Movies That Everyone Should See: “Rear Window”

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In 1954, Alfred Hitchcock released a movie about a man laid up after an injury, who may or may not have witnessed one of his neighbors disposing of a dead body. Starring Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly, two of the biggest stars he would ever work with, it would become one of the biggest hits of his career and go down in history as one the finest movies he ever made. It’s a film that’s not merely a murder mystery, but one absolutely rife with subtext.

“Rear Window”.

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“Rear Window” was shot shortly after director Alfred Hitchcock’s previous film, “Dial M for Murder”. Shooting on “Dial M” ending September 25 1953 and production began on “Rear Window” November 27 1953. In fact, the two films would be released a mere four months apart, with “Dial M” opening on May 29, 1954 and “Rear Window” opening August 1st that same year.

He would show no signs of lag, however.

The film is based on the 1942 short story “It Had To Be Murder”, by Cornell Woolrich. Hitchcock hired John Michael Hayes to adapt the story into a screenplay. Hayes was a screenwriter and former writer for radio who had impressed Hitchcock with his appreciation of “Shadow of a Doubt”. They would collaborate on four projects together (“Rear Window”, “To Catch a Thief”, “The Trouble With Harry”, and the remake of “The Man Who Knew Too Much”).

In adapting the story, Hitchcock and Hayes realized that it had a very narrow scope. The protagonist of the story only looks into one apartment, and there was no romance. The story was just a man suspecting he’d witnessed a murder. Hitchcock suggested adding a romance (reportedly inspired by the love affair between war photographer Robert Capa and actress Ingrid Bergman). He also suggested that prior to writing the female lead, Hayes spend time with the star who would play her, Grace Kelly.

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“Rear Window” would be the second of three successive Hitchcock films starring Grace Kelly (“Dial M for Murder” and “To Catch a Thief” being the others). She was elegant and beautiful, and Hitchcock admired her greatly. She and Hitchcock had discussed “Rear Window” at length while she was still working with him on “Dial M for Murder”, in spite of the fact that she hadn’t been offered the role. The discussions would prove fortuitous, however. Kelly turned down the role of Edie Doyle in “On the Waterfront” (a part that would win Eva Marie Saint and Oscar) in order to work with Hitchcock again on “Rear Window”.

Jimmy_Stewart_Grace_Kelly_Rear_WindowFor the film’s hero, Hitchcock cast another of his frequent collaborators, Jimmy Stewart. “Rear Window” would be the second of four projects they would work on together, the previous being “Rope”, with “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and “Vertigo” still ahead.

Stewart was Hollywood’s “everyman”, and Hitchcock knew he could capitalize on that relatability in the movie. In order to work out the deal with him, Stewart became one of the first actors to defer his salary for a percentage of this films profit, a practice which is commonplace today.

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The entire film was shot on one enormous stage, which required months of planning and over a month of construction. At the time the set was the largest indoor set ever built at Paramount Studios. It measured 98 feet wide, 185 feet long and 40 feet high, and held 31 apartments, eight of which were completely furnished. Its final cost was 25% of the budget of the entire production, roughly $250,000.

Some of the buildings were the equivalent of five or six stories high. To accommodate, a higher ceiling on the studio building would have been required. When that proved unfeasible, Hitchcock instead had the production company tear out the floor of the studio, revealing the basement below. What the audience sees as the ground of the apartment courtyard was set 20 to 30 feet below stage level, and was originally the cellar level of the studio.

In order to simulate daylight, 1,000 giant arc lights were needed to light the set from overhead. More than 2,000 other miscellaneous lamps were necessary for supplemental lighting. So many lights were needed that the production had to borrow lights from Columbia and MGM. The bill for lighting alone came to nearly $100,000 ($95,584). Four different set ups were used, one for dawn, afternoon, dusk and night. Changing from one to the next took approximately 45 minutes. At one point the heat from the lighting system became so intense it caused the set’s sprinkler system to go off. Fortunately, a drainage system had been installed to film the scenes in which it rains, and no damage was incurred.

