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.

Blu-ray Review: Rear Window

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Distributor: Universal Studios

Release Date: May 06, 2014

Region: Region Free

Length: 1:52:32

Video: 1080P (VC-1)

Main Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio Mono (48kHz, 24-bit)

Alternate Audio: DTS French Mono, DTS Spanish Mono

Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish

Ratio: 1.66:1

Bitrate: 31.99 Mbps

Notes: This title has had a number of DVD releases and is also available on Blu-ray as part of a boxed set entitled The Masterpiece Collection. The transfer used for the boxed set is the same one that is included here and the disc includes the same special features. This same Blu-ray disc has also been released in a 5-disc set entitled The Essentials Collection.

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“…all I can say about it is; it’s one of the most cinematic films I’ve ever made. You see, people – especially technicians – are mistaken as to what is cinematic. First of all, the photography of people in dialogue is definitely nothing to do with the cinema whatsoever – it’s purely an extension of the theatre. I’ve done it myself, I know, it doesn’t relate. Photographing of westerns, galloping horses, it what it is – it’s photography, but not necessarily cinematic.

 Whereas, in a picture like Rear Window, you have a man sitting at a window looking: the first piece of film a close-up, the second piece of film is what he sees, the third piece of film is his reaction. Now here, in rapid succession, are three piece of film put together, which is really what “pure cinema” is – the relative position of the pieces of film which creates an idea, like words in a sentence. Out of these three pieces of film an idea is born and an audience [will] react to that idea, from the pieces of film that they’ve seen…You are putting the audience in the place of Stewart. They are verifying what he sees.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Speculation, Channel 28, 1969)

Rear Window is indeed a work of cinematic art. Alfred Hitchcock had first come across Cornell Woolrich’s ‘It Had to Be Murder’ (which was later given the better title, ‘Rear Window’) in 1951 and decided to make it his first film for Paramount in 1953.

The opening paragraphs of “It Had To Be Murder” would not lead anyone to believe that the film has diverged in any significant way from the source text.

“I didn’t know their names. I’d never heard their voices. I didn’t even know them by sight, strictly speaking, for their faces were too small to fill in with identifiable features at that distance. Yet I could have constructed a timetable of their comings and goings, their daily habits and activities. They were the rear-window dwellers around me.

 Sure, I suppose it was a little bit like prying, could even have been mistaken for the fevered concentration of a Peeping Tom. That wasn’t my fault, that wasn’t the idea. The idea was, my movements were strictly limited just around this time. I could get from the window to the bed and from the bed to the window, and that was all. The bay window was about the best feature my rear bedroom had in the warm weather. It was unscreened, so I had to sit with the light out or I would have had every insect in the vicinity in on me. I couldn’t sleep, because I was used to getting plenty of exercise. I’d never acquired the habit of reading books to ward off boredom, so I hadn’t that to turn to. Well, what should I do, sit there with my eyes tightly shuttered?” –Cornell Woolrich (It Had to Be Murder)

However, as one continues to read, it becomes clear that there were numerous changes made during the adaptation process. The most immediately obvious of these changes concern the characters. There was no love interest in the original story, there was no insurance company nurse, and the occupants of the various windows across the courtyard were not in Woolrich’s short story.

“Well, we added a woman to the innumerable characters in the various rooms. All created. None of which was in the book. We engaged a woman masseur who was played by Thelma Ritter. She was an additional character. I made the leading man a photographer…” –Alfred Hitchcock (Court Transcript, May 1974)

Woolrich’s story does allude to other occupants across the way early in the story, but these occupants are only mentioned twice early on, and are different from those in the film.

“…Just to pick a few at random: Straight over, and the windows square, there was a young jitter-couple, kids in their teens, only just married. It would have killed them to stay home one night. They were always in such a hurry to go, wherever it was they went, they never remembered to turn out the lights. I don’t think it missed once in all the time I was watching. But they never forgot altogether, either. I was to learn to call this delayed action, as you will see. He’d always come skittering madly back in about five minutes, probably from all the way down in the street, and rush around killing the switches. Then fall over something in the dark on his way out. They gave me an inward chuckle, those two.

 The next house down, the windows already narrowed a little with perspective. There was a certain light in that one that always went out each night too. Something about it, it used to make me a little sad. There was a woman living there with her child, a young widow I suppose. I’d see her put the child to bed, and then bend over and kiss her in a wistful sort of way. She’d shade the light off her and sit there painting her eyes and mouth. Then she’d go out. She’d never come back till the night was nearly spent. – Once I was still up, and I looked and she was sitting there motionless with her head buried in her arms. Something about it, it used to make me a little sad…” –Cornell Woolrich (It Had to Be Murder)

The second of these examples begins to resemble the character of ‘Miss Lonely-hearts’ in the film. However, one can only speculate whether or not the idea was derived from the original story. The short story failed to utilize these characters, and they were only mentioned once more (and only in passing) a few paragraphs later. Hitchcock’s film manages to use the occupants across the courtyard as a comment on Jeff and Lisa’s dilemma. They are not simply there to fill the screen.

