Hitchcock Collection: Rear Window Review

Rear Window may be the most fondly remembered Hitchcock film, especially for people who saw it on its first release and were unable to see it again, due to litigation over the copyright, for fourteen years. Its successful re-releases, in 1968 and 1983, have cemented it as a popular favourite and its not hard to see why. Of all Hitchcock’s suspense films, this is the one which most perfectly combines nail-crunching terror and sly comedy - North By Northwest is hysterically funny and deliriously exciting but it’s never really scary. Rear Window takes its terror seriously and builds up enough suspense to light up the whole of the apartment block which Jimmy Stewart can see out of his window.

It’s such a simple conceit that it’s surprising no other filmmaker had exploited it. James Stewart, at the peak of his star power, plays Jeff, a magazine photographer who has broken his leg while getting a picture. Stuck in his apartment with nothing to do, he becomes increasingly fascinated by the events taking place in the apartment block he can see from his window. Gradually, he becomes convinced that one of his neighbours, Lars Thorwald (Burr), has done away with his nagging wife. Although they are initially sceptical (and scornful of Jeff’s voyeurism), both his nurse Stella (Ritter) and his frustrated girlfriend Lisa (Kelly) get drawn in to his increasingly dangerous obsession.

The suspense begins with the sound of a brief cry in the night and a glass breaking. That’s all Hitch needs to pique Jeff’s interest and ours. Starved of excitement and coming straight out of a messy argument with Lisa, Jeff’s senses are perhaps heightened so that everything which follows seems to explode with meaning. The key question is the extent to which the viewer (both Jeff and the audience) force our own meaning onto what we see. Much has been written about how the outlook of the window becomes the theatre where Jeff’s own desires are played out and that’s a good way of putting it. The voyeur not only looks, he selects and interprets, taking what he sees and processing it in a manner which suits him. Of course, in this case Jeff turns out to be right but that’s far from inevitable and it’s perhaps only the demands of the narrative which stop the film from exploring the logical conclusion that the imagination of the spectator is far more potent than reality. Lisa calls Jeff’s obsessive voyeurism a ‘disease’ and no matter how much Jeff can justify his looking with social concerns or professional interest, she’s right. Jeff is the positive mirror image of Norman Bates in Psycho. Jeff’s is perhaps an understandable obsession but it’s obsession nonetheless and I don’t think it’s remotely innocent.

Extend this to the audience and we’re all complicit in Hitchcock’s blackly comic, hugely exciting game of ‘Peeping Tom’. There’s a rather lovely irony in the fact that theorists (particularly the French) have treated the film much as Jeff treats his outside view – they impress their own increasingly ingenious critical and theoretical conceits upon what they see.

Hitchcock draws us in, much as Jeff draws Lisa and the wonderful Stella into his fantasy (which could be called paranoid if it didn’t turn out to be true). We begin looking for points of significance and wait for meanings to flare out of the most innocuous scenes. This might be tiresome in the hands of a less capable director – the signifiers would be paraded in front of us like so many dancing girls. But Hitchcock is a very witty director and he realises that for the Lars Thorwald plot to be interesting, it needs to ebb and flow. To achieve this, he includes several little sub-plots based around the other neighbours – Miss Torso (Georgina Darcy), playing her own little games with various suitors; the Songwriter (Ross Bagdasarian), finding success, then failure, then success again all in the space of a few days; Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn); a couple of newlyweds and several others. Each of these little diversions from the main story are sketched in a few broad strokes and they serve to build up Jeff’s imaginative world and offer us a context in which to place the central Lars Thorwald story. By making us part of the world which Jeff perceives, Hitchcock makes it possible for the tension to stack-up as he becomes ever more involved. When the subject of his voyeurism actually looks back, it’s an unforgettable shock moment because it’s exactly what the voyeur doesn’t want.

Mention should be made here of Raymond Burr who creates a fully realised character out of very little dialogue and manages to make Lars both scary and oddly touching.

If Rear Window is a brilliant suspense thriller then it’s also a delicious romantic comedy which has a tension all of its own, built around the question of when Jeff will give up his independent existence and agree to marry his long-term sweetheart Lisa. The first shadow to loom over Jeff isn’t the shade of some terrifying murderer, it’s the woman who, as he sees it, wants to shackle him into a home and family and stop him from doing the work he loves. There is a richly comic element to Lisa’s attempts to snare her man and there’s a lovely scene where she tries desperately to arouse Jeff with kisses while he’s much more interested in the activities of Lars Thorwald. There is also an ironic commentary running through the film on both the joys and the terrors of marriage and relationships – Lars and his wife offer a negative example while the eventual coming together of Miss Lonelyhearts and the composer is rather more hopeful.

