– Grace Kelly to James Stewart, “Rear Window” (1954)
Alfred Hitchcock began filming what was to become one of his cinematic masterpieces in November 1953, right after he completed “Dial M For Murder.” The Paramount film premiered in New York City in August 1954.
By Michael Hadley
The screenplay by John Michael Hayes was based on a short story that was first published in “Dime Detective Magazine” in February 1942 under the title “It Had to be Murder.” It was written by Cornell Woolrich and published under one of his pseudonyms, William Irish. Woolrich was a prolific writer of pulp thrillers that were frequently adapted by filmmakers. The original story was about a man named Jeff who was confined to the back bedroom of a hot and stuffy Manhattan apartment with a broken leg. Out of sheer boredom, he starts spying on his neighbors and becomes intrigued with a married couple who quarrel constantly. One day, the wife mysteriously disappears and Jeff becomes convinced the husband has done away with her. He asks his best friend, a homicide detective, to investigate what happened and confirm his theory.
– SOURCE: “Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light” by Patrick Mcgilligan
(See Recommended Books at bottom of page.)
The Perfect Cast
Hitchcock wanted James Stewart to play Jeff, a successful photojournalist who travels the world in pursuit of the next great cover shot for major news publications. Stewart had worked for Hitch before in “Rope” and he signed on immediately after reading a synopsis by screenwriter John Michael Hayes. The actor was so enthusiastic about the project that he accepted a percentage of the profits instead of an upfront salary.
In transferring the story to the screen, Hitchcock introduced a glamorous love interest in the sleek form of Grace Kelly. The director was certain Kelly was the ideal choice for the role of Lisa, a top fashion model who is in love with the roving photographer. Hitch was so keen on Kelly playing the role that he began discussing it with her when they were filming “Dial M For Murder.” He also encouraged screenwriter John Michael Hayes to spend time with Kelly to enhance his ability to write dialog for her. Coincidentally, Hayes was married to a professional model at the time and leveraged her knowledge of the fashion industry to capture Lisa’s sophisticated demeanor.
During an extensive interview with Hitchcock conducted by Francois Truffaut, Hitch is quoted as saying that audience identification with a character intensifies when the character is physically attractive. He cites Grace Kelly in “Rear Window” as an example of this. Hitch says that he was sitting next to Joseph Cotten’s wife at the film’s premiere when Kelly’s character is caught snooping in Thorwald’s apartment. Cotton’s wife became so upset that she turned to her husband and whispered, “Do something, do something!”
Hitchcock added the character of Stella to provide comic relief and serve as a benevolent foil for Jeff, whose refusal to commit to Lisa strikes her as foolish. A professional nurse and masseuse, Stella displays an earthy, no-nonsense attitude that contrasts with the more serious themes in the film. She can be viewed as a kind of Greek chorus to make the audience laugh and draw them together in the viewing experience. To play the role, Hitch turned to the inimitable Thelma Ritter who had already garnered three Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nominations since her first film in 1947.
Raymond Burr (most famously known as television’s “Perry Mason”) played the menacing Lars Thorwald whom Jeff suspects of murder after observing his suspicious behavior following the abrupt disappearance of his wife.
Wendell Corey, a contract player at Paramount, was hired to play the detective who tries to validate Jeff’s suspicions of foul play.
– SOURCES: “Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light” by Patrick Mcgillian; “The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock” by Donald Spoto; John Michael Hayes interview on the “Rear Window” DVD; “Hitchcock” by Helen G. Scott and Francois Truffaut; and IMDB.
A Vivid Gallery of Characters
Hitchcock showcases a vivid gallery of characters who occupy the apartments across the courtyard: Miss Lonelyhearts, a depressed and lovelorn spinster; Miss Torso, a shapely dancer who knows nothing about loneliness and everything about juggling an army of eager suitors; a frustrated songwriter who struggles with writer’s block; an attractive and sexually-hyped pair of newlyweds; an older couple who sleep on the fire escape and own a little dog; and the Thorwald’s, whose marital conflict eventually leads to murder.