“It shows every kind of human behavior – a real index of individual behavior. The picture would have been very dull if we hadn’t done that. What you see across the way is a group of little stories that, as you say, mirror a small universe.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

Instead of an insurance company nurse and a love interest, Woolrich’s protagonist has a houseboy named Sam. It is Sam who goes to Thorwald’s apartment in the book (to mess up his apartment and not to look for evidence). The murderer’s method of body disposal was also more satisfying in the film. Woolrich’s protagonist buried his wife under the floor of a vacant apartment and cemented over her.

Even the story’s climax was changed from the source.

“There wasn’t a weapon in the place with me. There were books there on the wall, in the dark, within reach. Me, who never read. The former owner’s books. There was a bust of Rousseau or Montesquieu, I’d never been able to decide which, one of those gents with flowing manes, topping them. It was a monstrosity, bisque clay, but it too dated from before my occupancy.

 I arched my middle upward from the chair seat and clawed desperately up at it. Twice my fingertips slipped off it, then at the third raking I got it to teeter, and the fourth brought it down into my lap, pushing me down into the chair. There was a steamer rug under me. I
didn’t need it around me in this weather, I’d been using it to soften the seat of the chair. I tugged it out from under and mantled it around me like an Indian brave’s blanket. Then I squirmed far down in the chair, let my head and one shoulder dangle out over the arm, on the side next to the wall. I hoisted the bust to my other, upward shoulder, balanced it there precariously for a second head, blanket tucked around its ears…

 …He was good with knobs and hinges and things. I never heard the door open, and this one, unlike the one downstairs, was right behind me. A little eddy of air puffed through the dark at me. I could feel it because my scalp, the real one, was all wet at the roots of the hair right then…

 …The flash of the shot lit up the room for a second, it was so dark. Or at least the corners of it, like flickering, weak lightning. The bust bounced on my shoulder and disintegrated into chunks.” –Cornell Woolrich (It Had to Be Murder)

After this, Jeff is rescued by Boyne (the police detective named Doyle in the film) and a chase ensues ending in Thorwald’s death.

Hitchcock would turn this enjoyable crime story into brilliant cinema with the help of John Michael Hayes (who would continue to work with the director on his next three films).

“I engaged a writer… John Michael Hayes; and the writing was done in my office – with his typewriter – in my office, and there are many witnesses if you need them. In other words, I dictate the picture. I did not hand that book to the writer and say, ‘Make a screenplay of this,’ which is a custom of the business. But it doesn’t apply to me, because I make a specific type of film, and I dictate to him what I want to go into the story – and just as a matter of interest – the reason that is done is because I want it done my way, in my style, and I would say in that process there is twenty percent Cornell Woolrich and eighty percent Hitchcock.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Court Transcript, May 1974)

The original treatment was much different than the final script. Much of the suspenseful action occurs off-screen in the Hayes treatment. This action is related to Jeff in dialogue (breaking one of Hitchcock’s very strict rules about cinematic storytelling). In the treatment, Lisa follows Thorwald when he leaves his apartment. While Jeff waits for Lisa to return, he notices that Thorwald’s zinnias have grown shorter when compared to a slide that he had taken previously. Jeff is filled in on all of the suspenseful action upon Lisa’s return.

“What did he do? Where did he go? Jeff wanted to know. No place that made much sense to her. He walked to a huge excavation on Martine Street where workers were pouring cement for the foundation of a new insurance company building. He stayed there, watching the work, until the cement was poured and smoothed. Then he went to a nearby bar for a couple of quick drinks. The drinks seemed to relax him, for once he came out of the bar his nervousness was gone and he no longer looked behind himself. Then he stopped in a drugstore for some cigarettes. While waiting for change, he noticed some crime magazines on a stand. Then his face went white. He seemed shaken. He picked out one of the magazines, which one she couldn’t see, paid for it, and hurried back to his apartment.” –John Michael Hayes (Treatment for ‘Rear Window’ – as it appears in Writing for Hitchcock by Steven DeRosa)

Another major difference from the finished film is established here. All references to burying body parts on an excavation site that would be paved over are omitted in the finished film. (This is obviously suggested by the renovated apartment building burial in Cornell Woolrich’s short story.) In this early treatment, Lisa crosses the courtyard and enters his apartment to retrieve the crime magazine Thorwald purchased in the drugstore. As in the film, this is the moment that Jeff realizes his immense love for Lisa.

