Rear Window: Collector's Edition
Universal Home Video
Starring James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Raymond Burr,
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Review by D. K. Holm
"I was becoming known for my dialogue and characterizations. They even talked about a 'Hayes-Hitchcock fall schedule' in either Variety or the Hollywood Reporter. When you show up in the same sentence Alfred Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes that was more than he could bear. He wanted to be the total creator: Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Hitch was so unkind about giving credit."
John Michael Hayes, screenwriter of Rear Window
"Mr. Hitchcock's film is not significant. What it has to say about people and human nature is superficial and glib. But it does expose many facets of the loneliness of city life and it tacitly demonstrates the impulse of morbid curiosity."
Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, August 5th, 1954
"We've become a race of Peeping Toms."
Stella (Thelma Ritter) in Rear Window
"Let's start from the beginning again, Jeff. Tell me exactly what you saw and what you think it means."
Lisa (Grace Kelly) in Rear Window
There's a reason why Rear Window is one of Alfred Hitchcock's most beloved films.
It's not just because the film is great. Released in 1954 by Paramount (and now owned by Universal, which manages the copyrights for films that Hitchcock owned outright), the film has an interesting story and shows a director triumphing over an intriguing self-imposed aesthetic challenge. It concerns a Life magazine photographer named L. B . "Jeff" Jeffries (James Stewart), laid up in his Greenwich Village apartment with a broken leg after a work-related injury, who, while fending off his high society girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), begins to suspect that the traveling salesman on the other side of his rear courtyard, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), has murdered and disposed of his wife. But its story is not solely why the film is so loved.
Nor is it just because Rear Window is supremely well acted, in fact one of the best acted of all Hitchcock's thrillers. Leading a great cast that includes Kelly, Burr, Thelma Ritter, and Wendell Corey, James Stewart gives one of his most revealing, most internally conflicted turns. The only major mid-century male movie star permitted to cry or contemplate suicide without alienating his fans, Stewart was also able to play heels without losing the love of the audience, as he does here. The rest of the cast is just as superb, especially Thelma Ritter, one of Hollywood's great character actors.
Nor is Rear Window one of Hitchcock's most popular films because it represents the Hitchcock movie. Indeed it is the one Hitchcock film, even more than any other Hollywood director's movie, that is most about filmmaking, about what it feels like to watch a film, and what the human stories that we see on the screen mean to us.
No, the reason that Rear Window is arguably Hitchcock's most beloved film is because it is one of the last gasps of prestige Hollywood cinema, one of the last of the great studio films before the full impact of television, the Consent Decree, new technology, and other factors were fully visited on the industry. The film is almost a happy accident, not unlike Casablanca, and this kind of delightful, deceptively light Hollywood film saw its final farewell in Hitchcock's own North by Northwest just a few years later. With its wit, delicacy, visual style, density, and music, Rear Window is a rich, fully felt experience. This is the movie people mean when they say that don't make movies like they used to. Others try to recapture that glory. The film's influence is seen in such descendants as Artists and Models (1955), La Mariee etait en noir (1967), Sisters (1973), Someone's Watching Me! (1978), The Bedroom Window (1987), Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy (1996), and Foul Play (1978).
But here's the shocking thing Rear Window may not be that much of an accident. Nor is it all Hitchcock's. Rear Window is actually written by a then-young radio writer named John Michael Hayes. The dialogue and situations that Hayes provided Hitchcock harked back to the great newspaper-influenced writings of Ben Hecht, Wilder, and Sturges, to the '30s comedies that people still pine for.
This isn't the time or place to resurrect yet again the great auteurism debate. Suffice it to say that there are great films by great auteurs, there are happy accidents like Casablanca without auteurs, and there are great happy accidents presided over by great auteurs. Rear Window falls into that third category.
Hitchcock, who had acquired via Paramount a short story by Cornell Woolrich entitled "It Had to be Murder," which was originally published in Dime Detective in 1942, needed someone to flesh out and expand the tale. Hayes was his man. The two artists got on so well that Hayes went on to write Hitchcock's next three movies. But after that, Hayes worked with Hitchcock no more. Hayes later said in Patrick McGilligan's book of screenwriter interviews Backstory 3 that he attributed Hitchcock's eventual disdain to the amount of attention Hayes was getting.
