REAR WINDOW (1954) – Paramount Pictures – ★★★★★
Color – 112 minutes – 1.66:1 aspect ratio
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Principal cast: James Stewart (L.B. Jefferies), Grace Kelly (Lisa Fremont), Thelma Ritter (Stella), Raymond Burr (Lars Thorwald), Wendell Corey (Detective Tom Doyle), Judith Evelyn (Miss Lonelyhearts), Ross Bagdasarian (songwriter), Georgine Darcy (Miss Torso).
Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, based on the story “It Had To Be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich
Cinematography by Robert Burks
Edited by George Tomasini
Music by Franz Waxman
Costumes by Edith Head
(My Rear Window analysis will be broken into three parts. This is part one.)
Firing on all cylinders: Alfred Hitchcock began his tenure at Paramount Pictures in 1954 flying high. His last movie for Warner Bros., Dial M For Murder, was a box office hit. And Paramount was granting him more freedom than he’d ever had. He was bursting with energy and creativity. And he chose Rear Window as his first Paramount film.
The movie stars Jimmy Stewart as L.B. Jefferies, a professional photographer who broke his leg in pursuit of a photo, and is now stuck in his apartment, in a wheelchair. With little else to do, he begins to watch his neighbors, looking in their apartment windows from his own. He is just passing the time, until the invalid wife of the traveling salesman across the courtyard disappears. And the salesman (Raymond Burr) is acting strange. Did he kill his wife? That is the question that “Jeff” seeks to answer, with the help of a trio of people. His girlfriend is fashion model Lisa Fremont, played by the exquisitely beautiful Grace Kelly. The insurance company nurse that looks in on him is Stella (Thelma Ritter), who dispenses homespun wisdom along with her care. And finally there is Detective Doyle (Wendell Corey), and old war buddy who investigates the salesman at Jeff’s request. Jeff and Lisa spend the bulk of the movie trying to untangle a murder plot, as well as untangling their own relationship issues.
(For a detailed look at the movies themes, please see part two of this analysis.)
Hitchcock as God: Alfred Hitchcock notoriously disliked filming on location. Despite the fact that he did some wonderful location shooting in his career, he much preferred the confines of the studio, where he was more in control of the environment. Rear Window was a dream come true for Hitch, because the entire movie was shot on one massive set built on Stage 18 at Paramount Studios. The set featured the back side of four apartment buildings, facing onto an interior courtyard. The set was so tall that the “ground floor” was actually thirty feet below the studio’s original floor. It was one of the largest and most impressive sets ever constructed.
With the pull of a lever, Hitchcock could change the lighting from dawn, to midday, to dusk, to night. He could even make it rain on cue. He also controlled the individual lights and sounds emanating from every apartment, as well as controlling every action sound uttered by everyone on screen.
Here is what Hitchcock had to say about the fictional world he created:
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…mirror a small universe.
Performance: There are only five characters that ever appear in Jeff’s apartment; every other performance is seen from a distance. Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly are nothing short of iconic in their leading roles. They inhabit the characters perfectly, and play off of each other equally well. Thelma Ritter is one of the greatest character actors to ever appear on screen, and gives one of her best performances here. (Interestingly, Ritter was nominated for Best Supporting Actress six times, never winning. This was not one of her Oscar-nominated roles). And Wendell Corey gives arguably the role of his all-too-short life as Detective Doyle. Raymond Burr is the typical sympathetic villain. The rest of the characters have to act “from a distance”, as it were. Imagine having several moments of screen time in a movie, but only being filmed in long shots. Every single character works perfectly as a piece of the ensemble, to create the harmonized feel of the picture as a whole.
Source material: John Michael Hayes adapted his screenplay from a 40-page short story by Cornell Woolrich titled “It Had To Be Murder”. Woolrich was a talented noir crime writer who wrote dozens of engaging novels and short stories, many with a dark, ironic twist ending. Hitchcock enjoyed Woolrich’s writing. Several of his short stories would later be adapted for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show, and Hitchcock himself would direct a TV adaptation of another Woolrich short story for the NBC anthology show Suspicion.
The most significant plot element in Rear Window is lifted directly from the story: a man with a cast on his leg, trapped in his apartment, begins watching his neighbors to pass the time, and suspects one of them may be guilty of murdering his wife. Everything else in the film comes directly from the minds of John Michael Hayes and Alfred Hitchcock. There is no love interest in the story; no insurance nurse tending to his needs. Instead he has a guy named Sam who looks after him. There is no Ms. Lonelyhearts, no Miss Torso, no Composer, none of the other side stories that help to make the film so rich and complete.
The first person narrator of the story is Hal Jeffries, rather than LB, but still has the nickname Jeff. And the oh-so perfect name Lars Thorwald comes directly from the story. Jeff also has a detective friend in the story, named Boyne. He is the equivalent of Doyle in the film.