“‘Oh Lisa darling,’ Jeff says aloud. ‘He’s already killed one woman. I don’t want him to kill you – of all women.’ And Jeff is shocked to learn how much he loves her. He loves you Lisa. Get out of there, and get back to him. You’ve made him understand.” –John Michael Hayes (Treatment for ‘Rear Window’ – as it appears in Writing for Hitchcock by Steven DeRosa)

Hayes drew upon his own experiences for Jeff’s realization.

“That came out of my life. Before my wife and I were married, we decided to delay our marriage until I was more successful. We got into an automobile accident and she was thrown out of the car onto the highway amongst the broken glass and metal and everything. But in the brief moment when I saw her rolling down the highway before I was knocked unconscious against the windshield, I said, ‘Oh my God. If anything happened to her, my life won’t be worth anything.’ And I decided I was not going to wait another minute if we ever lived through this thing… So when I came to figure out how we were going to write that scene, I said, ‘That automobile accident.’ He saw her and thought maybe it’s the last he’d ever see of her, because this man is capable of killing and cutting her up.” -John Michael Hayes (as quoted in Writing for Hitchcock by Steven DeRosa)

Another difference in the treatment is an altered ending. After forcing Jeff onto the window ledge Boyne (the detective, later re-named Doyle) fires three shots into Thorwald’s chest. It is too late. Jeff falls and breaks his other leg. They are told that Mrs. Thorwald’s head was buried in the flower bed, and Lisa and Jeff come together once and for all.

“Jeff and Lisa come together in love. He tells her what he thought when he was in danger. The experience, she said, awakened her also. But the thing that impressed her most was that melody the songwriter was playing in her moment of greatest horror. It was utterly beautiful and she was determined Thorwald wouldn’t kill her until the song was finished.” –John Michael Hayes (Treatment for ‘Rear Window’ – as it appears in Writing for Hitchcock by Steven DeRosa)

Alfred Hitchcock had many ideas for changes to the treatment. As an avid reader of true-crime, the director referred Hayes to two very famous cases.

“…I also included the essence of two famous English cases. One was the case of Dr. Crippen, the first man ever to be arrested by radio at sea. He was uncovered because he gave his wife’s jewelry to his secretary and that was his uncovering. A wife doesn’t go away and leave her jewelry behind. That was inserted into the story. There was also the case of Patrick Mahon. …Patrick Mahon murdered a woman, cut the body up into pieces and threw them out. Carried them in a suitcase and threw them out of the window of a train between Eastbourne and London, but he had a problem with the head. He put the head into the fire and burned it, and the heat of the fire caused the eyes to open, that indicated to me, that whatever this murder may be, the murderer would have a problem with the head. Therefore, I put that incident in and buried the head in the garden. And it was through the dog scratching on the garden where the head was that caused the murderer to kill the dog. That was taken from an actual case.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Court Transcript, May 1974)

While Lisa searches Thorwald’s apartment for a crime magazine in the treatment, the script had Lisa searching for Mrs. Thorwald’s wedding ring (suggested by the Crippen case). This allowed Hitchcock to make visual and thematic allusions to Jeff and Lisa’s problem in the story.

Once the story had evolved into a satisfactory script, Hitchcock ‘dictated’ each and every shot as seen in the film and it was made into a shooting script.

“We sat down in his office and [Hitchcock] broke up all the scenes into individual shots, and made sketches of them, and laid out the picture, which he said is now done. ‘All we have to do is go on the set and make sure they do what we’ve given them.’” –John Michael Hayes (as quoted in Writing for Hitchcock by Steven DeRosa)

Hitchcock’s method of shooting a film was different from the standard method. Since he often designed the film in a very particular way, he rarely shot coverage. He shot only those shots needed to cut the film together, and he usually knew exactly where his cuts would be.

“…when this film, Rear Window, was finished somebody went into the cutting room and said, ‘Where are the out-takes? Where is the unused film?’ And there was a small roll of a hundred feet. That was all that was left over.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

These hundred feet of film would be made up of several seconds at the beginning and ending of each shot, and any unusable takes taken during the production. In the case of Rear Window, the film was very specifically shot in order to adhere to Alfred Hitchcock’s pre-designed structure.

