Combustible Celluloid
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With: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr
Written by: John Michael Hayes, based on a story by Cornell Woolrich
Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 112
Date: 07/31/1954

Rear Window (1954)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Doing Windows

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Alfred Hitchcock never loved another actress the way he loved Rear Window star Grace Kelly. That's not to say that he cheated on his wife, Alma. It's just that, for a little while, he was in love with Kelly. It's easy to tell from the way she's photographed in her three movies with Hitchcock: Dial M for Murder (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955), and Rear Window. Her entrance in Rear Window is breathtaking. A sleeping Jimmy Stewart vaguely recollects that someone has come into his apartment. He opens his eyes a little and sees Kelly's beautiful face staring straight at him (and us) as she moves in for a kiss. We cut to a side shot, and Hitchcock slows down the magic moment so that it almost looks like time-lapse photography. After Kelly retired from Hollywood in 1956 to marry the Prince of Monaco, Hitchcock looked everywhere for her equal, casting such beauties as Tippi Hedren, Eva Marie Saint, and Kim Novak, but never succeeded.

In 1954 Hitchcock was hitting his peak filmmaking period. The British still argue that his British period (including The 39 Steps -- 1935 and The Lady Vanishes -- 1938) was his best. But I believe that his late fifties/early sixties period, mostly with Universal Studios, was when he did his best work. Rear Window was the start of this great cycle that included The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), The Wrong Man (1957), Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963), and Marnie (1964). (Coincidentally, with the exception of Rear Window, these films were all scored by the marvelous composer Bernard Herrmann.) Rear Window was also the film that pulled Hitchcock out of a box office slump.

Inspired by a short story by Cornell Woolrich, Rear Window was a brilliant idea for a movie. Most filmmakers would have decided that a one-set movie wouldn't work. You couldn't move around, after all, and this was a motion picture. But Hitchcock realized that the story was really about watching movies, the process of sitting in the dark, safe from people looking back at us, and watching sexy and violent stories. Woolrich has become a cult figure in his own right having penned the stories that inspired such films as Val Lewton's The Leopard Man (1943), and Francois Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black (1968) and Mississippi Mermaid (1969). His fans may try to take credit away from Hitchcock (and screenwriter John Michael Hayes), but Hitchcock borrows only as much as he needs from Woolrich, the germ of the idea, and then layers in his trademark suspense.

Hitchcock cast James Stewart as L.B. "Jeff" Jeffries, a photographer who has been injured in a race track photo shoot and has one week left in his hip and leg cast. He's bored off his head; it's summer in Manhattan; and it's hot. At first unable to do much of anything else, and then unable to tear himself away, he spends his days looking out his window at his various neighbors. Grace Kelly plays Lisa Fremont, a society girl who couldn't be more wrong, and yet more right, for Jeffries. And the late, great, Thelma Ritter plays Stella, Jeffries' long-suffering, and wisdom-spouting nurse. When Jeffries begins to believe he's seen a murder in an apartment across the way he convinces Stella and Lisa to help him confirm his suspicions. They themselves become a pair of tiny figures across the courtyard, just like characters jumping onto a movie screen, and Jeffries can no more alter their fate than he can anyone else's. He's a helpless spectator, just as we are.

With this story Hitchcock and Hayes created a microcosm of neighbor characters that can be viewed in many ways. He shows us the various stages of relationships through Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), the unhappily married man who is accused of murder; Miss Lonely Hearts, who can't find a boyfriend; Miss Torso, a stunning blonde ballerina with no end of suitors; and the newly married couple, who are seen ever so briefly in-between long bouts of lovemaking. An older married couple sleep on their fire escape to beat the heat, but they sleep head-to-toe, with no romance involved. A composer sends melancholy love music out into the night, but can't escape his own loneliness. And finally, there's Miss Hearing Aids, the sculptress. She's single and a bit unattractive. She naps out in the backyard and works on a lumpy sculpture called "Hunger." But the most telling reference to relationships is when Grace Kelly enters Thorwald's apartment, steals the dead woman's wedding ring, and puts it on her own finger -- a symbol best left to the viewers' imagination. None of these folks have children, most notably the older couple on the fire escape.

The composer and the sculptress represent the artists, the creators who make the things that we look at and hear (i.e. movies). But even deeper than that, the sculptress is working on something that we not only see, but feel. Her "Hunger" is a sensation that we all know. Hitchcock could be suggesting that although movies are an audio/visual medium, feeling is also involved in an intangible way. (The same goes for the composer, whose music moves people to various emotions.)

This multi-leveled story telling is filled in beautifully by the sound design by Loren L. Ryder. It allows us to hear not only the noise of the courtyard in a distant, echo-ey kind of sound, but also the street noises from beyond. Cars honk and children play completely outside our view. Without particularly intruding on the action the sound opens up the film in ways that we don't even notice. We get a sense of New York City without ever leaving the apartment.

When Francois Truffaut reviewed Rear Window in 1954, he saw its dark side. He believed that Hitchcock was airing his sadism and his contempt for the world. He also wrote that it's a film without imperfections, that it's one of the most personal and revealing movies of Hitchcock's career, and that many viewings were necessary to truly understand the film. But even a first-time viewing of Rear Window is pure pleasure. 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.

A newly restored print of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) opens around the country this week. Its Technicolor has been painstakingly restored by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, who have recently done incredible work on the re-releases of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Spartacus (1960), and especially Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). Surprisingly, with this film it's difficult to tell the difference between the new print and the 1980s re-release perhaps because its single interior set does not offer the kinds of luminous colors the previous films had. But I suspect that next year's DVD release will prove quite stunning. And it's always great to be able to see a Hitchcock picture on the big screen.

DVD Details: In 2008, Universal graced us with a deluxe new 2-disc set, remastered and (I believe) anamorphic for the first time. Some of the extras are the same from the previous releases: a feature-length, making-of documentary, an interview with screenwriter John Michael Hayes, photos, trailers, etc. New extras include a commentary track by author John Fawell, a new featurette on Hitchcock's greatest sequences, a new featurette on use of sound in Hitch's films, an excerpt from the Francois Truffaut interview, and an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" (Mr. Blanchard's Secret). Audio is available in 2.0 English and French, with optional English, Spanish and French subtitles.

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