VERTIGO Deconstruction of a Scene: Argosy Book Shop

Vertigo is one of the most discussed and dissected Hitchcock films of all.   Plot elements, technical elements, psychological undertones; this movie has everything.  I could choose to deconstruct almost any scene in the film.  There are also many unanswered questions.   Such as:  Just how did Scottie get out of his rooftop predicament at the beginning?  How did Judy (playing Madeleine) get into her room in the McKittrick Hotel unseen?  Was the old lady paid off to lie?  And just what is going on with the lighting in the Argosy Book Shop?

I chose to look at the Argosy scene; I think it is interesting for a couple of reasons, and I hope we can dispel at least one of the often mentioned myths about it.  Near the end of this scene, the interior of the bookstore becomes increasingly dark.  At the end when Scottie and Midge step outside, it suddenly becomes bright again. Some have questioned whether this effect was deliberate.  There is also much debate about the source of the sudden light at the end.  Let’s take a look.

To set the scene:  Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) is beginning to get reeled in to Gavin Elster’s plot.  Scottie asks his friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) if she knows anyone who is up on the sordid history of San Francisco, and she recommends Pop Leibel (Konstantin Shayne), owner of the Argosy Book Store.

Hitchcock shot this scene with an economy of cutting, using staging, camera movement, and lighting to control the emotion.  There are only eight editorial cuts in the span of just over three minutes, which means an average shot length of 22.5 seconds.

The scene begins on a dissolve of the front of the book store, which is identified on the window.  The interior is clearly visible (you can see Pop Liebel’s head and torso on the upper level of the bookstore).   This shot lasts about 4 seconds.

 

Hitchcock next cuts to the bookshop interior.  The camera is just inside the door, showing all three characters in a long shot.  We watch Pop Liebel and Midge walk down the stairs.  Pop offers cigarettes to the other two.  This lasts about 37 seconds.  

I would like to point out the three visible light sources in the room.  Two long lamps, probably with fluorescent bulbs, at left and center; and a white half dome-covered light about three-quarters right.  Note that none are illuminated, and yet the characters are clearly lit.  You can see the light reflecting on Pop’s bald head.  Obviously cinematographer Robert Burks lit the interior, but what is the intended source of the light, if the visible lights are off?  I believe it is supposed to be sunlight, coming through the windows.

 

Hitchcock next cuts to a medium shot of Pop lighting his cigarette and beginning to talk about Carlotta Valdez.  This shot lasts about 14 seconds.

 

As Pop continues to talk off screen, Hitchcock cuts to a medium of Scottie listening, with Midge in the background, browsing book titles.  This lasts around 12 seconds.

Hitchcock next cuts back to Pop, in the same medium close up.  This shot lasts around 11 seconds.

 

At this point in his narrative, Pop mentions a child.  The cutting changes here.  Hitchcock gives us a medium close up of Scottie which lasts about three seconds.  He is listening intently.  Hitchcock then cuts to Midge, giving her a medium close as she looks at Scotty.  She doesn’t understand his interest in this story, but she is concerned.   This shot lasts only a second.

Then comes the most important, and interesting shot in the sequence.  The camera switches sides.  We are now on the opposite side, facing towards the door.   Why would Hitchcock choose to swing the camera around 180 degrees here?  None of these are subjective shots.  I believe it was because this is the point when he begins to bleed the light out of the scene, with the intention being that a dark cloud is passing in the sky.  Why else show the exterior?  He could have kept the camera precisely where it was before.

This shot is going to last 80 seconds without a cut.  Hitchcock begins it in a very interesting way.  He starts on a medium 2 shot of Pop and Scotty.

At this point Midge walks into the frame on the left.  The camera actually pushes a bit, following her, until the characters are framed in the three shot which will finish the scene.  This is not a  zoom;  the camera is physically dollying forward behind her.

At this point, Pop’s narrative is taking a very dark turn.  Here is the closing dialogue:

Pop:  And she became the sad Carlotta, alone in the great house, walking the streets alone, her clothes becoming old and patched and dirty.  And the mad Carlotta, stopping people in the streets to ask “Where is my child?  Have you seen my child?”

Midge:  Poor thing.

Scotty:  Then she died.

Pop:  She died.

Scotty:  How?

Pop:  By her own hand.  There are many such stories.

Pop interjects a wistful chuckle into this last statement, which says a lot about his character.   He knows many sad stories beyond this one.

Now let’s take another look at the lighting.  We can say definitively that the darkening of this scene is deliberate for a couple of reasons.  First of all, there is no other reason for Hitchcock to move the camera to the other side of the set, facing the windows.   Even more importantly, we can watch the interior light diminish.  Look again at the light in the first frame.  You can see it reflecting on Pop’s bald head.   There is clearly a studio light source above the actors here, even though all visible lights in the book shop are off.

As you look at this sequence of images getting progressively darker, don’t just focus on the characters in the interior. Look at the red and yellow striped awning across the street.  (This was actually a transparency.  The bookshop interior was a set, with the filmed street scene projected outside).  You can see the awning, along with everything else outside, getting darker as well.  

 

Hitchcock also plays with the sound in this scene.  As Pop has been talking, there has been no  sound other than his voice.  When he gets to his last line “There are many such stories” a streetcar passes outside,  and the clang of the bell breaks the spell we have been put under by Pop’s story.

 

What a masterful and subtle way to create atmosphere.   Hitchcock relied on the long take here, holding this shot for over 80 seconds.   He then removed sound and light, which pulls Scottie (and more importantly the viewer) deeply into the story.  Imagine a cloud passing right as Pop is speaking of Carlotta’s sad end.  This is something that Gavin Elster could never have planned for, but it certainly works in his favor.  Scottie’s obsession is beginning to take hold at this point.

Now Hitchcock cuts to the exterior, and after Scottie and Midge begin to talk, the light comes up again.   Many people think this is the result of Pop turning on the lights in the store.  But if you look closely, you will see the visible lights are still off.  The only one we can’t see is the lamp with the white globe cover.  It is obscured by Scottie throughout this scene.  Yet there is a glow of light on Pop’s head, indicating the studio lights are lit again.   I believe Hitchcock’s intent here was to indicate a cloud had passed.  This is reinforced by the light not becoming bright in an instant, but over the space of a couple seconds.  And yet, the characters, both in profile, seem to be backlit.  (Look at Midge’s hair.  There is more light on the top than the side facing us). What is going on here?

This scene ends as it began, on a dissolve.  The next shot is a dusk shot of Scottie and Midge driving home, which could add support to the idea that they left at sunset, and the light is coming from inside the store.

At the very least we can say the lighting decisions were deliberate, and very effective.  Is it interior light or a passing cloud?  Or perhaps something else?  What do you think?

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THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH: Deconstruction of a Scene – Royal Albert Hall (1934 vs. 1956)

Alfred Hitchcock was asked once about the differences between his two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much.  He replied that the first was the work of a talented amateur, and the second was the work of a professional.   I would argue that he’s being a bit modest calling himself an amateur.  By 1934, Hitchcock had been in the movie industry for over a decade, and had directed a dozen movies.  I think that qualifies for slightly better than amateur status.

While both versions of this movie are good, sometimes for very different reasons, when watching them back-to-back I find the original to be much more engaging and fresh.  Both versions feature a penultimate scene that takes place in the Royal Albert Hall. (As far as the final scene is concerned, the original movie wins by a mile, in my opinion.  Would you rather watch Edna Best take a rifle from a policeman and shoot the villain off the roof, or would you rather hear Doris Day sing “Que Sera Sera”?  That’s an easy choice for me.)  I thought it would be interesting to compare the two Albert Hall sequences.  The set-up of both scenes is the same:  The heroine arrives at the Albert Hall as her child is being held hostage.  She knows that an assassination is planned at the Hall, and will attempt to stop it, with no clear idea how to do so without risking her child.

In the earlier version, the sequence runs around 6 minutes and 10 seconds, with approximately 91 editorial cuts, which averages one cut every 4.1 seconds.

In the remake, the sequence is much longer, running around 14 minutes and 20 seconds, with approximately 193 editorial cuts.  This averages out to one cut every 4.5 seconds.  So even though the scene is considerably longer, Hitchcock’s cutting overall is very similar.  So let’s look at where the scenes are similar, and where they differ.  (The reason for the difference in frame size is because the first film was shot in a 1.33:1 ratio, which was the standard at the time, and the remake was shot in VistaVision and shown in a 1.85:1 ratio).

Both scenes begin with an establishing shot of the Royal Albert Hall exterior, advertising the concert about to take place.

 

 

We now have similar shots of Edna Best and Doris Day in the Albert Hall lobby, not quite sure what they are looking for.

 

 

Next, we get subjective POV shots, as they both recognize the assassin.

 

 

At this point in both films, after the heroine speaks to the assassin, she makes her way into the Hall.  One difference is that Edna Best actually takes a seat, whereas Doris Day stands in an aisle way.

 

 

The later movie begins to stretch out just a little bit here, taking more time to set the scene before the music begins.

We get these POV shots, as Doris Day locates both the dignitaries’ box, and the assassin’s box.  So the geography of the scene is already established for the viewer.

 

 

Next, the music begins, with a series of similar establishing shots.

 

 

The remake again takes a little more time here, with a greater variety of shots, from a variety of angles.  The older, more established Hitchcock does a better job of building suspense, even making sure to point out both the cymbalist and his instruments early in the sequence.

 

 

In the remake, Alfred Hitchcock has a VistaVision camera and he intends to make the most of it, giving us almost every conceivable camera angle of the musicians in the Albert Hall.  From the left:

 

From the right:

 

Even from above, in strange angles like this one:

 

After this both films follow a similar pattern.  We see our heroine looking, then we see what she is looking at.  This is textbook subjective POV.

 

Now the original film does something clever, out of necessity.  The camera pans along a wire, stopping on a radio transmitter.  Hitchcock uses this as a means to cut to the conspirators’ hideout, so we can see their reactions as they listen on the radio.  This is important because this is where both father and daughter are still being held captive.

 

 

Just as this sequence is unique to the original, the remake has a new sequence here.   Whereas the male lead was still a prisoner in the first film, in the remake Jimmy Stewart has broken free and comes to the Albert Hall.  So the camera breaks away from Doris Day to show his arrival.

 

Next, Jimmy Stewart finds Doris Day and they exchange information.  Hitchcock made the wise decision to play this scene without dialogue.  It is rather like a scene in a silent movie.  We see their mouths moving, we see their arms gesticulating, but we hear only the sweeping music.  Of course, we don’t need to hear the dialogue, because we know as much as the characters do.

 

So the second movie’s sequence will find much of its greater length here, as Hitchcock cuts away to Jimmy Stewart several times while he rushes upstairs in an attempt to find the assassin.

 

But in the first movie, Edna Best has no assistance.  She is all alone.  The cutting increases as she continues to look from assassin to target.  Edna Best gives such a heartfelt performance here.  Another brilliant Hitchcock touch:  we see Edna Best crying, then we see a “blurred vision” POV shot, as if we are seeing through her tears.

 

As the cymbal crash approaches, the cutting comes even faster, with many shots averaging less than a second.    In the second film, Hitchcock really relishes the buildup, with many more shots in the sequence.  Both films have the nearly-identical  iconic shot of the gun slowly coming around the curtain.

 

 

Again, the build-up is much lengthier in the remake.  Hitchcock has many shots of conductor Bernard Herrmann, even cutting to extreme close-ups of the musical notes that indicate the moment when the shot will come.

 

We even get this bizarre shot, just before the climax, taken from the point-of-view of the cymbalist!  This seems to break Hitchcock’s rule of “camera logic”, and yet as part of the montage, it adds to the emotional tension.  As a shot that is onscreen for less than a second, it registers emotionally before the mind can question it.  (If you look closely, you can see there are no hands holding the cymbals.  They seem to float in the air!)

 

When the moment for the assassination arrives, we get the scream of Edna Best and Doris Day.  The original film shows Edna stand to scream, then cuts to the hideout, where we hear the scream over the radio.   This adds to the suspense of the moment.  Was the assassin successful?  (We learn over the radio that he was not).

 

In the later film, Hitchcock gives Doris Day a close-up for her scream, which registers much more powerfully (and effectively) on the soundtrack.

 

In this case, Hitchcock stays at the Albert Hall.  We see firsthand that the assassin’s bullet causes only a flesh wound, and we see the dramatic moment of Jimmy Stewart bursting in his box, and the assassin’s fall, presumably to his death.

 

So, the final analysis:

The original film has a much shorter sequence, but still does an excellent job of building suspense.  Hitchcock employed many clever moments (the “blurred vision” POV, the cut from the radio transmitter to the actual radio in the conspirators’ hideaway) to tell the story.

When he did the remake, the changes in story structure (Jimmy Stewart’s arrival at the Albert Hall) necessitated changes in shot composition.   But more importantly, Hitchcock used many more shots, from many different angles, to increase the suspense of the moment.  While he was no amateur in the early film, it is clear that his mastery of the film medium had increased by the time of the remake, and he used that mastery to make a more powerful, and memorable sequence.

REAR WINDOW (1954) PART TWO: THEMES AND IDEAS

Beginnings:  Alfred Hitchcock frequently began his movies with a scene that introduces the viewer to both character and setting in an understated, economical way.   The opening scene of Rear Window is perhaps the best opening of any Hitchcock film.   After the curtains rise, Hitchcock does a slow counterclockwise pan of the courtyard.  He is not introducing us to characters yet, he is just giving us the lay of the land.

After completing a circle, the camera pulls in the window ending on Jimmy Stewart’s sweat covered brow.  Hitchcock then cuts for the first time, to a close up of a thermometer hovering in the mid 90’s.  Then the camera does another, even slower counterclockwise revolution of the courtyard.  This time, he begins to show us many of the characters we will encounter throughout the film.

Then the camera pulls into Jimmy Stewart’t window again, and continues, all in one unbroken shot, to show us a series of images:

 

 

 

 

Before we have had a word of dialogue, we know the precise layout of the courtyard and apartment.  We know our leading man’s name (it is written on the cast), we know his profession, we know he has a broken leg and we know how he got it, courtesy of the smashed camera and photo of a race car with a loose tire flying off.   All of this is done in with only two editorial cuts, and no dialogue.

Montage:  Much of what makes this movie work is Alfred Hitchcock’s use of montage.  Throughout the film we see Jimmy Stewart look at something, then we see what he is looking at, then we see Jimmy Stewart’s reaction shot.  As in the series of images below:

Here is what Alfred Hitchcock had to say on the subject in a 1973 interview in Antaeus:

There are too many films with what I call photographs of people talking…You see, most people get confused; they think that galloping horses are cinema.  They are not.  They are photographs of galloping horses.  Pure cinema is montage, the joining together of pieces of film and creating an idea.  It’s like putting words together in a sentence.  From that comes the audience’s emotion.  Rear Windowpossibly one of the most cinematic pictures that anyone’s ever attempted, depended upon cutting to what a man is seeing, then cutting back to his reaction.  What you’re doing is using his face to create a thought process.

In conversation with Truffaut, Hitchcock said:

Pudovkin dealt with this, as you know.  In one of his books on the art of montage, he describes an experiment by his teacher, Kuleshov.  You see a close-up of the Russian actor Ivan Mosjoukine.  This is immediately followed by a shot of a dead baby.  Back to Mosjoukine again and you read compassion on his face.  Then you take away the dead baby and you show a plate of soup, and now, when you go back to Mosjoukine, he looks hungry.  Yet, in both cases, they used the same shot of the actor;  his face was exactly the same.  In the same way, let’s take a close-up of Stewart looking out of the window at a little dog that’s being lowered in a basket.  Back to Stewart, who has a kindly smile.  But if in place of the little dog you show a half-naked girl exercising in front of her open window, and you go back to a smiling Stewart again, this time he’s seen as a dirty old man!

Hitchcock used montage in many of his films, but never so completely as he does here.

Voyeurism:  Rear Window deals with this subject in a couple of different ways.  It is a direct commentary on people who spy on their neighbors.   As Stella tells Jeff:  “We’ve become a race of peeping Toms.  What people oughta do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.”

Jeff himself speculates:  “I wonder if it’s ethical to watch a man with binoculars and a long focus lens.”

And later, Detective Doyle will tell both Jeff and Lisa:  “That’s a secret, private world you’re looking into out there,” and later:  “People do a lot of things in private they couldn’t possibly explain in public.”

Jeff and Lisa are actually thrilled with watching the goings-on in the Thorwald apartment, and even disappointed when they believe for a moment that there is a logical explanation for all they have seen, that Thorwald is indeed innocent.    Of course, the audience is complicit in Jeff’s peeping.  Isn’t the act of movie-going very much like spying on a private world?  It is no accident that Hitchcock shot this movie in a 1.66:1 camera aspect ratio, for this mirrors almost exactly the size of the longer windows in the movie.

Here are the curtains going up on the opening shot, just as the curtains rise at a performance.  Later on, Lisa will close the curtains, saying “show’s over.”  It is almost like intermission.   Of course, they won’t stay closed for long.  They then close again at the end, over the Paramount logo.   When Jeff is looking through all of those windows, it is like he is watching his own series of private movies.  One of the most powerful and beautiful shots in the film comes late, when Jeff and Stella are distracted by Miss Lonelyhearts in the lower window, and stop watching Lisa inside Thorwald’s apartment.  Then, suddenly, both women are drawn to the window by the composer’s music.

It’s rather like watching both films of a double feature at the same time, and not knowing which feature to focus on.  When the police come to Thorwald’s apartment, and  Thorwald sees Lisa signaling with the ring, he looks directly at the camera, and directly at us.  This is the most unsettling moment in the movie, for now the watcher has become the watched.

At the film’s climax, when Lars Thorwald enters Jeff’s apartment, and asks “What do you want from me?”  he is addressing the audience too.  And as is typical of Hitchcock, he subverts expectations here.  We actually feel a little sorry for this sad, quiet man.  And maybe even a little guilty for our spying.  Of course this doesn’t last long.  After all, a bad guy must be a bad guy in the end.

We will let Hitchcock have the final word on voyeurism:

I’ll bet you that nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undressing for bed, or even a man puttering around in his room, will stay and look; no one turns away and says, ‘It’s none of my business’.

If you want to be really mean towards the character in this film you could call him a Peeping Tom.  I don’t necessarily think it’s a statement of morality because it’s a statement of fact.  You don’t hide from it, there’s no point in my leaving it out.  When Grace Kelly says that they are a couple of fiendish ghouls because they’re disappointed that a murder hasn’t been committed she’s speaking the truth.

A man and a woman:  The real underlying theme in this movie is that of relationships between men and women, and the seemingly irreconcilable differences that separate the sexes.   It is only through compromise that relationships will work, Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes seem to be telling us.  The subject of relationships, and the dialogue to be found in such scenes, is Hayes greatest strength.  Not only is this his greatest screenplay;  it is one of the strongest screenplays to ever come out of Hollywood.

We first meet Lisa Fremont with arguably the greatest kiss ever captured on screen.  It is idealized and romanticized to the point of seeming like a fantasy, with a slowed down, close up image.  We have to ask ourselves, is this how it really happened, or how Jeff imagined it to be?

Of course, this idealized love doesn’t last long.  Very soon, they are bickering.  Lisa wants a committed relationship, but Jeff won’t agree to it.  He thinks they are from different worlds, and can’t compromise enough to make it work.  Of course this doesn’t keep him from wanting to keep things “status quo.”

As Jeff looks out on the courtyard, virtually every window tells the tale of a relationship, and will therefore remind him of his own.  First and foremost, there is Lars Thorwald and his wife.  She is supposed to be an invalid, but doesn’t look to be in very bad shape.  She is very critical of  Thorwald.  Jeff comments while talking to his editor on the phone about not wanting to become a husband going home to his nagging wife.  Note also, the nightgown that Mrs. Thorwald is wearing in her early scenes is almost exactly like the one that Lisa will wear later in the film.

There is also the newlywed couple, whose closed curtains imply the marriage is being consummated quite thoroughly.  And yet by the end, they are bickering too.  Miss Lonelyhearts is hungry for love, with a desperation that escalates to the brink of disaster.  Miss Torso is pushing men away throughout the film, “juggling wolves” as Lisa calls it.   You could say that the composer is married to his work.  Stella talks about her strong marriage, calling herself and her husband “a couple of maladjusted misfits” and saying the only way you could get her wedding ring off would be to chop off her finger.   And Detective Doyle is a family man, who is not averse to admiring Miss Torso himself.

When Lisa begins to take chances, when she leaves the note under Thorwald’s door, that is the moment that Jeff begins to really fall in love with her.  To make sure we notice this, Hitchcock gives us a close up of Stewart’s face.

When Lisa is in Thorwald’s apartment, signaling to Jeff that she has the ring, the double meaning of the image can’t be mistaken.  She is pointing repeatedly to a wedding ring on her finger.  She has found Mrs. Thorwald’s ring, but it is also symbolic of her desire to wed Jeff.

The movie does have a mostly happy ending (except of course for poor Mrs. Thorwald), but there is that little twist at the end.  Miss Torso is attached to a scrawny soldier who is more interested in the contents of her icebox than her bikini.  Miss Lonelyhearts and the composer are brought together by music, at least in a friendly way (One can’t really imagine them becoming a couple).  The couple with the dog have got a new puppy, the newlyweds are bickering.  And Lisa is reading a book about climbing the Himalayas, at least until she is sure Jeff is asleep.  Then she grabs her Harper’s Bizarre.  Compromise is the name of the game.

Sound and vision:  Nothing seen or heard in a Hitchcock movie is ever there by accident, and never more so than here, where Hitchcock had such close control of every aspect of production.    Hitchcock had an all-star team on this movie, and they all worked together seamlessly.  From Robert Burks’ cinematography, to Edith Head’s costumes, to Hal Pereira’s art direction and Franz Waxman’s music, every piece of the puzzle fit together perfectly.

The above image is a good example of all of these technical elements working together.

Hitchcock also found many interesting ways to film the characters in Stewart’s apartment, without anything ever feeling staged.

Lisa wears a pale green here, mirroring the green that Miss Lonelyhearts is wearing as she prepares to go out on the town.  Here is what Hitchcock had to say about Miss Lonelyhearts color palette:

Miss Lonelyhearts 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.

The final scene with Detective Doyle, Jeff and Lisa plays out with long takes and very little cutting.  Hitchcock has the actors keep moving around, and regrouping, so the shot composition is always engaging.

One of the most overlooked aspects of this film is also one of its most brilliant, and that is the movie’s musical score.    The score is diegetic;  it is comprised of only music that exists in the narrative world of the film.  It other words, all of the sounds we hear come to us from the open window of Jeff’s apartment; the songs are either on someone’s radio, or emanating from the composer’s apartment.  And the songs all perfectly suit what is taking place on the screen.  While Jeff is watching the newlyweds enter their apartment, we can hear an instrumental version of “That’s Amore”.   When Miss Lonelyhearts is having dinner with her imaginary beau, the rather cruelly ironic song playing is Bing Crosby’s “To See You Is To Love You”.   Later, when Miss Lonelyhearts crosses the street to the bar, we hear “Waiting For My True Love To Appear.”    The greatest musical element, however, is the song “Lisa”, which we actually hear being composed as the movie progresses.  In other words, the composer, in his apartment, is writing the movie’s score as we watch the movie.  When Lisa first comes in Jeff’s apartment, we hear someone practicing scales.  Obviously this is the warm up, before the real work begins.  Then, over the course of a few scenes, we see the composer developing his song, culminating in the scene where both Lisa and Miss Lonelyhearts are captivated by the song.  And finally, in the movie’s very last scene, we hear a recorded version of the song, which is named after Grace Kelly’s character.

Hitchcock thought that this idea of developing a song as the movie progressed was a failure.  I disagree.  I just think that the story is so strong, the music gets lost in the background.  I would strongly encourage anyone who is a big fan of this movie to watch it again, focusing on the sound and music.  You just might be amazed.

REAR WINDOW (1954): “What do you want from me?”

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 Murderwas 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), an 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 the action and 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.

One small portion of Hitchcock’s impressive Rear Window set.

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 Hitchcock 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 Ropeand would later appear in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956 remake) and Vertigo.  Grace Kelly had just starred in Dial M For Murderand 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.

Burr and Selznick.

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.

Hitchcock, winding a clock and speaking to Ross Bagdasarian in his “Rear Window” cameo.

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.