“The rhythm of the cutting in Rear Window speeds up as the film goes on. This is because of the nature of the structure of the film. At the beginning, life is going on quite normally. The tempo is leisurely. There’s a bit of a conflict between the man and the girl. And then gradually the first suspicion grows and it increases. And naturally as you reach the last third of your picture the events have to pile on top of each other. If you didn’t, and if you slowed the tempo down, it would show up considerably.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

Color was also an important element of Hitchcock’s design.

“When you come down to the question of color, again it’s the same as the orchestration with cutting. If you noticed in Rear Window, Miss Lonely Hearts always dressed in emerald green. To make sure that that came off, there was no other green in the picture, because we had to follow her very closely when she went across the street into the cafe. So I reserved that color for her.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

Hitchcock’s eye for detail extended to the sets built for the film. He wanted it to look truly authentic in every detail.Doc Erickson was sent to New York to take photos of several Greenwich Village courtyards. Joseph MacMillan would then use these photographs to design the film’s wonderful set.

“In the film, the courtyard was modeled after Christopher and West Tenth Streets, between Bleeker and Hudson Streets. The immense set – the largest built at Paramount to that date – was constructed on Stage 18. According to a Paramount press release, the set consisted of structures rising up to six stories, which contained thirty-one apartments, fire escapes, an alley, a street, and a skyline. It took six weeks to build.” –Steven DeRosa (Writing with Hitchcock)

Lighting the set would prove to be a herculean chore, but it was all prepared ahead of time. Robert Burks supervised the lighting and photographed test footage ahead of time.

“I went on the soundstage about ten days prior to the starting date. Using a skeleton crew, we pre-lit every one of the thirty-one apartments for both day and night, as well as lit the exterior of the courtyard for the dual-type illumination required. A remote switch controlled the lights in each apartment. On the stage, we had a switching set-up that looked like the console of the biggest organ ever made.” – Robert Burks (as quoted in Writing for Hitchcock by Steven DeRosa)

This lighting set-up coupled with Hitchcock’s unusual shooting methods made for an extremely efficient shoot. Production # 10331 started principal photography on November 27 at 9:00 a.m. By all accounts, the shoot went quite smoothly with only a few exceptions. One of these exceptions had to do with unacceptable image definition and detail in certain scenes. Since a lot of the action takes place from across a courtyard, it was sometimes difficult to achieve the level of detail necessary for audience comprehension.

“We had one shot in the picture that was a key shot in the plot… the salesman-murderer is observed by Stewart… going through his wife’s effects during her absence. He takes her wedding ring out of her purse and looks at it. The first time we attempted the shot, we made it with a 10-inch lens. On the screen, it wasn’t clear that the object was a wedding ring. It was obvious that it was a ring, but that was all.” – Robert Burks (as quoted in Writing for Hitchcock by Steven DeRosa)

Burks and Hitchcock finally compromised and used a 6-inch lens and moved the camera onto a boom (outside of the apartment window). There were also a few in-camera effects that ate some of the film’s production time. One of these effects was Jeff’s fall from his apartment window.

“The scene showing James Stewart falling from the window was achieved by creating a ‘traveling matte’ shot, which combined live-action with a pre-photographed background. The portion of the shot in which Stewart appears to be falling was photographed on Stage 3 by seating the actor against a black velvet background with a camera overhead. Then while Stewart acted as if he was falling, the camera in fact moved in an upward direction away from him. This image was later superimposed against a stationary shot taken on the actual courtyard set, creating the illusion of Stewart falling into the courtyard.” –Steven DeRosa (Writing with Hitchcock)

Hitchcock was wise enough to delete one scene from the film. Following the opening shots of the courtyard and Jeff’s apartment, there was to be a rather pointless scene inside the office of Ivar Gunnison (Jefferies’ editor). In the scene, Gunnison talks to his assistant (Jack Bryce) about a job in Indochina. They both agree that our crippled protagonist is the best man for the job. The scene was not only unnecessary; it would have ruined the brilliant structure of the film. Hitchcock decided against using the scene before principal photography was even complete. One wonders if he ever really intended to use the footage. Frank Cady played Ivar Gunnison in the scene and the husband on the fire escape. It seems unlikely that Cady would be cast in both parts if Hitchcock actually planned on using the scene.

One of the most overlooked elements of Rear Window is the soundtrack. Hitchcock was capable of creating soundtracks that were simultaneously dramatic and realistic.

“Hitchcock insisted that Rear Window be authentic in every way, dictating in a November 5 memo that actual Greenwich Village ambient sound be recorded so that the soundtrack would be as true to life as possible.” –Steven DeRosa (Writing with Hitchcock)

The director would also dictate precise sounds for various moments in the film in an astonishing amount of detail. The results are truly incredible. Of course, the same amount of detail went into the film’s music. With the exception of the music played over the opening credits, all of the music heard in the film was diegetic (meaning that it came from a source within the film’s setting). Most of the music heard in the film is played from quite a distance and by someone within Hitchcock’s Rear Window universe.

