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Rear Window: In the Heat of the Night

Exclusive Guest Article

By: Robert Jones

This article is the first in a series of four guest articles to appear on this page in celebration of Universal’s release ofThe Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection.’

 “How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine?” —Uncle Charlie Oakley (Shadow of a Doubt, 1943)

In what is arguably the grimmest character portrayal in any Alfred Hitchcock film, Joseph Cotten gives voice to the darkest worldview of any of the director’s legendary villains. In Shadow, con man Uncle Charlie’s darkness is alien to the sunny outlook of his extended family in Santa Rosa, California. But, in his 1954 Paramount release Rear Window, the audience gets to witness Uncle Charlie’s malignant philosophy as legendary director Alfred Hitchcock rips open the backs of a block of apartments in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.

Hitchcock personally regarded Shadow of a Doubt as his best film, a view he maintained even after he produced and directed what is widely regarded as the triad of his greatest films: Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960). This is quite telling: Hitch called his method of moviemaking “subjective.” From the construction of his screenplays, to the camerawork and editing that tell the movie’s story from the points-of-view of the characters that people his films, to the audience identifying with their heroes, heroines, and heavies, Hitchcock conjured films that were deeply personal.

Rear Window is Alfred Hitchcock’s ultimate projection of this philosophy of filmmaking. The movie’s theme is confinement. This is the third time Hitchcock explored this theme, by putting all the action in a single setting. His first experiment with single-set motion pictures, Lifeboat (1944), takes place in a rescue vessel as its eight occupants try to survive being stranded at sea. It was filmed in a tank built on a 20th Century Fox soundstage.

Hitch’s next entry in this genre he helped to create, Rope (1948), took place in an elaborate Manhattan penthouse apartment set, from which we can see New York City’s majestic skyline; the entire movie was filmed in a “single take,” that is, in eight sequential takes of ten minutes apiece, that flowed one to the next. Rope was Hitchcock’s most ambitious project to date, although it did poorly at the box office.

With Rear Window, however, Hitchcock ratcheted the ambition to eleven: A set of thirty-one apartments (a dozen of which were fully furnished) was built on one of Paramount’s sound stages. The floorboards were removed in sections to extend the set’s courtyard down into what had been the basement.

Motion pictures employ the art of illusion-making, and Rear Window is no exception. What you see is not what you see, but what you think you see. When I attended film school at Manhattan’s Hunter College, one of my professors mentioned how adventurous movie buffs would find their way to 125 West 9th Street, only to eventually find out that not a single second of footage was ever shot in New York! (However, Hitchcock’s insistence on verisimilitude can still be found in the rear window courtyard found at 125 Christopher Street, which was the source inspiration for Rear Window.)

The movie’s titles open up in a dolly-forward shot before cutting to a long panning shot of the self-encased courtyard, apartment buildings, and their denizens. After panning across the backyard flats of a Greenwich Village neighborhood, the camera returns home to find the movie’s protagonist, photojournalist L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart appearing in his second Hitchcock film). Hitchcock is giving us Jefferies’s backstory in a masterpiece of mise-en-scène and exposition. In one traveling pan, Hitch and cinematographer Robert Burks let the reader intuit what they need to know about Jefferies, to set up the movie’s premise:

  1. Stewart is asleep, sweat beading on his brow, in a wheelchair.
  2. He’s wearing a full leg cast that reads, “Here lie the broken bones of L.B. Jefferies.”
  3. A thermometer at an open window reads ninety-four degrees Fahrenheit. (These were in the days before most people had home air conditioning.)
  4. Next, the camera stops at a smashed up press camera, then resumes its motion.
  5. A photograph on the wall shows two race cars colliding, with a dislodged wheel flying right at you.
  6. An assortment of framed photographs, cameras, press plates, and a stack of magazines.

In forty-two seconds, Hitchcock has given us everything we need to know about who L.B. Jefferies is, what he does for a living, and how he got in this predicament. It would have taken a more conventional director of the same era at least ten minutes to explain all this through dialogue—and even then, the tale would have come off as so far-fetched and convoluted as to defy belief.

The story of Rear Window is quite simple: Jefferies (known to friends and co-workers as “Jeff”), confined to a wheelchair in a cramped Manhattan apartment, whiles away his time by observing the daily dramas of a cast of colorful characters out his back window. Jeff doesn’t even know his neighbors who populate the stage of apartment windows, doorways, and fire escapes of their own daily dramas. The characters all are named by their physical features or occupations: “Miss Torso,” the ballet dancer (Georgine Darcy), “Miss. Hearing Aid,” the over the hill sculptress (Jesslyn Fax), “The Songwriter,” constantly composing at his piano (Ross Bagdasarian), “The Newlywed Couple,” who just moved into a small apartment next to Jeff (Rand Harper and Havis Davenport), “Miss Lonelyhearts,” the frustrated middle-aged single (Judith Evelyn), and “The Childless Couple” who sleep with their dog on the fire escape to escape the heat (Sara Berner and Frank Cady). And, so on.

When I introduced my kids to Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, I chose Rear Window. Everything is so elemental, even more than a stage play. It’s as though each apartment Jimmy Stewart is peering at through his window is a comic strip panel, where stories unfold, step-by-step. Hitch and screenwriter John Michael Hayes give starkly definable roles and tasks to their inhabitants. Their behaviors, with their ups and downs, follow predictable routines. They become stand-ins for how Hitchcock casts his pictures, as Stewart stands in for Hitchcock, a giant master of puppets with a doll’s house view of his Lilliputian neighbors.

