Friday, 13 March 2015

Film Friday: "Rear Window" (1954)

This week on "Film Friday" I want to tell you a little but about my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film so far. Coincidently, this also happens to be the first Hitchcock film I ever saw as well as the first time I saw James Stewart in color.

Original release poster
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Rear Window (1954) tells the story of L.B. "Jeff" Jeffries (James Stewart), a professional photographer who finds himself confined to his Greenwich Village apartment after breaking his leg while on a job assignment. During a summer heat wave, Jeff passes the time by watching his neighbors from his apartment rear window. He observes a skilled dancer he nicknames "Miss Torso" (Georgine Darcy); a single middle-aged woman he calls "Miss Lonelyhearts" (Judith Evelyn); a couple of lecherous newlyweds (Rand Harper and Havis Davenport); a lonely middle-aged songwriter (Ross Bagdasarian); a female sculptor with a hearing aid (Jesslyn Fax); and Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), a travelling jewelry salesman with a bedridden wife.

One evening, after hearing a woman scream and a glass break, Jeff sees Thorwald leaving his apartment and making repeated late-night trips carrying his sample case. Jeff also notices that Thorwald's wife is gone and sees him cleaning a large knife and handsaw. Later, Thorwald ties a large trunk with heavy rope and has moving men haul it away. The following day, Jeff discusses these observations with his pragmatic home-care nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter), and his beautiful socialite girlfriend, Lisa Carol Fremont (Grace Kelly), who both dismiss his suspicions. Obsessed with the notion that Thorwald killed his wife, Jeff explains his theory to his friend Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey), a New York City Police detective, and asks him to look into the situation. Doyle finds nothings suspicious, especially since a "Mrs. Thorwald" picked up the trunk herself. Soon afterwards, when a woman screams into the courtyard that her dog has been found dead, Thorwald is the only person who does not rush to his window to see what happened. At that point, Jeff becomes convinced that Thorwald is in fact guilty and persuades Lisa and Stella to help him prove that the man did murder his wife after all.

Lisa: Jeff, you know if someone came in here, they wouldn't believe what they'd see? You and me with long faces plunged into despair because we find out a man didn't kill his wife. We're two of the most frightening ghouls I've ever known.

The basic storyline of Rear Window stemmed from the Cornell Woolrich short story "It Had To Be Murder," originally published in Dime Detective Magazine in February 1942 under the pseudonym William Irish. Told from the viewpoint of a first-person narrator, the story may have been inspired by a trivial incident that happened in the author's own life. Early in his writing career, Woolrich was typing near an open window with his shirt off, as it was a hot day. Suddenly, he heard giggling sounds coming from the outside and noticed a couple of giddy teenage girls watching him from another window. According to Woolrich's biographer, Francis M. Nevins Jr., this experience may have given the writer the germinal idea for "It Had To Be Murder." The screen rights to Woolrich's story were optioned shortly after its publication by Buddy DeSylva, then the Executive Producer at Paramount Pictures, but the project never came to fruition.

In 1952, the property was acquired by theatre director Joshua Logan and producer Leland Hayward, who had recently collaborated in the hugely successful Broadway plays Mister Roberts (1948) and South Pacific (1949). This was to be Logan's solo feature directorial debut after helming I Met My Love Again (1937) with Arthur Ripley and George Cukor. Logan's first treatment added the insurance nurse, Stella, as well as a girlfriend named Trink, an actress determined to keep her career despite Jeff's insistence that she quit the business to marry him. When "It Had To Be Murder" was published in a collection titled Rear Window, Logan's agent Lew Wasserman sold the rights to the story to Alfred Hitchcock, much to his client's dismay. It was then announced that Logan and Hayward would produce the picture for Warner Bros., with James Stewart playing the male.