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While shooting, Hitchcock worked exclusively out of Stewart’s character’s apartment. The actors in other apartments wore flesh-colored earpieces so that he could radio his directions to them over short wave radio. With few exceptions, filming was done from that apartment, as well, shooting across out over the complex. The actors had to be very precise on their marks, because the cameras being used utilized long lenses which had very shallow depth of field. Focus would be lost if a movement varied just a few inches in either direction.

The film, notably, isn’t scored. Unless music is actually playing from one of the other apartments during the story, no music is playing. The sound in the film was recorded on set, also from Stewart’s point of view.

Hitchcock used these stratagems to create immersion… to put the audience in Stewart’s shoes. Or should I say wheelchair?

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Photographer H.B. Jeffries (Stewart) has broken his leg while on assignment, and is temporarily confined to a wheelchair with his leg in an enormous plaster cast. He passes the time by sitting near his apartment window, looking out across the courtyard, watching the activity in the windows across the way.

shot0099One rainy night he witnesses a man named Thorwald (Raymond Burr) make several trips out of his apartment carrying a large suitcase. It’s the middle of the night, in the pouring rain. This strikes Jeffries as suspicious, and he begins to watch the man closely afterwards. He notices a pattern of odd events, such as the man wrapping a saw and a large knife in newspaper, and emptying his wife’s purse to go through her jewelry (including her wedding ring). Jeffries no longer sees the man’s wife in the apartment, either, even though she was bed ridden previously.

Rear_Window_Dog_digging_up_flower_gardenAll of this leads him to conclude that the mysterious man across the way has committed a heinous act.

Hitchcock shows us something Jeffries doesn’t know, however; a hole card if you will. While Jeffries sleeps, Thorwald and a woman are shown leaving his apartment, causing us to wonder for the rest of the film if the wife is actually alive and safe and Jeffries was wrong.

Rear_Window_Lisa_caught_in_Thorwalds_ApartmentIn spite of evidence to the contrary, (provided by a friend in the Police department), Jeffries refuses to give up on Thorwald as a suspect. When his girlfriend Lisa (Kelly) gets caught breaking into the man’s apartment looking for evidence, things spin out of control.

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“Rear Window” isn’t just a murder mystery, however, it’s a film with subtextual commentary on a number things.

Rear_Window_Miss_TorsoPlainly, it’s a movie about voyeurism and invasion of privacy. Jeffries looks in on the lives of a number of people, with no right or permission whatsoever. The characters openly question the ethics involved, but Jeffries is undeterred.

Rear_Window_Composers_partyOther stories aside from the murder unfold in the other apartments as the movie goes on. A sculptor sculpts, a composer composes a song, “Miss Torso” fights off suitors awaiting the return of her lover from the military, while “Miss Lonely Heart” contemplates suicide over the fact that she can’t find a mate.

The separation of the stories that unfold around the complex can be seen as a comment on the isolation of people in modern society. Rear_Window_woman_screaming_over_dead_dogThough they have stories of their own, the neighbors rarely interact with each other. This sentiment is given voice during the film when the owner of the dead dog chastises the neighbors for not caring for each other. “You don’t know the meaning of the word neighbors. Neighbors like each other, speak to each other, care if anybody lives or dies. But none of you do…”

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“Rear Window” has a number of interesting things to say about relationships, also. Though love and relationships abound in the film, marriage is not portrayed well. Jeff and Lisa aren’t married, and throughout the film, he resists her proposals to settle down. The newlywed couple are shown to lose their bliss rapidly, with the husband tiring of the wife’s demands quickly. Of course, Thorwald kills his wife. Can the film be construed as an indictment of the institution?

shot0111The movie also has an interesting feminist angle to it. Jeffries’ primary argument against marrying Lisa is that she wouldn’t be able to cut it during travel and adventure on assignment with him. Yet he’s an invalid in the film, incapable of leaving the apartment. So it’s Lisa that does the investigative work requiring leaving the house and taking physical risks. She’s the adventurer. Jeffries only really begins to fall for her once she becomes involved in the investigation. His eyes brighten for her and his enthusiasm for her picks up noticeably.

