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In Rear Window (1954), one of director Alfred Hitchcock's greatest achievements, James Stewart plays a worldly news photographer confined to a wheelchair in his apartment, having suffered a broken leg. It's a sweltering summer in Greenwich Village, and to pass the time, Stewart takes to spying on his neighbors across the courtyard. In the course of his spying, he begins to suspect his neighbor (Raymond Burr, made up to look like Hitchcock's real-life nemesis, David O. Selznick) of murdering his wife. Naturally police detective Wendell Corey doesn't believe him, so Stewart and his breathtakingly gorgeous girlfriend, Grace Kelly, try to prove it on their own. Along the way, Stewart watches the other inhabitants of the building play out their own little stories. Like little movies themselves, they are full of humor, drama, and tragedy.
Hitchcock later said of making this picture, "I was feeling very creative at the time. The batteries were well charged." Any scene of the movie proves this point. Take the opening: within seconds after the credits, we know who James Stewart is, what he does for a living, and why he is confined to a cast and a wheelchair, all without a word of dialogue. It's extremely economical visual storytelling, and the great beauty of Rear Window is that you can notice such techniques while still simply being entertained. The film is so overflowing with suspense, romance, and comedy that it looks like it was the easiest, most effortless movie in the world to make. Hitchcock knew that audiences love to work - to piece things together visually, to understand relationships through editing, staging or camera movement, and that is why Rear Window is so captivating.
The strong subjective point of view of "us-watching-Stewart-watch-neighbors" was actually embodied in the original Cornell Woolrich story, It Had to be Murder (1942), on which the screenplay was based. But Woolrich's yarn contained only the murder storyline. There was no Grace Kelly, no Thelma Ritter (Stewart's housekeeper), no policeman or other neighbors. Hitchcock wanted to expand it and laid out his ideas to writer John Michael Hayes. He also asked Hayes to spend some time with Grace Kelly, at the time working on Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder (1954), because he wanted her for the new picture. Hayes and Hitchcock both found Kelly's acting in Dial M to be stiff - despite the fact that neither man saw any inhibitions in her in real life. So Hayes wrote the part for her, consciously trying to work in her natural charm and outgoing nature.
Ms. Kelly recalled (in Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side of Genius by Donald Spoto) that during the filming of Dial M for Murder "the only reason he could remain calm was because he was already preparing his next picture, Rear Window. He sat and talked to me about it all the time, even before we had discussed my being in it...He talked to me about the people who would be seen in other apartments opposite the rear window, and their little stories, and how they would emerge as characters and what would be revealed. I could see him thinking all the time, and when he had a moment alone he would go off and discuss the building of the fantastic set. That was his great delight."
A 35-page treatment was good enough for Hitchcock, Stewart and Paramount all to commit to the project, and Hitchcock then left Hayes alone to write the script. The director liked what he read, and then, remembered Hayes, turned 200 numbered scenes into 600 by inserting all his visualized camera setups. In the interview collection, Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut, the master of suspense admitted that "The killing presented something of a problem, so I used two news stories from the British press. One was the Patrick Mahon case and the other was the case of Dr. Crippen. In the Mahon case the man killed a girl in a bungalow on the seafront of Southern England. He cut up the body and threw it, piece by piece, out of a train window. But he didn't know what to do with the head, and that's where I got the idea of having them look for the victim's head in Rear Window."
Shooting was done entirely in a soundstage on the Paramount lot. (With few dramatic exceptions, the camera never leaves Stewart's apartment during the movie.) Studio art director Henry Bumstead, at the cusp of a distinguished and still ongoing career (credits include Vertigo, 1958, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962, Unforgiven, 1992, and Mystic River, 2003), had the idea of cutting out the floor of the stage so that the basement could function as the courtyard level, with Stewart's apartment on the main stage floor. The set "went all the way from the basement to the grids." Sound was recorded live from Stewart's window across the stage, in order to achieve a hollow, distanced effect which reinforced the audience's alignment with Stewart.
When Rear Window first opened, many critics noted the connection between James Stewart's voyeuristic photographer and the moviegoing public. As Hitchcock said to Truffaut in an interview, "He's a real Peeping Tom. In fact, Miss Lejeune, the critic of 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 the window. What's so horrible about that? Sure, he's a snooper, but aren't we all?" But other significant Hitchcock themes also emerge in the course of the film. In Guide for the Film Fanatic, author Danny Peary writes, "First: people are into such dull, regimented lives that when they do anything that varies from their routine (as Burr does), neighbors will become suspicious and may suspect them of doing something terrible. A related and equally important theme...is that even the most predictable people are capable of doing wildly unpredictable things; Burr can commit murder, the stacked blonde neighbor can fall for a shrimp who likes to eat, and Kelly, who's the type to fret over a broken fingernail, can be gallant enough to climb up a railing into a murderer's apartment."
For several years Rear Window and other key Hitchcock films like Vertigo were withdrawn from distribution for contractual reasons and were unavailable for viewing. Luckily, the legal issues were resolved and the films became available again in the early eighties thanks to the work of film restorers Robert Harris and James Katz who managed to repair and save the negative of Rear Window. It was in terrible shape when they began their work. The yellow color layer had been stripped away due to repeated lacquering, and they spent six months developing a new restoration technique to put the layer back, something that had not been done before.
Producer/Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cinematography: Robert Burks
Film Editing: George Tomasini
Production Design: Hal Pereira, Ray Moyer
Music: Franz Waxman
Sound: Harry Lindgren, John Cope
Cast: James Stewart (L. B. Jeffries), Grace Kelly (Lisa Fremont), Wendell Corey (Detective Thomas J. Doyle), Thelma Ritter (Stella), Raymond Burr (Lars Thorwald), Judith Evelyn (Miss Lonely Hearts).
C-115m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold & Jeff Stafford