Alfred Hitchcock, James Stewart and Grace Kelly
on the set of Rear Window
Prior to Rear Window, Hitchcock had often worked with multiple writers and relied heavily on his wife Alma Reville for script development. When she withdrew from regular film work in the early 1950s, Hitchcock decided to entrust the screenplay to John Michael Hayes, who had penned several episodes of Suspense, a radio show which the director had helped to create. Hitchcock decided to keep the girlfriend that Logan had added to the story  although she would later be drastically changed and focus on the relationship between the two leads, not only on the characters, but also on the actors who would play them. With this in mind, Hitchcock instructed Hayes to write the roles specifically for James Stewart, the star of his earlier character study Rope (1948); and Grace Kelly, who was then working with the director on Dial M For Murder (1954).

Although filming Rope was not a particularly pleasant experience for Stewart, he and Hitchcock had been planning to make another picture together ever since. Stewart and Hitchcock enjoyed working with each other, but they had an odd relationship: they rarely socialized outside of work and said very little to one another on the set, communicating in "unspoken glances" instead. According to Stewart, Hitchcock would never discuss a scene with an actor, preferring to hire people who would know what was expected of them from the moment he said "Action." The most Hitchcock would say to Stewart was something along the lines of "The scene is tired," thereby informing him that his timing was off. Hitchcock and Stewart later reunited in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), an largely altered remake of the director's 1934 British film of the same name; and Vertigo (1958), based on the 1954 novel D'entre les morts by French writer Boileau-Narcejac.

Kelly, too, liked Hitchcock professionally and turned down the female on Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954) to make Rear Window. Hitchcock always had meticulously detailed instructions for his leading ladies' costumes, so he worked closely with the prestigious designer Edith Head to create the perfect wardrobe for Kelly. The five outfits she wears in the film were all planned and sketched in great detail by Hitchcock himself, from the form to the style and color.

Stewart also signed as a producer, defering his salary for a percentage of the film's profits, one of the first actors in Hollywood to do so. 

James Stewart and Grace Kelly on a
break from filming
Hitchcock told me it was important that Grace's clothes help to establish some sort of conflict in the story. She was to be a sophisticated society-girl magazine edior who falls in love with a scruffy photographer, Jimmy Stewart. Hitch wanted her to look like a piece of Dresden China, something slightly untouchable. So I did that. Her suits were impeccably tailored; her accessories looked as though they couldn't be worn by anyone else but her. She was perfect.
(Edith Head)

Everyone on the set of Rear Window was fascinated by the beautiful 25-year-old actress. Not even the married James Stewart was indiferent to her charms; in fact, aside from Margaret Sullavan, he probably never praised an actress more openly or more consistently than he did Grace Kelly. A sexually free young woman, Kelly often had affairs with her leading men, including Clark Gable and William Holden. While the two were never romantically involved, she made everyone nervous at the time by confessing to the gossip columnists that she found Stewart one of the most masculinely attractive men she had ever met. Stewart was supposed have worked with Kelly again in the MGM comedy Designing Woman (1957), but shortly before the film went into production, she announced her retirement from acting to marry Prince Rainier III of Monaco. Refusing to go on with the film without Kelly, Stewart would later replaced by Gregory Peck, with Lauren Bacall assigned as his leading lady.

Everyone just sat around and waited for [Grace Kelly] to come in the morning, so we could just look at her. She was kind to everybody, so considerate, just great, and so beautiful.
(James Stewart)

The colossal Rear Window set
From the beginning, Hitchcock wanted to shoot the film in a "limited-setting" style, similarly to what he had done with Lifeboat (1944), Rope (1948) and Dial M For Murder (1954). 

When Hitchcock started working on Rear Window, he wanted to shoot the film on location in Greenwich Village, New York, but he quickly dropped the idea when Paramount announced their plans to recreate a realistic and detailed set on their Stage 18. Inspired by a series of photographs of typical Greenwich Village courtyards, the colossal set required several months of planning and construction and cost somewhere between $75,000 and $100,000. It was 98 feet wide, 185 feet long, 40 feet high (that's approximately 30 meters wide, 56 meters long and 12 meters high), and included 31 apartments, 12 of which were completely furnished. In addition, all the apartments in Thorwald's building had electricity and running water and could actually be lived in. The set was such a marvel that it was even featured in several magazine spreads while shooting was still in progress.