This is the great tragedy of Hitchcock's career. Eventually, he lost all his best collaborators, the men and women who made Hitchcock Hitchcock. He lost his best stars, including Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, and Grace Kelly. He lost his great cinematographer, Robert Burks, to a terrible fire. He lost his best composer, Bernard Herrmann, over a petty dispute about the music in Torn Curtain. Apparently, he lost Hayes to ego. Anyone who loves, say, the Hayes-scripted To Catch a Thief, must wish that a similar delight and deft touch might have been brought to bear on Torn Curtain, or even Family Plot.
A great writer, in collaboration with a great director, creates a work of cinema that rewards repeated viewings and intense study. And just when you think that there's nothing new to say about a great film, someone comes along and revolutionizes your perception of it. In a fascinating volume of essays devoted to the movie, edited by John Belton and entitled Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (Cambridge University Press, 178 pages, $16.95, ISBN 0-521-56453-0), Belton quotes extensively from a paper that appeared in a journal called the Columbia Film View and written by Steve Cohen, in which the author posits that the central relationship in the movie is based on Hitchcock's fascination with the romance between Ingrid Bergman and the photographer Robert Capa. Bergman and Capa had met in the '40s, and she fell in love with him. But Capa was oddly diffident about the world-famous actress. She was never able to fully ensnare him, and eventually he dropped her. Hitchcock who, according to biographer Donald Spoto in his book The Dark Side of Genuis was obsessed with Bergman, couldn't believe that the photographer would let such a woman out of his life. Cohen speculates that it was Hitchcock's fascination with the Bergman-Capa situation that inspired the central relationship in Rear Window.
Capa lived just a few blocks from the film's fictional setting, worked for Life magazine, and died from a wound to his left leg not too long before filming began, among other coincidences. If true, this helps explain some of the cruxes of the film, such as Jeffries' unconvincing resistance to Lisa. Hayes, by the way, claims not to know anything about this possible foundation for the film, and says he based the Grace Kelly character partially on his wife, who had also been a fashion model. Nevertheless, both the possible influence of the Bergman-Capa story, which gives Rear Window a quasi-autobiographical cast, and the witty dialogue and plot structure that Hayes brought to the film, enrich our understanding of, and appreciation of Rear Window, even at this late date. Hayes' influence on Hitchcock is now viewed as so important that Faber and Faber is publishing an entire book on the subject (Writing with Hitchcockby Steven DeRosa) in summer of 2001.
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Rear Window is one of the most eagerly anticipated of Hitchcock's films to appear on DVD. Fans of the film might worry that those who haven't seen it will find it something of a disappointment. Let's assess and address potential negative reactions to the film for a second:
- Isn't the view of life as presented in the courtyard just a little schematic? Viewers from its first critics to Robin Wood in his famous book on Hitchcock have noted that the people across the courtyard are all variations on the problems of love, but usually the assumption is that these people only reflect Jeffries' problems and fears. In fact, many of them reflect Lisa Fremont's problems with Jeff, not just his problems with her. And some of the neighbors reflect each other: at the film's conclusion the newlyweds to Jeff's left look like they are going to end up just like the Thorwalds. This is not schematic, but interactive and allusive.
- Isn't the film really all talk and little action? In many ways, yes, but in fact, the text of the film reflects exactly the kind of psychological climate in which an active imagination and some overthinking could lead to suspicions of murder. The talk is essential to the sense of mystery that surrounds human motivation, and that's why Hayes, with his great dialogue, is such a good collaborator.
- Isn't Jeffries too passive a hero, with the sort of self-pitying passivity that one sees in the screenplays of beginning screenwriters? By virtue of being in a wheelchair, Jeffries is passive. But in a sense, the film isn't really about him. It's really about Lisa Fremont and her dilemma with Jeff. The film even ends on a medium shot of her as the song "Lisa," composed throughout the course of the film, finally plays over her triumphant image.