The supporting characters open up the story and add considerably to the enjoyment of the film. Some pundits believe they mirror facets of the primary relationship between Jeff and Lisa. Tania Modleski makes several interesting observations along those lines in her book “The Women Who Knew Too Much.”
• “Thorwald and his wife are a reversal of Jeff and Lisa – Thorwald looks after his invalid wife just as Lisa looks after the invalid Jeff. Thorwald’s hatred of his nagging wife mirrors Jeff’s arguments with Lisa.
• The newlywed couple initially seem perfect for each other (they spend nearly the entire movie in their bedroom with the blinds drawn), but at the end we see their marriage deteriorate as the wife begins to nag the husband. Similarly, Jeff is afraid of being ‘tied down’ by marriage to Lisa.
• The middle-aged couple with the dog seem content living at home. They have the kind of uneventful lifestyle that horrifies Jeff.
• The songwriter, a music composer, and Miss Lonelyhearts, a depressed spinster, lead frustrating lives, and at the end of the movie find comfort in each other: The composer’s new tune draws Miss Lonelyhearts away from suicide, and the composer thus finds value in his work. There is a subtle hint in this tale that Lisa and Jeff are meant for each other, despite his stubbornness. The piece the composer creates is called “Lisa’s Theme” in the credits.
• Miss Torso initially seems to live a carefree bohemian lifestyle and often has various men over at her apartment. In the end, however, it is revealed that she has been waiting for her sweetheart, a soldier, to return.”
– SOURCES: “The Women Who Knew Too Much” by Tania Modleski and Wikipedia.
Hitch establishes Jeff’s profession in the first shot as the camera pans across the awards and magazine covers that fill the walls of his apartment. The shot continues with the picture of a racing car hurtling toward the camera, which resulted in Jeff suffering a broken leg. Jeff is depicted as a restless fellow who is “married” to his work and enjoys being on his own. He has become increasingly grumpy from being trapped in the small, stuffy apartment while he recuperates. In choosing to make Jeff a photographer, Hitchcock reinforced the voyeuristic theme of the film and made a sly reference to what some believe was his personal preference for observing vs participating in life.
The window in Jeff’s apartment provides a panoramic view into the apartments across the courtyard. Hitch shoots much of the action from this perspective, thereby making the audience fellow spectators with Jeff. This helps the viewer identify with his sense of isolation and helplessness. It also serves to deflect any tendencies the audience may have to judge what he does on a moral basis. While Jeff can literally view dozens of his neighbors at the same time, none of them are connected and they rarely interact with each other. They remain emotionally cut-off in spite of their physical proximity.
Miss Lonelyhearts is the most transparent symbol of loneliness in the film. Her mounting despair nearly culminates in suicide, but she changes her mind when she hears the soothing sounds of music coming from the songwriter’s apartment. Although the viewer is led to believe the two may end up together, Hitchcock leaves it open to interpretation, consistent with his own ambiguous take on human relationships.
Jeff, understandably irritable from being confined to a wheelchair for several weeks, dodges every attempt Lisa makes to get closer and obtain a commitment. Their “dance” remains a standoff until near the end of the film when Lisa risks her life to entrap Thorwald. At that point, Jeff finally realizes she is far more than a glossy 8×10″ come-to-life and starts to see her true potential.
– SOURCES: “Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light” by Patrick Mcgillian and “The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock” by Donald Spoto.
The entire film was shot on one enormous set which required months of planning and construction. It was the largest indoor set built at Paramount Studios at the time and it necessitated excavation of the soundstage floor. Thus, Jeff’s apartment was actually at stage level. The courtyard was set 20-30 feet below stage level and some of the buildings were the equivalent of five or six stories high. The set consisted of 31 separate apartments that Jeff can view from his window. Hitch saw to it that 12 of the apartments were completely furnished and equipped with electricity and running water. Georgine Darcy (Miss Torso) lived in her apartment on set for the duration of filming.