She acquits herself admirably during her forays and proves she’s every bit as capable as he is. At the end of the film, she’s seen reading “Beyond the High Himalayas”… before switching to Harper’s Bazaar.

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Finally, the film can also be seen as a metaphor for movies and movie audiences in particular.

“Rear Window” heavily utilizes the technique of “subjective cinema”. It will show Stewart looking at something, show a shot of what he sees, then cut back to his reaction in order to illustrate his thoughts and feelings on what he’s seen. The emphasis is on him, watching.

The windows and lives across the way are Jeffries’ movie screen. The display provides sexual situations, romance, music, and murder. Sometimes, nothing interesting at all, yet he still watches. At times, Jeffries identifies with the people across the way, at other times, he judges them. He sees their problems thinks about his. He’s powerless to actually enter the picture, yet he can’t stop watching. During this time, he himself does little aside from commenting on the activities. It’s a commentary on “watching”, from a filmmaker, during the advent of the television era.

shot0127His involvement in the murder represents the audience’s desire to live out the fantasies they experience onscreen, to immerse themselves in the fantasy and to take part in it. Thorwald’s frightening intrusion into Jeffries’ apartment, meanwhile, could be seen to represent Hitchcock’s desire to bring terror to life for people. To bring the fear right off of the screen and to them.

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Principal photography was completed by January 1954, having taken approximately eight weeks. It was completed on schedule and on budget, with hardly any notable difficulties reported. The overall budget barely exceeded $1,000,000. It was a critical and commercial success upon release, drawing rave contemporary reviews and earning over ten times its budget in its initial run (its lifetime domestic tally, including re-releases is $36,764,31).

“Rear Window” was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Director for Hitchcock, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Sound. It came home empty-handed, however (the big movie that year was Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront”). Hitchcock, famously, never won an Oscar for Best Director, though he was nominated five separate times. He was awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1968. The Thalberg award is an honorary Oscar, awarded to “creative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production.”

When AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies was released, “Rear Window” ranked #42. It held steady on the 10th Anniversary edition at #48. When they released their “10 Top 10″ series, they ranked the film as the third greatest American mystery movie of all time. It’s also an extremely popular film to this day, ranking #28 on the IMDB Top 250 list.

In 1997, Rear Window was added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

It’s a movie that’s a great murder mystery on its face, but one that has so much deeper meaning to explore, without sacrificing any of its entertainment value whatsoever. It’s easily one of Alfred Hitchock’s best films, and one of the greatest movies of all time.

It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See“.

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RWHUU

Daniel Fogarty

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55 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “Rear Window”

  1. Thanks for covering this, Fogs! And yes, this movie is amazing for all the reasons you stated. It packs so much dialogue, story, characterization, layers, etc. that I had my jaw on the floor the entire time. And it’s way ahead of it’s time! That dialogue that Stella says about the beginning about how we’ve become a society of voyeurs was so chilling… because that was back in the 1950′s! She could be talking about today!

    Also, love how you pointed out that Hitchcock screws with us at the very beginning by letting us see something that Jeff doesn’t. Most murder mysteries have the viewer siding with the protagonist at the I set because, well, he’s the hero, right? This was one of the few times I was thinking Jeff might be going a little nuts, imagining everything.

    Finally, it’s a solid romance… full of subtext. That scene where the detective notices that Lisa’s luggage is at Jeff’s apartment? Yup. He knows what’s up. And he doesn’t even have to say a word about it.

    • Very true, Santo… I like that. What would these characters have to say about society today? LOL With the internet and social media, we’re more involved watching other people’s lives than ever before… Crazy. They were just at the beginning of it.

      That point where we see Thorwald leaving with the woman is the ultimate Red Herring in movie history. It leaves the “Did he do it?” in the picture all the way to the end. Without that? It would have just been “How are they going to catch him?” ;)

  2. Great review. Got to be honest, I’m not always the biggest Hitchcock fan but this is a great film… the concept is the sort of thing you dream up in your head but would have no idea about how to make it work or make it happen. And it helps to have Jimmy Stewart being Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly just being too beautiful.