While the world outside Jeff’s window is two-dimensional, inside, not so much. Everyone who enters complicates his life, from his editor (the voice of Gig Young, via telephone), the insurance company nurse, Stella (the irascible, wisecracking Thelma Ritter), and his fashion model girlfriend, Lisa (played with a spring in her step and a lilt in her voice by a young Grace Kelly) all come and parry with the temporary inconvenienced invalid.

Jeff is cranky, bristling to everyone he speaks—often contradicting himself. He tries to one-up everyone. “Oh, stop sounding stuffy!” to editor who wants him to stay put and heal. To the working class Stella, he switches gears and comes off as stuffy to Ritter’s bluntness, in riposte to her story about how she predicted the 1929 stock market crash: “Uh, Stella, in economics, a kidney ailment has no relationship to the stock market. None, whatsoever.” He’s contentious with Lisa, who wants to turn him into a corporate man, desperately trying to domesticate him and shed his Jeep and pith helmet world traveler life, in exchange for a buttoned-down corporate persona. He’s become a man uncomfortable in his own skin, because his skin is encased in a “plaster cocoon.”

And, every day and night, he peers out the window, and slowly realizes how powerless he really is on the stage of his own recurring dramas. Until, on yet another sweltering night, there is a change. The drabbest of his neighbors, a costume jewelry salesman across the way, becomes the object of his focus: Jeff hears a woman’s scream in the dark, and suddenly becomes curious about the seeming disappearance of the salesman’s wife.

Raymond Burr’s portrayal of door-to-door salesman, Lars Thorwald, is a study in the evil of banality. He lays bare the ugly truth of Uncle Charlie’s dictum of ripping the fronts off houses and finding porcine inhabitants. But, unlike Charlie’s lady-killing charmer, Thorwald is uninspired, humorless, and drab—there is nothing dashing or cunning about him. Jeff nonetheless becomes obsessed with him, spying on him with binoculars and a telephoto lens mounted on his SLR camera. Stewart wields the camera like an M-1 carbine, lining up Thorwald in his sights.

He finds himself in his element again, and convinces Lisa that something sinister is afoot. Enter Jeff’s Army buddy and now police detective Lt. Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey), who has a rational explanation to explain everything Jeff has witnessed:

Doyle: You didn’t see the killing or the body. How do you know there was a murder?

Jeff: Because everything this fellow’s done has been suspicious. Trips at night in the rain. Knives, saws, trunks with rope, and now a wife that isn’t there anymore.

Doyle: I admit it does have a mysterious sound. But it could be any number of things for the wife disappearing. Murder is the least likely.

Could Jeff be mistaken? Is he letting his imagination get the better of him, as Joan Fontaine did in Suspicion (1941)? In the most subtle use of subjective storytelling, Jeff’s asleep in his wheelchair while missing the most crucial piece of evidence in his murder theory: Lars Thorwald leaves his apartment with a woman who’s obviously his wife, en route to the train station. By disclosing to the viewer what he’s pointedly failed to reveal to Jeff, Hitchcock always leaves the viewer thinking, and staying one step ahead of the picture’s hero. The director’s conceit pays off big-time by movie’s end.

In trying to relate his disappointment over Lisa, Stewart confides to Stella, “She’s too perfect, she’s too talented, she’s too beautiful, she’s too sophisticated, she’s too everything but what I want.” When we first see Grace Kelly, she’s exquisitely tailored in an “A steal at $1,100!” ($11,000 in today’s money) imported silk Italian dress, right off the modeling runway.

Lisa and Jeff are constantly at loggerheads. She wants to turn him into Gregory Peck in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and he wants to make a homebody and travel companion of her. And, over the course of the motion picture, Kelly’s wardrobe gradually becomes plainer and less extravagant: by movie’s end, she’s wearing floral print house dresses, and simple red cotton blouses and blue jeans. Expertly tailored, of course, but much more accessible to the audience’s expectations of 1950s middle class womanhood.

In other words, without a word uttered, Grace Kelly transformed herself from Madeleine into Judy!

Rear Window is a tour de force of filmmaking. In the sixty-six years since its release, it has been one of Hitchcock’s most beloved motion pictures. Yet, a schism still exists between its partisans, and those who prefer Vertigo, which was voted atop Sight and Sound’s poll in 2012.

Most of Alfred Hitchcock’s output is constantly judged against his ultimate triad of masterpieces: Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), and Psycho (1960). He set such a high standard, his “lesser” films are constantly found wanting when juxtaposed with these three iconic movies. I can’t even count how many times otherwise objective critics and movie historians have complained that solid movies like Family Plot (his last picture, in 1976), The Wrong Man (1956), and Secret Agent (1936) fall far short of the standard Hitchcock set with Vertigo. I think they’re missing the point: only Vertigo is Vertigo; finding Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony falling far short of his Ninth Symphony is missing the point entirely. A great work of art must first be judged on its own standards.

For those armchair critics who find Rear Window lacking in subtlety of visual sophistication, I submit it is upon Rear Window’s shoulders which Alfred Hitchcock’s later masterpieces stand.

* * *

Robert Jones is a former Army photojournalist and the author and photographer of Hitchcock’s California: Vista Visions from the Camera Eye (along with Dan Auiler and Aimee Sinclair). The book is currently available for purchase at amazon.com.

One response to “Rear Window: In the Heat of the Night

  1. Pingback: 4K UHD Blu-ray Review: The Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection | Alfred Hitchcock Master

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