All of the sound in the film is “diegetic” which means the music, speech and other sounds originate within the world of the film with the exception of the orchestral music heard in the first three shots. Hitch used sound throughout the film to heighten the realism. This included the natural sounds of street traffic and the music drifting from across the courtyard into Jeff’s apartment.
One thousand arc lights were used to simulate sunlight. Thanks to extensive pre-lighting of the set, the crew could make the changeover from day to night in under 45 minutes. Once during the filming, the lights were so hot that they set off the soundstage sprinkler system.
Hitchcock worked only in Jeff’s apartment during filming. The actors in the apartments across the courtyard wore flesh-colored earpieces so Hitch could radio his directions to them.
When screenwriter John Michael Hayes first met Hitch to discuss the movie, he impressed the director with his detailed knowledge of “Shadow of a Doubt.” In fact, he made such a strong impression that Hitch decided to hire him after their first introduction over dinner. Hayes was considered to be more effective with dialog than story construction. And he was particularly good at writing dialog to set up the characters quickly based on what they say. In the “Rear Window” DVD, he credits much of his success with the Lisa character to his wife and confirms that Hitchcock knew exactly what he wanted in terms of the story and character development. By all accounts, the filming went smoothly because everything had been meticulously planned in advance.
According to the Truffaut book, Hitchcock had little patience for those who wanted to make moral judgements about the subject matter. He responded to one “moralizing attack on Rear Window” by saying, “Nothing could have prevented my making that picture because my love for cinema is stronger than any morality.”
Hitchcock’s attention to important details was a huge factor in the film’s success. Costume designer Edith Head said that Hitch knew exactly what he wanted Grace Kelly to wear in each scene down to the style, color and material of every outfit.
– SOURCES: IMDB; Rear Window DVD special features; Wikipedia;
and “Hitchcock” by Helen G. Scott and Francois Truffaut.
Rear Window Awards
“Rear Window” received four Academy Award nominations: Best Cinematography, Best Director; Best Sound; and Best Screenplay. The film received one BAFTA nomination in the category of Best Film From Any Source. Hitchcock received a nomination from the Directors Guild of America for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures. John Michael Hayes was nominated by the Writers Guild of America for Best Written American Drama. Hayes won the Edgar Allan Poe award for Best Motion Picture. The film was was entered into the US National Film Registry in 1997.
– Source: Wikipedia
Written and researched by Michael Hadley
Rear Window Aesthetics
“Aspects of this film survive today – not as Rear Window, but as key elements in other films. D.J. Caruso’s Disturbia (2007) is almost identical to Rear Window – a teen living under house arrest becomes convinced that his neighbor is a serial killer. Like in Rear Window, we only see through Kale’s (Shia LaBeouf) perspective. Windows become a prominent figure for entrapment and unveiled privacy, while concealing any solid evidence. Robert Ben Garant’s Reno 911: Miami (2007) has a similar sequence in which the main characters are each in a separate motel room. The camera pans across the windows of their rooms in a long shot, uncovering their privacy in a humorous way. Hitchcock’s originality and mastery of lighting, cinematography, and set design in Rear Window were not only successful during the golden age of Hollywood, but will continue to be creatively adapted and consistently influential throughout the future of the cinema.” – Doug Yablun, The Museum of Film History
Alfred Hitchcock: “A Life in Darkness and Light” (2004) by Patrick Mcgilligan
The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock (1983) by Donald Spoto
Hitch: The Life and Times of Alfred Hitchcock (1978) by John Russell Taylor
Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies (2008) by Donald Spoto
It’s Only a Movie: Alfred Hitchcock – A Personal Biography (2005) by Charlotte Chandler
See also: The Hitchcock Zone