Rear Window Review
In the 1950s and 1960s, Alfred Hitchcock went through a period of making great film after great film, a time of creativity that was only really equalled by Stanley Kubrick between Paths of Glory and Eyes wide Shut, and that over 40 years compared to Hitchcock's 10. The most famous of Hitchcock's films of this period (Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds) have already been reviewed, but Rear Window is easily their equal, and in some ways superior to them; in fact, it's not being too facetious to suggest that this was in fact Hitch's greatest film.
The basic plot is deceptively simple. J.B Jeffries (Stewart), a photographer confined to a wheelchair by an accident, becomes a voyeur, and begins to realise he has witnessed a possible murder. With the help of his socialite girlfriend (Kelly), and his housekeeper (Ritter), he starts to investigate, all from his apartment, which is only left briefly towards the close of the film. It's a far cry from the incredibly complicated plots of Vertigo or even North by Northwest, but Hitch manages to insert all his usual themes, visual references and works up the tension towards a climax which will literally have you on the edge of your seat.
It's become fashionable to look at Hitch's films from a post-Freudian perspective, and this film benefits more than most from such a psychoanalysis. It's fundamentally a film about voyeurism, although the sexual aspects of Jeffries' interest in his neighbours is somewhat defused by the existence of Grace Kelly as his doting girlfriend. Instead, there's a sense throughout of black comedy, with murder being seen almost as other people's private business, and Jeffries' investigation into it as deserving punishment in some way. Jeffries as voyeur is a key visual image in the film; it is established early on that he was a photographer before his accident, and that his life's work is based around observing others, which has benefitted him enormously, just as it will nearly undo him here.
However, too much analysis is unnecessary. The film is one of the wittiest black comedies made by Hitchcock, it is as thrilling as anything else he ever made, and his technical tricks are still daring even today. Stewart is excellent as Jeffries, signalling his move away from whiter-than-white characters to more morally nebulous ones, whereas Kelly is truly luminous as his girlfriend, with her first entrance one of the great cinematic moments. Raymond Burr is also very good as the suspected wife-murderer, and Hitchcock exploits the menace of the character by mostly only showing him in long shot, distancing both Jeffries and the audience from any kind of complicity with him. It's films like these that make any viewer understand just why the cinema will always withstand any amount of junk made in the sake of commerce, because genuine classics like Rear Window will stand any test of time.
Universal have done a magnificent job on the restoration of the print, with the aid of restoration expert Robert Harris; the print is clear, colours are bright, and there is little trace of scratching or other damage to the print, which is as clear a transfer as you can conceivably imagine for a film that is nearly 50 years old! The only possible complaint is that occasionally the colours seem a little too bright, with skin tones sometimes seeming more orange than pink; however, it is an exceptionally good transfer, all things considered, and far superior to any previous version released on video.
A mono mix is provided, which is about what you'd expect. Dialogue is clear, crisp and without any trace of artificiality. The music occasionally sounds rather tinny, but Hithcock wished the music in the film to sound as if it was coming from the flats around Jeffries, so this might well have been intentional. There is no use of surround effects, but to be honest a 5.1 mix doesn't seem as necessary for this film as it perhaps does for North by Northwest or Vertigo.
Universal have had a slightly ambivalent attitude towards the extras on their Hitchcock discs; their initial releases of such films like Vertigo and Psycho came loaded with extras, but they appear to have scaled down on them somewhat. Nevertheless, they have done a good job here, although a commentary from the screenwriter might have been nice.
The main extra is a 50-minute documentary entitled 'Rear Window Ethics', which is both an examination of the film itself and its restoration. It's extremely thorough, as you'd expect from a Laurent Bouzereau documentary, and there are some nice contributions from directors such as Curtis Hanson and Peter 'star of Rated X' Bogdanovich. It's also nice to see a comparison of the film before and after restoration; as this was a film that had been withdrawn from the public domain for years, it's good that appropriate care was taken on its final re-release.
The other extras are more limited. The conversation with the screenwriter is 15 minutes or so of reminiscences of working with Hitchcock, which is interesting, but the production photographs and trailers are of limited interest, although the James Stewart-narrated re-release trailer for the film and 3 other Hithcock films is worth watching. Production notes and cast biographies round off the extras. Apart from the absence of a commentary, they're quite a pleasing selection.
Rear Window is a film that it can be said, without hyperbole, to be one of the greatest films ever made, let alone one of the greatest Hitchcock films, or even greatest suspense thrillers. Universal have presented the film on an excellent disc with fine picture and sound, and some good extras. Highly recommended.