Franz Waxman had worked as the composer on three earlier Hitchcock films (Rebecca, Suspicion, and The Paradine Case), and would work on this film as well. However, the job called for a much different approach. Source music was used throughout most of the film (including such popular songs as “Mona Lisa,” “That’s Amore,” “To See You,” “Waiting for My True Love to Appear,” and “Lover”). With the exception of the opening credit music, Waxman’s task was to write the music being composed by the songwriter in one of the apartments. The song being composed was entitled “Lisa” and the finished composition included lyrics by Harold Rome. (Rome submitted alternate lyrics called “To Love You,” but these obviously weren’t used.)

Hitchcock was never satisfied with the final result of this element of the movie and would always refer to it in interviews.

“There’s no score in Rear Window. I was a little disappointed at the lack of a structure in the title song. I had a motion-picture songwriter when I should have chosen a popular songwriter. I was rather hoping to use the genesis, just the idea of a song which would then gradually grow and grow until it was used by a full orchestra. But I don’t think that came out as strongly as I would have liked it to have done.” –Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

Principal Photography wrapped on January 13, 1954 with only a few simple re-shoots left to complete this part of the production. These were shot on February 26. After this, the main obstacle wouldn’t be the editing (since this was all worked out). Instead, Hitchcock would have to wrestle with the Production Code Administration. He had already been warned before principal photography began that certain aspects of the script were “unsavory.”

Joseph Breen would elaborate about his objections to the screenplay’s content. Many of the problems had to do with the character of Miss Torso.

“It is apparent that she is nude above the waist and it is only by the most judicious selection of camera angles that her nudity is concealed… We feel that this gives the entire action the flavor of a peep show.” –Joseph Breen (Memo – as it is quoted in Writing for Hitchcock by Steven DeRosa)

It was clear that there could be no implication of a topless ‘Miss Torso.’ However, this was not the Breen’s only objection. The character of Stella also caused complications. He disliked the dialogue, “When General Motors has to go to the bathroom ten times a day, the whole country’s ready to let go.” Breen referred to the line as “potty humor.” 

In addition to these things, the PCA did not care for the sequence where Lisa spends the night in Jeff’s apartment.

“We think the same story point can be carried if considerably less emphasis were placed on the action and display of her underwear, pajamas and other paraphernalia… and it were indicated that she is going to stay there simply because the mystery that has risen at this point in the story.” –Joseph Breen (Memo – as it is quoted in Writing for Hitchcock by Steven DeRosa)

In order to distract the production code, Hitchcock shot two different versions of certain Miss Torso shots. One version is as we see it in the film (and how Hitchcock always intended to present her), while the alternate shots obviously implied nudity. When the PCA saw the film with these alternate shots, they forgot about Stella’s dialogue and the sequence where Lisa shows off her nightdress.

“It was common practice that you gave censors bait, which they focused on, and therefore the things that you really wanted to keep didn’t appear as harmful. This was done all the time, not just by Hitchcock. So we threw them some bait with Miss Torso, and they got all in a froth about that.” –John Michael Hayes (as quoted in Writing for Hitchcock by Steven DeRosa)

When Rear Window premiered on August 4, 1954, it was met with overwhelming commercial and critical success. The critical opinion of the era is encapsulated by William Brogdon’s review for Variety.

“A tight suspense show is offered in Rear Window, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s better thrillers. James Stewart’s established star value, plus the newer potentiality of Grace Kelly, currently getting a big buildup, and strong word-of-mouth possibilities indicate sturdy grossing chances in the keys and elsewhere.

Hitchcock combines technical and artistic skills in a manner that makes this an unusually good piece of murder mystery entertainment. A sound story by Cornell Woolrich and a cleverly dialoged screenplay by John Michael Hayes provide the producer-director with a solid basis for thrill-making. Of equal importance in delivering tense melodrama are the Technicolor camera work by Robert Burks and the apartment-courtyard setting executed by Hal Pereira and Joseph MacMillan Johnson.

Hitchcock confines all of the action to this single setting and draws the nerves to the snapping point in developing the thriller phases of the plot. He is just as skilled in making use of lighter touches in either dialog or situation to relieve the tension when it nears the unbearable. Interest never wavers during the 112 minutes of footage…

…The production makes clever use of natural sounds and noises throughout, with not even the good score by Franz Waxman being permitted to intrude unnaturally into the drama.” – William Brogdon (Variety, July 14, 1954)

There were critics who complained about the film’s subject matter. C.A. Lejeune is probably the most famous example. As a matter of fact, Alfred Hitchcock rarely discussed the film without talking about her review.

