Rear Window looks like the last of the Universal - controlled Hitchcock films for which we can expect to see a special edition, and it's one of the best of the bunch. Unlike the rest of this latest wave of titles, this one has a full-length documentary, and the movie itself a top-to-bottom restoration. Everyone likes this picture, as it combines most of the best Hitchcock elements in a very sophisticated package: wry humor, morbid fantasy, teasing sex, hand-wringing suspense, and cinematic daring.
Convalescing with a broken leg, L.B. "Jeff" Jefferies (James Stewart) becomes a voyeur by watching the neighbors from his apartment window. He openly encourages his nosy nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and his elegant girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) to join him, but they resist his game of peeping at the neighbors and giving them nicknames. Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy) dances around in skimpy costumes, Songwriter (Ross Bagdasarian) agonizes over his piano, a nice couple dote on their tiny pet dog, and Miss Lonelyheart (Judith Evelyn) prepares dinners for gentlemen who never come. But then Jeff begins to suspect that one of his snoopees, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) has murdered his wife. Stella is eager to think the worst, and because Lisa wants to impress Jeff, she also joins him in his morbid enthusiasm. Police Lieutenant Thomas Doyle (Wendell Corey) is a personal friend who tries to put the damper on their collective runaway imaginations, but further observation of Thorwald through Jeff's telescopic camera lens makes the trio even more intent on playing at amateur detective. Because Jeff is immobilized with his leg in a cast, Lisa volunteers to provoke Thorwald into showing his true colors, and when she dares to tangle with the sullen man personally, things begin to get dangerous.
Nobody ever debates the fact that Rear Window is superior entertainment. The acting of the stellar cast is first rate, and John Michael Hayes gives them a very tense and funny script to work with. Just playing this script straight would yield a great movie, but Hitchcock gave it the full weight of his talent. You can tell the material fascinates him in the precision and wit that fills every shot. He has no problem at all with the glamorous intrusion of the Grace Kelly fashion-plate character into a story one might think more suitable for grimy noir treatment (Savant is informed that the noir The Window comes from a similar Woolrich source story); her glamour plays well against the tawdry story situation.
The technique of this 'experimental' Hitchcock film is a movie natural. The (Russian?) montage concept that uses point-of-view to enforce identification gets its best workout here: Jeff Jefferies looks, and we see what he sees, and then we see him looking again and compare our own reactions to his. It happens to us all while watching movies with other people. We see something interesting and we look to see the face of our companion to see if they sensed the same feeling we did. When we watch a movie, our inability to affect what's going on doesn't curb our tendency to become emotionally involved. Rear Window confects a situation that mirrors the movie-watching experience. Jeff has a perfect surveillance view of ten or so apartments across his courtyard, but his broken leg restricts his ability to 'enter the action.'
The windows Jeff watches have been likened by critics Robin Wood and Raymond Durgnat to a battery of 'movies' from which he can pick and choose, his own 'secret cinema.' Since the restriction of Jeff's distant point-of-view is consistently maintained, the various windows remain rectangles within the cinema frame, often reminiscent of a multiple screen experiment. The narrow view of the street is another vertical screen-within-a-screen that we watch with Jeff. The naturalness of the voyeuristic act can be felt in the urge to crane our necks to see hidden areas around the corners of these windows.1 The act of watching a movie is a morally compromised activity, if you consider morbid curiosity something to be discouraged. 2 Hitchcock further explored the urge to 'see more' in the 'sick' and popular Psycho, and Michael Powell analysed similar cinematic voyeurism in the 'sick' and publicly despised Peeping Tom. Hitchcock's voyeur here in Rear Window is an everyman hero, and not a murderer. If the Master of Suspense can seduce all the fans of James Stewart and Grace Kelly into his world of guilt and murky morality, well, all power to him.
