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Collector's Corner

April 2002

Rear Window

  • Starring: Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr
  • Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
  • Theatrical release: 1954
  • DVD release: 2001
  • Video: Original Aspect Ratio (1.66:1)
  • Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono

There is a distinct difference between 'suspense' and 'surprise,' and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I'll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, 'Boom!' There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table, and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the décor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene.

The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: 'You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There's a bomb underneath you and it's about to explode!'

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second case we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.
-- Alfred Hitchcock as told to François Truffaut in his book, Hitchcock (1967)

Jeff Jeffries (James Stewart) has broken his leg on assignment as a news photographer. Six weeks in a cast sitting next to the rear window of his apartment and all he can do is stare at his neighbors. He does this avidly and with imagination. He even starts giving them imaginary names, like "Miss Torso" and "Miss Lonelyheart" and "The Composer." His girlfriend, Lisa Carol Freemont (Grace Kelly), a fashion maven/model wants to get married. Jeff thinks it won’t work. He just wants to travel the world and photograph the news. One night, in a sleepy stupor, Jeff becomes convinced that one of the neighbors has killed his wife. But he’s stuck in his room, confined to a wheelchair. So he enlists the aid of Lisa, as well as his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and old WWII buddy Detective Thomas Doyle (Wendell Corey) to prove his theory. At first, no one believes him. Then, one by one, they start to have some small faith in Jeff’s story.

As I re-watched Rear Window for this column, I took notes on the most important points. Each time a scene came up that I thought would interest the reader, I jotted something down about it. Sometimes it was vastly important, like the use of special color effects at the final climax. Sometimes it was as trivial as in the loving exploration of the gyrating figure of Miss Torso in chapter 2. By the end of the film, I had more notes than space for writing. Even worse, almost 90% of it was about Hitchcock. But the more I think about it, the more apropos it becomes.

Because what makes this film great is Hitchcock. Don’t get me wrong. Grace Kelly was never better. She’s sexy, beautiful, understanding, intelligent, funny, witty, happy, self-assured, bold, and brave. Plus, she stands by her man. Many have written about the great screen kisses. Check the one she plants on Jimmy Stewart in chapter 4. If this isn’t the best, someone please tell me where to see a better one.

Jimmy Stewart, Hitchcock’s vision of "everyman," does his usual, perfectly invisible job of acting. He makes you forget the iconographic actor and believe he is Jeff Jeffries. In his early caddish treatment of Kelly’s character, he leaves us believing that he could possibly just watch, never reach out, as his neighbors’ lives cascade up and down around him.

The writing by John Michael Hayes appears seamless and you might attribute that to starting with a great story (by Cornell Woolrich), until you realize that the original spent little time on the neighbors and didn’t even have a Lisa Carol Freemont in it! Hitchcock wanted Grace Kelly, so he told Hayes to write her in. And once they started working up the film, they found that it was too set-bound and single-charactered to be compelling, so they added in all the cameos that make the film so rich.

Despite all the wonderful additions, what makes Rear Window a classic is that it is archetypal Hitchcock. Of all his films, Rear Window is probably the single best master lesson in how and why, Hitchcock remains the greatest architect of thrillers yet to work in the realm of film. Especially in the realm of suspense, as he discussed with French director François Truffaut in the quote above. Certainly, several of his films (The Man Who Knew Too Much, Notorious, Strangers on a Train) serve to prove his mastery of suspense over surprise. But Rear Window builds the suspense for almost 80 minutes! There is a slowly building intensity about Rear Window that is as delicious as it is ultimately frightening. Has there been a murder or is Jeff just stir-crazy and paranoid? If it is true, how can he find out? What can he do? He’s wheelchair bound and no one believes him. Once he finds a convert, the suspense gradually but inexorably accelerates to one of Hitchcock’s most chilling climaxes. For those who haven’t seen it, I don’t want to destroy the suspense. But chapters 15 and 16 are master classes in Hitchcock’s genius. The scene late in chapter 15, at 1:41:50 into the film, when Raymond Burr looks across the courtyard is one of the most blood-freezing moments in all of film. From there, listen to the slow steps, the lack of music, and watch the lighting effects.

Above all, Hitchcock was a great storyteller. How does he unfold a story? He puts you in it by showing the protagonist looking at something, then you see what he sees, then you see his reaction. This takes place hundreds of times in Rear Window. Yet Hitchcock is so good at it, you never get bored with the technique. In fact, most people never even notice it. As a great storyteller, he’s also canny enough to realize that multiple story lines help hold your interest. So, besides the mystery and the romance between Lisa and Jeff, we also get the story of the neighbors’ lives.

There’s "Miss Torso," constantly practicing her dance, while Hitchcock, the barely disguised semi-pornographic pixie-ish Peeping Tom spends some quality film time with her pretty butt. And "The Composer" worries over his next piece of music. In a neat piece of typecasting, Ross Bagdasarian plays the songwriter. In reality, he was a songwriter penning such tunes as "Witch Doctor" and "Come On-a My House." Baby boomers will know him better by his stage name, David Seville of Alvin and the Chipmunks fame.

Perhaps most touching is the side story about "Miss Lonelyheart." We meet her during chapter 5. With no sound other than Bing Crosby singing, "To See You (Is To Love You)," a tale of terrible sadness is told in pantomime. It’s one that eventually has a vital bearing on the story.

You see all of these as a secret observer, and what’s diabolical is how Hitchcock first gets us comfortable with voyeurism. During chapter 2, he pans around the small yard between several apartments, giving us info about his protagonist, his neighbors, and the world they live in without so much as a single normal narrative. Eventually, we lose the suspense of violating other people’s privacy. This is vital to Hitchcock’s plan. He wants us to become comfortable with it. Like a Chinese box, we the audience spy on the protagonists spying on the unfolding of a nightmare.

Universal has done a brilliant job with Rear Window. The restored picture is beautiful, with a full range from shadowy dark hues to brilliantly bright colors. The close-ups of Grace Kelly will take your breath. The sound is clear Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. For a film with this much foley going on, everything emerges with crystal clarity.

What a wonderful selection of extras. A documentary called Rear Window Ethics features talk from cast members, other directors, the restoration team, and the assistant director. There is also a lengthy interview with Screenwriter John Michael Hayes about his working relationship with the director and stars. Production notes, cast bios, and trailers round out the selections. There is also a DVD-ROM feature that holds the original script. None of it is fluff.

Hitchcock was nominated five times for an Oscar (Rebecca, Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rear Window, Psycho). He never won. Rear Window was nominated for four Academy Awards, but took home none. There’s no accounting for taste.

...Wes Marshall
wesm@hometheatersound.com

 


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