“…Miss Lejeune, the critic from the London ‘Observer’ complained about that. She made some comment to the effect that Rear Window was a horrible film because the hero spent all of his time peeping out of a window. What’s so horrible about that? Sure, he’s a snooper, but aren’t we all?” –Alfred Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

François Truffaut would write one of the more interesting reviews on the film upon its release in 1954.

“…I see when I sum it up in this way that the plot seems more slick than profound, and yet I am convinced that this film is one of the most important of all the seventeen Hitchcock has made in Hollywood, one of those rare films without imperfection or weakness, which concedes nothing. For example, it is clear that the entire film revolves around the idea of marriage. When Kelly goes into the suspect’s apartment, the proof she is looking for is the murdered woman’s wedding ring; Kelly puts it on her own finger as Stewart follows her movements through his binoculars from the other side of the courtyard. But there is nothing at the end that indicates that they will marry. Rear Window goes beyond pessimism; it is really a cruel film. Stewart fixes his glasses on his neighbors only to catch them in moments of failure, in ridiculous postures, when they appear grotesque or even hateful.

The film’s construction is very like a musical composition: several themes are intermingled and are in perfect counterpoint to each other — marriage, suicide, degradation, and death — and they are all bathed in a refined eroticism (the sound recording of lovemaking is extraordinarily precise and realistic). Hitchcock’s impassiveness and “objectivity” are more apparent than real…

Rear Window is a film about indiscretion, about intimacy violated and taken by surprise at its most wretched moments; a film about the impossibility of happiness, about dirty linen that gets washed in the courtyard; a film about moral solitude, an extraordinary symphony of daily life and ruined dreams…

…Hitchcock has acquired such expertise at cinematographic recital that he has, in thirty years, become much more than a good storyteller. As he loves his craft passionately, never stops making movies, and has long since resolved any production problems, he must invent difficulties and create new disciplines for himself to avoid boredom and repetition. His recent films are filled with fascinating constraints that he always overcomes brilliantly.

In this case, the challenge was to shoot a whole film in one single place, and solely from Stewart’s point of view. We see only what he sees, and from his vantage point, at the exact moment he sees it. What could have been a dry and academic gamble, an exercise in cold virtuosity, turns out to be a fascinating spectacle because of a sustained inventiveness which nails us to our seats as firmly as James Stewart is immobilized by his plaster cast.

In the face of such a film, so odd and so novel, we are liable to forget somewhat the stunning virtuosity; each scene by itself is a gamble that has been won. The effort to achieve freshness and novelty affects the camera’s movements, the special effects, decor, color. (Recall the murderer’s gold-framed eyeglasses lit in the dark only by the intermittent glow of a cigarette!)

Anyone who has perfectly understood Rear Window (which is not possible in one viewing) can, if he so wishes, dislike it and refuse to be involved in a game where blackness of character is the rule. But it is so rare to find such a precise idea of the world in a film that one must bow to its success, which is unarguable.

To clarify Rear Window, I’d suggest this parable: The courtyard is the world, the reporter/photographer is the filmmaker, the binoculars stand for the camera and its lenses. And Hitchcock? He is the man we love to be hated by.” –François Truffaut (1954)

One sign of a great film is the ability to see it differently upon multiple viewings. Truffaut would later change his mind about the film’s pessimistic qualities.

“I was still working as a critic the first time I saw Rear Window, and I remember writing that the picture was very gloomy, rather pessimistic, and quite cruel. But now I don’t see it in that light at all; in fact, I feel it has a rather compassionate approach. What Stewart sees through his window is not horrible, but simply a display of human weaknesses and people in pursuit of happiness.” –François Truffaut (Hitchcock/Truffaut)

The Academy honored the film with 4 Oscar nominations (Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Color Cinematography, and Best Sound Recording). However, the film failed to win in any of these categories. Perhaps a better sign of a film’s merit is its ability to impress audiences many years later.

In 1983 Vincent Canby wrote an overwhelmingly positive review of the film after seeing a retrospective screening at the New York Film Festival (it would soon be re-released to theaters).

“…Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 chef d’oeuvre , Rear Window, has reopened in New York to become, quite simply, the most elegantly entertaining American film now in first run in New York or, possibly, in second- , third- or even fourth-run. Its appeal, which goes beyond that of other, equally masterly Hitchcock works, remains undiminished.

Rear Window, which has been out of circulation for a number of years, is the first of five Hitchcock films that will be coming back to theaters in the next several months – the others being Vertigo(1958), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955), The Trouble With Harry (1956) and Rope(1948).