Rear Window reveals new fun, even after being seen any number of times. During this screening Savant better appreciated Grace Kelly's acting style (it's her best movie) and her self-conscious attempts to bait Stewart with every charm at her disposal. Also admirable is the finely tuned logic of every character's reaction, and every step of the trap that closes in on Raymond Burr. He seems sincerely, wearily aware of being the heavy in dozens of low-budg thrillers. The only less-than-solid detail is the efficacy of Jeff Jefferies' flashbulb defense. Maybe the first flash would slow down a determined killer .. by about half a second. Yet the gag works in context because we feel so threatened, we want the flashes to stop him. The actor Savant thinks needs to be appreciated more in Rear Window is Judith Evelyn, Miss Lonelyheart. Her pantomime skill telegraphs well from twenty yards away and she provides a pathetic contrast, trying desperately to catch her man when equipped with none of Grace Kelly's advantages. William Castle nabbed her several years later to play a pivotal deaf-mute role in his The Tingler, a recommended title.
Universal's DVD of Rear Window is stacked and packed with goodies. It tops previous winner Vertigo by virtue of its 16:9 enhancement. The picture has retained the vibrant feel of its Technicolor origins, and the framing looks correct as well. It's either just Savant, or the transfer, or the style of photography, but it doesn't look quite as sharp as similar 16:9 Hitchcocks on a big projection screen - the image has a diffuseness to it. It comes with trailers and still galleries and perhaps the most rounded documentaries so far from Monsieur Bouzereau. "Rear Window Ethics" digs into the theoretical/critical side of the film and its production stories with equal emphasis, with help from the widest range of on-screen interviewees yet: directors Curtis Hanson and Peter Bogdanovich, publicist Herb Steinberg, assistant director Herbert Coleman, critic Robin Wood, actress Georgine Darcy, Henry Bumstead, Doc Erickson, restorers Katz and Harris. For once, hypothesizing about Hitch's cinematic technique is as rewarding as learning the usual boggling production stories, like the fact that the giant courtyard set was completely prelit, for four times of day, to save time in filming. To build the unusual four story set, Paramount allowed Hitchcock's designers to cut away the floor of a soundstage!
One restoration detail Savant doesn't understand is Harris and Katz' explanation that their toughest task was to replenish the yellow that had faded from the original 35mm negative, or, they theorize, had been stripped away when printing lacquering was removed from the film. As this was a Technicolor film, wouldn't there be three original negatives, from which black and white matrices would be made for the actual printing? I thought the whole point of the Technicolor process was the ability to strike hundreds of identical quality color prints. I don't see how the 'yellow layer' could be affected on the original neg, if the original neg wasn't Eastmancolor. Hopefully someone more versed than I in Technicolor will show me the error of my thinking before I invent any more overly suspicious thoughts about the best-known restorers in the business ("...you have to check every element from every source from around the world..."). 3
This would seem to wrap up Universal's releases on DVD of its classic Hitchcock holdings, unless they want to make Savant happy and reissue Psycho and Vertigo in 16:9. Somebody tell 'em we'd all buy them again! Anchor Bay has a handsome set of Selznick Hitchcocks available, that Savant will be reviewing soon. That leaves us Warners, who did right by North by NorthWest and Strangers on a Train, and need to be encouraged to give us winners like Dial M for Murder, I Confess and The Wrong Man. With their authoritative documentaries, Universal's Hitchcock collection is a film school on a bookshelf.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Rear Window rates:
1. Roman Polanski, who often uses the same subtle mechanism, demonstrates this beautifully in Rosemary's Baby, when characters on screen and we in the audience cock our heads to see around a bedroom door where Ruth Gordon is making a suspicious phone call. Return
2. Film theoreticians would have it that unless you are being challenged or stimulated in a 'cinematic' way, then watching a film is an inert activity, moral or no. Maybe it's like sex for Woody Allen: "Is moviewatching a sick experience?" "It is if you're doing it right." Return
3. Question partially answered. Several readers wrote in to inform Savant that this was one of the first Technicolor films without the big 3-strip camera. The 3 matrices came not from the camera, but by making separations an the original camera negative (OCN), an ordinary 35mm single Eastmancolor strip. From this Savant assumese that the matrices made in 1954 would have worn out, necessitating the revisiting of the original negative. But since the OCN would only have been used to make matrices, what's this talk of it being worn out to make hundreds of prints? The only logical explanation is that besides Technicolor prints, ordinary Eastmancolor prints were struck from the negative too.) Return
Other Alfred Hitchcock - oriented Savant articles and reviews:
The missing shot from Psycho ...
Review: Shadow of a Doubt ...
Review: Saboteur ...
Review: Rope ...
Review: The Man Who Knew Too Much