The story is quite gripping. This description of the moment when the narrator first begins to suspect his neighbor of murder is quite good, and was slightly adapted for use in the movie. Jeff says this about Lars Thorwald:
He was leaning out, maybe an inch past the window frame, carefully scanning the back faces of all the houses abutting on the hollow square that lay before him. You can tell, even at a distance, when a person is looking fixedly. There’s something about the way the head is held. And yet his scrutiny wasn’t held fixedly to any one point, it was a slow, sweeping one, moving along the houses…I wondered vaguely why he had given that peculiar, comprehensive, semicircular stare at all the rear windows around him. There wasn’t anyone at any of them, at such an hour. It wasn’t important, of course. It was just a little oddity, it failed to blend in with his being worried or disturbed about his wife. When you’re worried or disturbed, that’s an internal preoccupation, you stare vacantly at nothing at all. When you stare around you in a great sweeping arc at windows, that betrays external preoccupation, outward interest. One doesn’t quite jibe with the other.
Near the story’s climax, just as in the movie, Jeff calls Thorwald and says he knows about his wife. And just as in the movie, Thorwald discovers who has contacted him, and goes to Jeff’s apartment to confront him. In the story Thorwald is much more determined and aggressive. Jeff takes a large ceramic bust, “of Rousseau or Montesquieu, I’d never been able to decide which”, and places it in front of him on his chair. Thorwald shoots at the shadowed outline of the bust, and the bust stops the bullet. Then the police arrive, chasing Thorwald, and he falls to his death.
Recurring players: Jimmy Stewart had already appeared in Rope, and would later appear in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956 remake) and Vertigo. Grace Kelly had just starred in Dial M For Murder, and would also star in Hitchcock’s next film To Catch A Thief. Sara Berner (the woman with the dog) would have a small role in North by Northwest, at least her voice would (she is the telephone operator that Cary Grant speaks to at the Plaza Hotel). Jesslyn Fax (sculptress) and Len Hendry (policeman) had small uncredited roles in North by Northwest. Anthony Warde (detective that mentions the hatbox at the end) will have a role as another policeman in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Fred Graham (one of police that goes to Thorwald’s apartment) would later play the policeman that falls off the roof at the beginning of Vertigo. Bess Flowers (songwriter’s party guest with poodle), known as the Queen of Hollywood extras, appeared as an extra in seven other Hitchcock films. Voice talent Art Gilmore, whose voice can be heard on the radio, had performed the same service on Saboteur.
Academy Awards: Rear Window received four Oscar nominations: Alfred Hitchcock for Best Direction, Robert Burks for Best Color Cinematography, John Michael Hayes for Best Adapted Screenplay, and Loren L. Ryder for Best Sound Recording. Unfortunately, they all went home empty-handed on Oscar night.
Box office success: Rear Window was the highest-grossing film of 1954, eventually earning $36 million at the box office, and making it Hitchcock’s highest-earning film up to that point.
Burr as Selznick? This is what Raymond Burr looked like in 1954.
If you’ve ever wondered why Hitchcock dramatically altered Burr’s appearance for the role of Lars Thorwald, he had a very specific reason. Hitchcock had Burr made up to resemble producer David O. Selznick. Selznick of course had famously signed Hitchcock to a seven-year contract in 1940, luring Hitchcock to the United States. While their partnership began with much promise, it ended rather poorly. Hitchcock had certainly had his fill of Selznick’s micro-managing. So several years later, Hitchcock decided to take a subtle jab at his former producer, by making the wife and dog killing Lars Thorwald resemble him. Hitchcock never directly addressed this in any interview, and the average moviegoer would have been completely unaware. But most Hollywood insiders would have been in on the joke.
Where’s Hitch? This film features my personal favorite of all Hitchcock’s cameos. At about the 26:15 mark, Hitchcock can be seen winding the clock on the mantel in the composer’s apartment. As he is winding it, he turns and looks over his shoulder, speaking to the composer as he sits at the piano.
What Hitch said: Hitchcock had much to say about this film over the years. When talking with Truffaut, Hitch said:
It was the possibility of doing a purely cinematic film. You have an immobilized man looking out. That’s one part of the film. The second part shows what he sees and the third part shows how he reacts. This is actually the purest expression of a cinematic idea…I was feeling very creative at the time, the batteries were well charged.
In a piece written for Take One in 1968, Hitchcock had a lot of interesting comments to make, including more on the idea of montage:
It’s composed largely of Mr. Stewart as a character in one position in one room looking out onto his courtyard. So what he sees is a mental process blown up in his mind from the purely visual. It represents for me the purest form of cinema which is called montage; that is, pieces of film put together to make up an idea.
Hitch also says:
Rear Window has a happy ending, but I don’t think you have to drag in a happy ending. I think that an audience will accept any ending as long as it’s reasonable.
Definitive edition: Universal’s 2014 blu-ray release is fantastic. First of all, the picture quality is amazing. Watching this blu-ray on a large hi-def TV reveals many never before noticed details. The soundtrack is fantastic too. Included with the movie are several extra features. First and foremost is a wonderful commentary track by John Fawell, author of a book about Rear Window. This is hands down one of the most informative commentary tracks I’ve ever heard, without ever becoming too dry or scholarly. Also included is a 55-minute making of documentary, a 13-minute interview with screenwriter John Michael Hayes, two other mini-documentaries, a half hour vintage interview with Hitchcock conducted in the early 70’s, and audio excerpts from the Truffaut interview sessions. In addition, the blu-ray has both the original and re-release theatrical trailers.