As much as I admire all of these, especially Vertigo,I can’t imagine that any one of them will top the feelings of exhilaration that are prompted byRear Window, this most bittersweet of Hitchcockian suspense-romances. Make no mistake about it:Rear Windowis as much of a romance as it is a brilliant exercise in suspense…

… Ever since I saw Rear Window when it was initially released, I’ve had fond memories of it, but, as rarely happens, those memories turned out not to do full justice to the film I went back to see last Sunday morning at the Cinema Studio. Everything about it is a joy, even the new print, the color quality of which is far superior to that of the 1963 Leopard, also in reissue now…

…However, nothing Hayes did before or after Rear Window quite equals the explosive concision of this possible mainstream masterpiece. In no other Hitchcock film, perhaps, not even in Notorious, do the events of the adventure play such an integral part in the development of the love story…

… All of the film’s production elements are superior, especially the huge set… It represents the best of studio artifice, being a unit that includes the rear of Jeff’s apartment as well as his view of the garden court and buildings that enclose the court. There is one comparatively large, comparatively new apartment building, which is flanked by what appear to be brownstones, one Federal house and other buildings that have been remodeled out of all associations to the past. As lighted and photographed by Robert Burks, this set is as much a character as any of the actors in the film…

… At the time Rear Window was first released, there was a certain amount of self-righteous outrage directed at the film’s seemingly casual attitude toward voyeurism, sometimes called ‘Peeping Tomism.’ I was mystified by those criticisms, then and now, and not necessarily because all of us probably tend to peep at one point or another, given the opportunity…” -Vincent Canby (New York Times, October 9, 1983)

Roger Ebert’s review for the Chicago Sun-Times was no less enthusiastic.

“Now this is a movie. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window develops such a clean, uncluttered line from beginning to end that we’re drawn through it (and into it) effortlessly. The experience is not so much like watching a movie, as like … well, like spying on your neighbors. Hitchcock traps us right from the first…

…What’s interesting is the way Hitchcock spreads the guilt around. Although the man across the way (Raymond Burr) seems to be the ‘worst’ person in this movie, we don’t get to know him well and we never identify with him. Instead, we identify with James Stewart. And because he is doing something he’s not supposed to do, because he is essentially amoral and takes liberties with other people’s privacy, somehow he’s guilty, too…

…Now Sir Alfred has passed away, the estate has been settled, and the movie is back in theaters…

…That’s the best place for it, not only because the screen is bigger, etc., but also because seeing this movie with an audience adds a whole additional dimension to it. We are all asked to join Stewart in his voyeurism, and we cheerfully agree…” –Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, October 7, 1983)

Almost 20 years after this review, Roger Ebert would include the film on his list of 4-star “Great Movies.

“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…

…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…

… The remote-control suspense scenes in Rear Window are Hitchcock at his most diabolical, creating dangerous situations and then letting Lisa and Stella linger in them through Jeff’s carelessness or inaction. He stays in his wheelchair. They venture out into danger – Kelly even entering the apartment of the suspected wife killer. He watches. We see danger approaching. We, and he, cannot move, cannot sound the alarm.

This level of danger and suspense is so far elevated above the cheap thrills of the modern slasher films that Rear Window, intended as entertainment in 1954, is now revealed as art…” –Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, February 20, 2000)

Even today, Rear Window stands out as an amazing work of cinematic art. It isn’t merely one of the best films in Alfred Hitchcock’s canon. It stands amongst the best American films ever made.

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The Presentation:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

This disc is available as part of The Masterpiece Collection boxed set and as an individual disc.

collection page

The Masterpiece Collection is given a tasteful book-style presentation with a page for each film that includes a folder for each disc. Some might prefer that each disc come in its own standard Blu-ray case. These folder style compartments do not always protect the discs and very often cause scratches. Those who opt to purchase the disc individually will not miss out on anything substantial.

The individual release presents the disc in a standard Blu-ray case with film related artwork.

menu1

The menu on the disc contains footage from the film accompanied by music in the same style as other Universal Blu-rays.

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Picture Quality:

4 of 5 MacGuffins

The design of Rear Window craves the added resolution of a Blu-ray disc, so it is nice to see that Universal has finally given the film an individual Blu-ray release. Rear Window was the first of Alfred Hitchcock’s films to be projected in ‘widescreen’ format. (Rather, it was the first film of Hitchcock’s to be shown in widescreen in every theatre. Some sources claim that Dial ‘M’ For Murder was projected in widescreen in certain theaters.) The aspect ratio is an important element of this production, because the aspect ratio was chosen to resemble the ratio of some of the apartment windows in the film. The recommended ratio was 1.66:1. This transfer retains this preferred theatrical ratio.

