American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
The hero of Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window" is trapped in a wheelchair, and we're trapped, too--trapped inside his point of view, inside his lack of freedom and his limited options. When he passes his long days and nights by shamelessly maintaining a secret watch on his neighbors, we share his obsession. It's wrong, we know, to spy on others, but after all, aren't we always voyeurs when we go to the movies? Here's a film about a man who does on the screen what we do in the audience--look through a lens at the private lives of strangers.
The man is a famous photographer named L.B. Jeffries--"Jeff" to his fiancée. He's played by James Stewart as a man of action who has been laid up with a broken leg and a heavy cast that runs all the way up to his hip. He never leaves his apartment and has only two regular visitors. One is his visiting nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), who predicts trouble ("the New York State sentence for a Peeping Tom is six months in the workhouse"). The other is his fiancée, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), an elegant model and dress designer, who despairs of ever getting him to commit himself. He would rather look at the lives of others than live inside his own skin, and Stella lectures him, "What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change."
Jeff's apartment window shares a courtyard with many other windows (all built on a single set by Hitchcock), and as the days pass he becomes familiar with some of the other tenants. There is Miss Lonelyhearts, who throws dinner parties for imaginary gentleman callers; and Miss Torso, who throws drinks parties for several guys at a time; and a couple who lower their beloved little dog in a basket to the garden, and a composer who fears his career is going nowhere. And there is Thorvald (Raymond Burr), a man with a wife who spends all her days in bed and makes life miserable for him. One day the wife is no longer to be seen, and by piecing together several clues (a saw, a suitcase, a newly dug spot in Thorvald's courtyard garden), Jeff begins to suspect that a murder has taken place.
The way he determines this illustrates the method of the movie. Rarely has any film so boldly presented its methods in plain view. Jeff sits in his wheelchair, holding a camera with a telephoto lens, and looks first here and then there, like a movie camera would. What he sees, we see. What conclusions he draws, we draw--all without words, because the pictures add up to a montage of suspicion.