Rear Window is unusual in Hitchcock’s work in giving us two very strong female voices. We get Lisa, the blonde who is far from cool – in fact, she’s radiant with the twin promise of sexuality and domesticity and it’s only Jeff’s treatment of her as a threat that makes her glacial. This is fascinating because blondes in Hitchcock frequently have neurosis to spare – the ultimate example being the eponymous heroine of Marnie who was nothing but neurosis. It’s perhaps the presence of Grace Kelly which calms things down. Although Hitchcock intended to manufacture and promote her image, much as he did with Kim Novak and Tippi Hedren, Kelly proved to be too savvy and tough for him to manipulate and the end result seems to have been a very positive and friendly relationship. She was never a great actress but she was a great star, filled with presence and charisma and, refreshingly, humour. The quality she has of finding herself, and her sexuality, funny is what makes her a natural comedienne – something Hitchcock productively exploited in their third and final collaboration To Catch a Thief. The other female voice is Stella, a typical Thelma Ritter character in her brash common sense and unsentimental caring. She is the one who challenges Jeff’s views about women and marriage and by the end, it’s Stella who has been vindicated.

Hitchcock seems to have great affection for these female characters, suggesting that the misogyny which some critics find in his work is perhaps as much a function of narrative as an authorial point of view. There’s a particularly pointed exchange where Wendell Corey’s cop snidely dismisses female intuition, proving himself unimaginative and, in this case, completely mistaken.

The technical challenge of Rear Window endeared it to Hitchcock who saw it as one of his favourite films. Like Rope and Lifeboat it is essentially a one-set piece but it’s different in that the window background is actually foreground and a key part of the action. This involved the construction of a huge set of apartments, twelve of which were fully furnished. Hitchcock was delighted by this and was eager to make the most of it – which accounts for the various sub-plots of the other tenants. Also accounting for his affection for the film is the presence of his creative ‘team’ – DP Robert Burks, editor George Tomasini and assistant director Herbert Coleman. This team, which worked on most of his ‘golden age’ movies, was exceptionally talented and Hitchcock was confident enough in their abilities to let them get on with their jobs. Burks’ cinematography is highly imaginative – each of the apartments we see has its own lighting tones while the lighting of Jeff’s apartment is perfectly balanced, with the final confrontation a memorable mosaic of flashing lights amidst the darkness. The whole film shows off a director and his collaborators at the height of their powers – not only the people mentioned but also the writer John Michael Hayes who supplies the characters, and particularly Stella, with countless zingers. As for Hitchcock, he creates suspense with an insouciant ease which makes you want to laugh out loud – take the scene where Lisa enters the Thorwald apartment for example, which is a masterclass in engaging the audience’s emotions. Rear Window marked the beginning of his golden age, the ten-year period which would see him make this film along with his successful TV series and great movies such as Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho, The Birds and Marnie. Part of the pleasure of watching this film is knowing of the pleasures to come. It communicates, as well as any film I know, the sheer joy of making movies for a filmmaker who is at the peak of his craft. In short, Rear Window is sheer bliss.

The Disc

The 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer is very nice indeed. This is the first of the titles in Universal’s new set to be presented in widescreen. It’s packed with fine detail and more than satisfactory colours. It seems a little sharper than the old R1 release and there are no problems with artifacting or excessive grain. The restoration of the film undertaken by Robert Harris and James Katz in 1997 was clearly beneficial and it certainly looks a lot better than on the 1986 ITV showing which I have on VHS. Although it’s not as gobsmackingly gorgeous as the 70MM Vertigo restoration, it’s pretty damned good. The mono soundtrack is equally good with the layers of music and dialogue coming across in perfect balance and the complex use of sound for the apartment block sequences transferred very well. For several screenshots comparing old and new editions, I direct you to the excellent Alfred Hitchcock DVD Information Site.

The extras on Rear Window are a little more generous than on some of the other discs in this collection. The inevitable Laurent Bouzereau documentary is present but it’s a good one, running just short of an hour and containing some excellent interviews. There are interesting contributions from directors Peter Bogdanovich and Curtis Hanson and theorist Robin Wood (whose book, “Hitchcock’s Films Revisited” is highly recommended). We hear from Hitchcock’s daughter (gushing as usual), assistant director Herbie Coleman, Paramount art director Henry Bumstead, actress Georgina Darcy and restorers Robert Harris and James C. Katz. There is some good background information and I particularly enjoyed the stuff about the restoration of the film - although the technical stuff about yellow layers and so on may make your head spin - and a chance to hear some extracts from an audio interview conducted with Hitchcock by Bogdanovich. It’s also fascinating to see extracts from the screenplay which demonstrate how incredibly detailed Hitch’s planning was. The only slight annoyance with this is the lack of chapter stops rendering a second viewing of particular scenes more cumbersome than it should be.

Along with this detailed documentary is a valuable 13 minute interview with the screenwriter John Michael Hayes who wrote this and three other Hitchcock films - To Catch a Thief, The Trouble With Harry and The Man Who Knew Too Much. He's old and a little curmudgeonly but it's always great to hear from someone who knew Hitch on such a close professional basis. His story about how he got the job - through accepting a Martini - is a delight.

We also get some nice production photographs, the original theatrical trailer and a trailer compilation. This latter item was produced in 1983 for the re-releases of five Hitchcock films which got caught up in a copyright dispute between Universal and Paramount - Rope, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Trouble With Harry and Rear Window. I remember seeing a couple of these in the cinema on this re-release so I found this a particularly nostalgic feature.

As always, there are optional subtitles for both the film and the special features.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 07:29:46

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