60 years later: Raymond Burr in ‘Rear Window’ (1954)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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26 responses to “60 years later: Raymond Burr in ‘Rear Window’ (1954)

  1. the old curmudgeon

    Yes! A wonderful film; and everyone in it was just right. Showed Raymond Burr was a much better actor than “Perry Mason” would have led us to believe. I think all great stage and screen villains are sympathetic though. Immediately coming to mind are Peter Ustinov as Nero in Quo Vadis, Laurence Olivier in Richard III, and I can’t forget Christopher Plummer’s Iago in Othello on Broadway, he stole the show from James Earle Jones; not an easy task.

    • Not sure I agree about “all” of them being sympathetic, Curmudgeon, but I certainly know what you’re saying.
      In this case, it just struck me harder than others that I’ve seen.

      I’m sure that was Hitchcock’s intent, but I can’t imagine anyone executing it as well as Burr did….

  2. That was my favorite of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies as well.
    I sat there in a cold sweat waiting for the killer to find and murder the helpless guy with the broken leg.
    *gasp* you just brought back that memory in all its anxiety.

  3. You and me both, Rear Window was THE movie that got me hooked on classics, I have seen it so many times, and it never gets old, does it? Also I DO try to live in that set, I have it as my blog header and background on my mail and all my social media 🙂 so I totally can relate to your love for it. I find it interesting that Burr was usually so bad in movies yet became a steady, comfortable to watch TV star. In Window he was chilling, that moment you have in the image, of him looking back at you, is so creepy (we’ve all been afraid of being spotted like that when checking what the neighbors are up to).

    Thanks for making the Darth banner, I’ve spotted it around town 🙂 and thanks for joining this event with such a fine villain.

    • My pleasure, across the board. Most fun I’ve had in a while, Kristina.

      Looking forward to next year already: Just have to choose who to write about NEXT time…

  4. Pingback: The Great Villain Blogathon: Day Six | shadowsandsatin

  5. LOVED your review. Your analysis of Raymond Burr’s performance is spot-on – he really is a pitiful, confused sort…but still with a lot of menace.

    Not sure if this is true, but I heard Alfred Hitchock deliberately chose Burr for the role because he bore a resemblance to David O. Selznick.

    Thanks for joining the blogathon fun with one of Hitchcock’s most memorable villains!

  6. Each time I see the movie, the more I feel for poor old Thorwald. He almost had a new life, but that snoopy-nosed Jefferies had to go and ruin everything!

    • 😀
      Agreed! Also, when I read your comment out loud to my wife, she burst out laughing at the phrase “snoopy-nosed” Jefferies.
      He most certainly did “ruin” everything, didn’t he??

      Thanks for reading, Patricia!

  7. lassothemovies

    One of my top five all time films, and I completely agree that he was one of the worst (or best) villains of all time. He’s so scary and evil, with so little dialogue or even screen time. Great film, great character, great performance, and a great post. Thanks very much for the wonderful read.

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to read. I had a great time, too, and promised Kristina that we’d do a few more classic movie posts in the coming months.

      Gotta stay sharp for NEXT year’s blogathon, after all!

  8. Great choice. Burr always looked like he was on the edge of strangling someone; how odd he mostly played good guys. 🙂

    He woulda got away if not for that pesky invalid…drat!

    Thanks for the reminder; I gotta see it again! My first blogathon has been a fun one.

    • Same here.

      Burr always seemed to be in a bad mood: that made him look sorta ill-tempered in his “good guy” shows, but here it fits him better. Plus, he played this role with far more nuance than I saw from him other times.

      And I vow to use the word “drat!” at some point this week. 😉

  9. livinrightinpgh

    Bart Simpson gave a great homage to Jimmy Stewart in a Simpson’s episode. Other than that, I have NO idea what you’re talking about…

  10. I’d lov to live in the Rear Window building, as well! It’s amazing how Hitchcock just shows us the villain in close-up in the final moments. This truly enhances the thrill of it all. I don’t feel sorry for Thorwald, but I believe he belongs rather in a mental institution than in jail.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Greetings!
    http://www.criticaretro.blogspot.com.br/2014/04/peter-lorre-o-vilao-subestimado.html

    • Greetings to you!
      Yes, there’s no question he’s unhinged: mental ward would be a good place to start. Just can’t help feeling sorry for him, though, even though I don’t want to.

      Thanks for the comments, and delighted you stopped by…
      And I absolutely will read your post. 😀

  11. What an excellent write-up! I’m a fan of Rear Window, too, although it’s not my favorite Hitchcock film — but you’ve heightened my appreciation for it, and given me some insights to keep in mind the next time I see it. I really enjoyed your analysis of Raymond Burr’s character. Good stuff! I look forward to your joining our blogathon again next year! 🙂

    • Thank YOU, Karen, and I’m delighted you felt we did it justice!
      I had a blast, and will most definitely be back next year.

      Burr’s performance did more with less than any other villain I can recall offhand. Hitchcock was no doubt responsible for much of it, but Burr had to pull it off …and he did. 😉

  12. Pingback: Research: Rear Window (1954) Inspo – Tayo Oyeniran-Ruddock

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