Hitchcock called Rear Window his most cinematic work and was pleased with the way he was able to tell so much of the story visually. For instance, by being introduced to Stewart's character in a pan of his apartment, we immediately know all the information we need about his job, his injury and the kind of man he is. But beyond the visual look and pace of the film, the use of sound is equally cinematic. Everything we hear on the screen after the opening credits is diegetic, meaning that every  kind of music or sound effect comes from a source within the story. By using only diegetic sound with various degrees of audibility, Hitchcock was able to create the perfect suspense atmosphere, giving the audience not only clues to the mystery plot, but also enhancing and coloring the characters and their relationships. However, the film is much more than its visual look and the director's innovative filming technique. Rear Window is really a love story, a very complicated love story between Jeff and Lisa, and the film's mystery plot merely serves as the framework for their complex and obviously sexual relationship.

Lisa: I wish I could be creative.
Jeff: Oh sweetie, you are. You have a great talent for creating difficult situations.

Upon its September 1954 release, Rear Window received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics and was a success at the box-office, turning James Stewart into the highest grossing star of that year. The film went on to receive four Academy Award nominations Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography (Color) and Best Sound Recording and it has since been considered one of Hitchcock's finest films. Of the sixteen Hitchcock films I've seen so far, Rear Window is without a shadow of a doubt (see what I did there?) my favorite. The thing I love the most about it, besides James Stewart and Grace Kelly's amazing scenes together, is its narrative structure and the sense of voyeurism that Hitchcock created with Jeff. By playing off our innate sense of curiosity and having Jeff be a "surrogate for the spectator," as John Belton puts it, Hitchcock is able to immediately grab our attention and engage us in what is one of the best examples of 1950s film spectacles.

Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window edited by John Belton (2000) | Cornell Woolrich: From Pulp Noir to Film Noir by Thomas C. Renzi (2006) | Grace: A Biography by Thilo Wydra (2014) | James Stewart: A Biography by Donald Dewey (1996) | TCMDb (Articles)


  1. Wonderful review! It really is a true work of art and one of my absolute favourite Hitchcock films. It also has a special place for me as it was one of the first films to pique my interest in Old Hollywood :)

    I have to thank you. Your blog inspired me to do something I'd been thinking back and forth on for several months; and that's to create a blog of my own. I'm so glad I did because there is such a rich, thriving community of passionate old movie fans in the blogosphere and reading their posts is equally fascinating and educating.

    Have you been on Their bloghub section is great and basically collects all the old movie posts from their members and posts them in an one easy location. Our blogs are about a month or two away from being eligible for submission but it's still a great resource :) There's also the Classic Movie Blog Association; - but, again, we have to wait a little bit before we are eligible for membership.

    On Classic Movie Hub, there's also a section called "Events" which lists all the blogathons! I'm trying to submit myself into as many as possible as they are a great way of getting publicity for your blog. I think the Irish Blog O'Thon and Pre-Code Blogothon (though I'm yet to recieve a reply from them) is still accepting entries and yesterday a Katharine Hepburn Blogothon was announced- with prizes for the best entries too!

    That's all from me (see, I'm just as wordy on Blogspot as I am on YouTube). Thank you again :)

    1. Aw, thank you, Laura. I'm really glad you enjoyed reading it. And thank you for saying that I inspired you to create your own blog. That truly means a lot.

      And lastly, thank you for telling me about all those other blogs. I'm still getting the hang of this blogging business, so there's a lot of things that I don't know yet. I saw that Pre-Code Blogathon on your blog a couple of days ago and I've entered too, but they haven't replied to me yet either. I think I'm going to enter the Katharine Hepburn Blogathon as well. It sounds really fun.

      Can't wait to read your next blog post. :)

      -Cátia. xo