Rear Window explores some of the responsibilities and consequences of our natural curiosity. It's about the subterranean darkness beneath the surface of our lives, the world that few see. The movie could have been called Rear Entry instead of Rear Window. "That's a secret, private world you're looking at out there," Jeffries' cop friend Doyle tells him. Beneath it's surface, the film is a tense examination of the way we really are. It's not a flattering portrait. The sterility of the long lens Jeffries uses both intrudes intensely into the midst of human drama, yet keeps a cold distance. There is in fact one undeniable reflection of Jeffries among all his neighbors: Thorwald. Besides Jeffries, he's the only other person in the film who looks intensely out his back window at his neighbors. (Which reminds me of an error in the Hitchcock-Truffaut interview book. The French director insists that there is only one moment when the camera is outside Jeffries' apartment, and that is when the childless woman across the way accuses her neighbors of being unfeeling. At that moment there are close-ups of Miss Torso and others. Hitchcock even agrees with Truffaut. As it happens, in the film's climax, when Jeffries and Thorwald struggle, there are also some close-ups of neighbors, looking at all the hubbub. The fight scene is also the only time in the film that we see the back of Jeffries' apartment.)
* * *
Universal's DVD transfer of the recently released Rear Window restoration is beautiful, if still inevitably flawed, as explained by James C. Katz, restoration producer for Universal, and the very busy restoration artist Robert Harris in one of the accompanying documentaries. It's an anamorphic widescreen (1.66:1) transfer that captures most of the Technicolor beauty of the original. It shows good blacks, but is contrasty, grainy, and has minor speckles throughout. The original negative was a victim of yellow-layer fading, a problem explained in the documentary, and was repaired during the creation of a new negative. The restored version was among the first films printed in Technicolor's new dye-transfer process. "People don't ordinarily think of Rear Window as a stylish movie," Katz told the Los Angeles Times during the course of the restoration. "But what we're discovering is that there is a style in the way Hitchcock used color. With Miss Lonelyhearts, we can now see the mauve in her apartment and the green in her dress. Each apartment has its own color style." Katz and Harris were able to release their restoration only in 1999, coincidentally also the centenary of Hitchcock's birth, due to a long-term conflict with the owner of Woolrich's copyrights.
The single-sided, dual-layered disc (SS-DL) also comes with a Dolby Digital English 2.0 audio track that has not been remixed, though it has been cleaned up with improved fidelity and clarity. For the most part it is adequate, with only occasional moments wherein the dialogue sounds a little shredded (it also comes in French 2.0).
There are two documentaries on the disc. "Rear Window Ethics: Remembering and Restoring a Hitchcock Classic" is written, produced and directed by Laurent Bouzereau, who seems to be making a career lately of making documentaries about Hitchcock films. Within its 55 minutes the viewer learns about both the film's production history and the recent restoration (from Katz and Harris). Among the talking heads are assistant director Herbert Coleman, John Waxman (the son of the film's composer, Franz Waxman), actress Georgine Darcy, who played Miss Torso, and the director's daughter Pat Hitchcock O'Connell, as well as appreciative colleagues Curtis Hanson and Peter Bogdanovich, who shares some audio tapes he recorded during an interview with Hitchcock in the '60s for a book, and who does a wicked Hitch impersonation (by the way, the title of this documentary comes from a remark by Lisa: "I'm not much on rear window ethics"). The second documentary is the 13 minute featurette "Screenwriter John Michael Hayes on Rear Window," which gives the screenwriter's version of how the movie came about.
There are two trailers on the disc: a re-release theatrical trailer from 1962, when the movie was paired with Psycho (imagine that double-feature at a matinee price), and a six-minute group re-release trailer for Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Trouble With Harry, Rope, and Rear Window, narrated by James Stewart, from 1983. There are 13 screens worth of production notes on the making of the film, plus a four-page insert, and talent files on five actors and Hitchcock. A musical stills gallery offers up 50 images of the international posters, lobby cards, and shots from the film.
D. K. Holm
- Anamorphic widescreen (1.66:1)
- Single-sided, dual-layered disc (SS-DL)
- Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (English, French)
- Spanish subtitles
- English closed-captioning
- Documentary: 55-minute "Rear Window Ethics: Remembering and Restoring a Hitchcock Classic"
- Featurette: 13 minute "Screenwriter John Michael Hayes on Rear Window"
- Re-release theatrical trailer
- Six-minute group re-release trailer for Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Trouble With Harry, Rope, and Rear Window, narrated by James Stewart, from 1983
- Stills gallery with score
- Production notes (13 screens)
- Talent files on five actors and Hitchcock
- DVD-ROM material
- Recommendations (from the Universal Hitchcock catalog)
- Ad for Universal's online DVD newsletter
- Static musical menu with 18-chapter scene-selection
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