, lumbering footsteps of Thorwald slowly walking down the hall to Jeff’s apartment.
It’s every bad dream that I ever had as a kid, times ten.
But when Burr enters the darkened apartment, instead of merely panic we sense something …more. We can feel Thorwald’s bewilderment mixed liberally with a lifetime of hopelessness and disappointment:
“What do you want from me? … What is it you want? A lot of money? I don’t have any money…”
Those lines, spoken in Burr’s weary, raspy baritone, are among the best in the film. Thorwald didn’t plan this, any of this, and his confusion is palpable. Even then, just before he starts his halting attack on Jeff, even while you’re terrified of him, a part of you still feels bad for this guy who’s about to try to kill Hollywood’s most likable hero.
Not many actors could’ve pulled that off.
Ever since Rear Window was re-released back in 1983, I’ve seen it too many times to count. Please, if you don’t own a copy (and honestly: if you don’t, what the heck is wrong with you?), grab one and enjoy this classic again.
You might wanna close the blinds, though. Just sayin’…
**Our sincere thanks to Kristina at Speakeasy, Ruth at Silver Screenings, and Karen at Shadows & Satin for creating and organizing this “Great Villain Blogathon”!!
Please check out the cornucopia of other villainous blog entrees by clicking on the image below: