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Rear Window (1954)

October 1st, 2007 · 9 Comments

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31 days of October. 31 articles devoted to the screen’s maestro of suspense and the macabre, Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980). I’ll be jumping back and forth through five decades in this series. More than half of the films I’ve never seen before, but even the ones I have seen were viewed, researched and written about this month.

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Synopsis
Confined to a wheelchair after breaking his leg, photographer L. B. Jefferies (James Stewart) receives a call from his editor. Jeff tries to talk his way into an assignment, but he still has a week before his cast comes off. He’s kept himself entertained at the bay window of his apartment. New York is under a heat wave, and Jeff’s neighbors in the building across the courtyard keep their blinds raised 24 hours a day.

Stella (Thelma Ritter), a blunt talking nurse from the insurance company, visits. She warns Jeff, “I can smell trouble right here in this apartment. First you smash your leg. Then you get to lookin’ out the window. See things you shouldn’t see. Trouble.” Jeff agrees there is about to be trouble. His fashion model girlfriend wants him to marry her, but he’d rather trek off to Pakistan than confine himself to Park Avenue. He’s decided to break up with her.

Jeff wakes from a nap to find girlfriend Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly) staring into his eyes. She prepares dinner. He introduces her to the characters across the courtyard. Miss Torso is a ballet dancer. Miss Lonelyheart is a sad single woman. Mr. Thorwald (Raymond Burr) is a jewelry salesman berated by his bedridden wife. Jeff tells Lisa he doesn’t want to get married. When he proposes they keep things “status quo” for now, she leaves.

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Jeff hears a scream outside his window. A thunderstorm wakes him later that night, and he observes suspicious behavior from Mr. Thorwald: mysterious departures, a knife, a saw and a rope, long distance phone calls, and Mrs. Thorwald nowhere to be seen. Using a zoom lens for an even closer inspection, Jeff believes foul play is afoot.

A detective buddy (Wendell Corey) tells him it could be any number of things, but checks Thorwald out. According to the suspect, his wife left town on a trip and has witnesses to prove it. Lisa’s “women’s intuition” tells her that this is a lie. Stella believes something is awry as well. The women investigate Thorwald’s building, while Jeff can do little more than watch. When Thorwald learns he’s being watched, he decides to pay his neighbors a visit.

Production history
It Had To Be Murder was a short story appearing in the February 1942 edition of Dime Detective Magazine. Written by Cornell Woolrich, it was a first person account of a man named Jeff, whose broken leg confines him to his apartment in Manhattan. With no one to talk to except a Black servant, Jeff entertains himself by watching his neighbors through a bay window. He comes to suspect that one of them has murdered his wife.

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Director Alfred Hitchcock was familiar with Woolrich’s pulp fiction. It had been featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s Fireside Book of Suspense and on the radio series Suspense, which Hitchcock helped create and host in the early 1940s. After producer Joshua Logan obtained the screen rights for It Had To Be Murder – and wrote a treatment in an unsuccessful bid to make it his directorial debut – Hitchcock acquired the property.

As Dial M For Murder went into pre-production, the director hired 33-year-old screenwriter John Michael Hayes to adapt a script. Hitchcock told him that James Stewart and Grace Kelly would be the leads. Woolrich had never specified what Jeff’s profession was, but Hitchcock wanted him to be a photojournalist. A professional voyeur. Hayes began turning in his script in October 1953. Hitchcock was so pleased that he signed Hayes to a $15,000 a week contract to write four films for him.

Hitchcock’s agent Lew Wasserman had just secured his client a $150,000 per picture contract with Paramount. The deal would comprise five films directed and produced by Hitchcock, and a reversion clause gave him ownership of those films. Hitchcock’s estate came to own Rear Window, The Trouble With Harry, the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Vertigo. All were purchased by Universal for an undisclosed sum in 1983.

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1954 marked the beginning of Hitchcock’s Paramount era. He brought director of photography Robert Burks with him from Warner Bros., but utilized an Oscar winning cameraman under studio contract named Joseph MacMillan Johnson to design and build the sets, and a young lot editor named George Tomasini to cut the film. With the exception of The Trouble With Harry, Tomasini would edit all of Hitchcock’s films up to Marnie in 1964.

Rear Window was a blockbuster, grossing $9.8 million in the U.S., making it the third most popular movie of the year. Filmmakers today seem to think that in thrillers, you have to shock the audience right away or they’ll walk out. The shock here is that for the first 30 minutes, we’re treated to a classic romantic comedy about a restless guy who won’t commit to his girlfriend. The sharp repartee between Jimmy Stewart and Thelma Ritter, and Stewart and the luminous Grace Kelly, is written and performed to perfection.

Opinion
This is more mystery than thriller, but since so much care went into crafting the characters, the film is a lot more satisfying than if it had been made a scarefest. The way Hitchcock stages these intimate plays in the apartments across the courtyard is a thing of beauty. The art design and camerawork are peerless. Almost every shot of Rear Window unfolds from the perspective of a bay window, yet there’s not a dull moment in the entire movie, which is a thrill from beginning to end.

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Lisa Skrzyniarz at Crazy For Cinema writes, “There’s nothing more enjoyable than a well-made movie and this is one of the best. Perfect casting, brilliant direction, visual style and an intelligent script – you can’t ask for more.”

“What the film is ‘about’ (I hate saying that) is our society’s voyeuristic nature … Much of the dialog is so intentionally directed at the audience that it must have been hard for the actors to keep from turning toward the camera and smirking,” writes Michael W. Phillips Jr. at goatdog’s movies. He gives it five goats out of five.

Jeffrey Anderson at Combustible Celluloid writes, “One can watch and absorb all the little intricacies of the filmmaking and poetry, or one can simply watch and feel one’s hair stand on end. Most masterworks don’t work both ways, but Rear Window hits both notes perfectly.”

“Reading from top to bottom? Lisa. Carol. Fremont.” View Grace Kelly and one of the greatest movie entrances of all time.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on short story · Murder mystery · Paranoia · Psycho killer · Woman in jeopardy

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jeff McM // Oct 1, 2007 at 7:52 pm

    One of the most intriguing things about this movie is how the events that Jeff sees outside his window subtly mirror the things going on in his relationship with Lisa – it is, after all, a movie about a man feeling smothered by the woman in his life and how he copes with her.

  • 2 Mike Doc // Oct 1, 2007 at 10:22 pm

    Always love reading about Hitch, and you kicked things off with my favorite! I love everything about Rear Window — most of all the playfully morbid sense of humor (“I don’t want any part of it!”). Looking forward to the next 30 posts!

    Do you have the Hitchcock/Truffaut book-length interview as a source? There’s so much in there, and it’s an entertaining read to boot.

  • 3 Moviezzz // Oct 2, 2007 at 8:15 am

    Great start!

    Also have to recommend the Truffaut book. Probably one of the best books about any filmmaker.

  • 4 stennie // Oct 2, 2007 at 9:50 am

    Rear Window is tied with North By Northwest as my favorite Hitchcock, and that’s up against some very stiff competition. I love his use of music in this film (and all his films), and particularly his UN-use of music, if that’s a word. The most terrifying scene in the movie is when Torvald comes home and finds Lisa in his apartment — no score at all, no big stinging strings or blaring horns — just Lisa’s screams for help and Jeff’s agonized whimpers. Very powerful stuff.

  • 5 Joe Valdez // Oct 2, 2007 at 8:51 pm

    Jeff: You made a key observation about why this movie is so great. What Jeff spies in the other apartments is a sort of subconscious projection of what’s going on his relationship with Lisa. I wanted to point that out in my review, but ran out of space, so I really appreciate your comment.

    Mike: I had the Truffaut/Hitchcock book years ago, but lost it. Hitchcock was a slippery interview subject. He never analyzed a failure, like Spielberg does with 1941. I find that more helpful sometimes than a director talking about their “art”.

    Moviezzz: Thanks for stopping by. I consulted John Cusack’s tutorial on how to make a great mix tape in High Fidelity before starting this series and hope it rubs off.

    Heidi: I’m a big fan of film scores and an even bigger fan when a movie or TV show just drops that and sources the soundtrack. The scene you mention in this movie is a perfect example in letting the imagination of the audience supply the music and sound effects. Excellent comment.

    Damian: That sounds like my experience watching It Came From Outer Space when I was 5. The more I’ve thought about Rear Window over the past 24 hours, the more I feel it probably belongs in a conversation of the best movies ever made, certainly the best thrillers. Thanks for your comments.

  • 6 Damian // Oct 2, 2007 at 5:35 pm

    I love “Rear Window.” It was actually the first Hitchcock film I ever saw. I remember watching it with my brothers and sisters and we were not only on the edge of our seats, we were leaping off the couch and yelling at the characters on the screen. The moment when Raymond Burr turns to look at Stewart (and simultaneous at US, the audience) still gives me goosebumps.

    I agree with Moviezzz. Great start to the project, Joe. Looking forward to the rest.

  • 7 Jeremy // Oct 3, 2007 at 5:01 am

    Great review Joe and a perfect one to open up your Hitchcock month with. I love Rear Window as well and rank it among Hitchcock’s finest. I saw a big screen showing of it a few years ago and it is amazing in the response that it still draws from people…there was an audible gasp from at least three when Grace Kelly first appears on the screen.
    And how amazing is Jimmy Stewart?
    Great informative review…

  • 8 Piper // Oct 3, 2007 at 8:26 am

    Joe,

    This is one of my all time favorite movies. What is lost on today’s cinema is the building of tension through everyday occurrences. Something I’m sure that was lost in the teen remake Disturbia. The situation of a broken leg and a photo journalist works without feeling forced and this movie still has me on the edge of my seat every time I watch it.

    As with a lot of Hitchock’s movies, the opening credits are fantastic with the window shades going up and down.

    And the first kiss between Grace Kelly and Jimm Stewart might be the sexiest kiss I have ever witnessed on film. It’s obvious that Hitchock had something for each and every one of his female leads.

  • 9 Joe Valdez // Oct 3, 2007 at 12:10 pm

    Jeremy: The fact that Capra, Ford and Hitchcock kept going to Jimmy Stewart as their leading man says everything about how he dominated the screen in the ’40s and ’50s. I think Stewart’s draw was his ability to convey dignity, regardless of what genre he was in. Like you, I’m blown away by what he accomplished film after film.

    Jeremy & Pat: I can’t think of an actress today who is as beautiful as Grace Kelly. Oh, I can think of a lot who look great, but her deportment is what made her legendary. Check out Jimmy Stewart during Kelly’s entrance and you can see that the man is not acting like he’s charmed by her, he’s under a spell. Thanks for your comments, guys.

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