Clarity and detail are both vastly improved over the DVD releases of the film. Audiences can now spy on the neighbors across the courtyard and see details that they have never previously seen. The transfer carries slight grain that would have been evident in the source materials. One does notice a slight amount of DNR in a few scenes, but this seems to have been used sparingly. Instances of dirt and film damage are rare and never distracting. While a few shots appear less clear than the majority of the film, one assumes that this is an issue with the source and not the transfer. Color is well rendered for the most part (although there are a few moments of inconsistency). This is one of the better transfers of a Hitchcock film offered by Universal.

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Sound Quality:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

This two-channel DTS-HD Master Audio Mono mix should satisfy even the most discriminating listeners. Dialogue is clear and intelligible throughout, and the amazing ambiance of the neighborhood has never sounded better on a home video format.

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Special Features:

4.5 of 5 MacGuffins

Feature Length Commentary with John Fawell (Author of Hitchcock’s Rear Window: The Well-Made Film)

John Fawell’s commentary is perhaps a bit dry, but it does offer interesting analysis peppered with a few interesting production details. Most fans of the film will enjoy the commentary a great deal, and it is certainly a welcome addition to the disc.

Rear Window Ethics – (SD) – (55:10)

Laurent Bouzereau’s documentary about the making of Rear Window discusses the production of this wonderful classic, as well as the film’s restoration. It is one of the best supplements on a disc full of wonderful supplements.

A Conversation with Screenwriter John Michael Hayes – (SD) – (13:10)

John Michael Hayes discusses how he came to work on the screenplay for Rear Window, as well as what it was like working with Alfred Hitchcock. This is a rather detailed program that offers a lot more information than one might expect from a thirteen minute featurette. One may want to watch this featurette before watching Rear Window Ethics.

Breaking Barriers: The Sound of Hitchcock – (SD) – (23:31)

Hitchcock was such a visual genius that his brilliant use of sound often goes unnoticed. This short documentary discusses the master’s use of sound. This is perhaps not as comprehensive as one might like, but it is an interesting and thoughtful look at an element of Hitchcock’s work that is too often ignored.

Pure Cinema: Through the Eyes of the Master – (SD) – (25:12)

Alfred Hitchcock’s work has influenced many filmmakers. In this featurette, several of these filmmakers discuss Alfred Hitchcock’s films and his technique. While this isn’t the disc’s best supplement, it is certainly nice to have it included here.

Masters of Cinema – (SD) – (33:39)

This 1972 program is an incredible addition to an already wonderful disc. We are given two interesting interviews with the master himself (one featuring Pia Lindstrom and another featuring William Everson). Certain sections of the program (including introductions and film clips) are omitted. The feature is available in a more complete form on Criterion’s The Man Who Knew Too Much disc. The picture quality on the Criterion release is also slightly superior.

Excerpts from François Truffaut’s Interview with Alfred Hitchcock – (SD) – (16:15)

These interview clips may sound familiar to those who have read Truffaut’s book length interview with Hitchcock, but it should remain interesting regardless. It is always a treat to hear Hitchcock discuss his films. The interview is illustrated by film clips and promotional photos and artwork from the film, which makes the experience all the more enjoyable.

Theatrical Trailer – (HD) –

In this trailer, James Stewart addresses the audience and discusses his neighbors. It is different than many vintage trailers, but does include quite a bit of footage from the actual film. Fans of the film should be delighted to have it included here.

Re-Release Trailer (Narrated by James Stewart) – (HD) –

This re-release trailer features narration from James Stewart about the re-release of Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Trouble with Harry, Rope, and Rear Window. It is surprisingly interesting, but also incredibly dated.

Production Photographs – (SD) –

This is a gallery of production stills, advertisements, and posters that were used to promote Rear Window. It is nice to see them included here.

Final Words:

Rear Window deserves multiple viewings, and Universal’s excellent transfer offers the best way to achieve this (unless you are lucky enough to see a screening in theaters).

Review by: Devon Powell

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Source Material:

Cornell Woolrich (It Had To Be Murder)

Review by William Brogdon (Variety, July 14, 1954)

Review by François Truffaut (1954)

Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966)

Alfred Hitchcock (Take One, 1968)

Alfred Hitchcock (Speculation, Channel 28, 1969)

Alfred Hitchcock (Court Transcript, May 1974)

Review by Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, October 7, 1983)

Review by Vincent Canby (New York Times, October 9, 1983)

Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, February 20, 2000)

Steven DeRosa (Writing with Hitchcock)