    • Yeah Grace Kelly can injure your brain with her beauty if youre not careful. LOL

      Meanwhile, “Not always the biggest Hitchcock fan” huh? Wow. I’ve never caught a film of his I didn’t like. And they always seem to get better with multiple viewings. “Rear Window” is no exception! :D

  3. Who doesn’t like spying on the neighbors? It’s human nature. With the “Boston Bombers” mugs everywhere on camera and on every ones cell phone, This movie couldn’t be more topical! Be on the lookout for Drones at the window!
    Nice job as always Daniel. I look forward to the “MTESS” more than any other feature on FMR.

    • “Who doesn’t like spying on the neighbors?” LOL! I try to stay away from it whenever possible, Ray, actually. :roll:

      Meanwhile, this movie didn’t make me fear drones half as much as this weekend’s “Oblivion” did. I’m afraid of the day when we’ll have no other defense aside from standing in front of those floating gunship shouting “STAND DOWN!!” at them. LOL 8O

      And thanks, Ray. It’s the heart of the site, no doubt. Everything else is just filler between MTESS installments, no joke ;)

    • Awesome to hear Vic, thanks! Makes my day to know I can go out and wrangle up some film facts for other folks! :D

      I dont know if this one is MY favorite Hitchcock, though. I need to catch a few I still havent seen yet in order to do a top ten properly, but I suspect this will eventually rank third, behind only “Vertigo” and “Psycho”. ;)

    • It works well here… legend has it on Psycho though, he wanted to go with no music during the shower scene and it fell flat with just sound effects. Wasnt until they added those shrieking violins that the scene really worked! :D

      • I really enjoyed the film Hitchcock with Anthony Hopkins. Wasn’t the part where he was in the lobby and orchestrated the shrieking violins and the anticipated screams of the audience wonderful? Only time he was passionate. That was my favorite part of the film.

  4. Yes! A worthy addition to the MTESS. Nice one, Fogs!
    Rear Window is definitely one of Hitchcock’s best films, because it’s one of his deepest. There is so much to analyze here, it always blows me away whenever I read about it. The metaphor for cinema as a whole, the relationship/feminism stuff; there’s so much going on in this film. Makes me really want to go back and watch this one…

    • Thanks Hunter! :D

      Absolutely is crazy all the analysis that can be mined from this one. And it seems like just a plain old murder mystery on the surface 8O :D

      Easily one of his best. And worthy of all the praise its garnered over time, too! I just DID rewatch it, and I can say unequivocally that it was worth it :D

  5. Everyone should see this film. In fact everyone MUST see this film. If anyone, anywhere hasn’r seen this film, I will make it my life’s ambition to hunt them down, strap them to a clockwork orange chair and FORCE them to see this film! THEY MUST! MUST SEE THIS FILM! AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!

    Oh, I’m sorry. I seem to have gone a bit over the edge there. It’s the intelligence, see? Intelligence. Nothing has caused the human race so much trouble as intelligence.

  6. I am engaged thoroughly when I view this film. Amazing recap on an enormous indoor production; never knew that smashing trivia – wow! Like FMR says, it’s got lots of layers.

    Roger Ebert said Rear Window “develops such a clean, uncluttered line from beginning to end that we’re drawn through it (and into it) effortlessly…”

    “That’s no ordinary look. That’s the kind of a look a man gives when he’s afraid somebody might be watching him.”
    L.B. Jeffries(Stewart), Rear Window (1954)

    • It is a pretty slick movie, S, I agree. With you AND Ebert (RIP), Hitchcock made it look easy on this one, though I’m sure it wasnt.

      From everything I hear, Hitchcock figures out things so thoroughly in pre-production that he usually had a smooth time making his films. This was no exception, in spite of some of the minor difficulties.

      Thanks for the props mixed in there. ;) Appreciate that!

  7. I’m a big fan of Hitchcock. This is definitely one of his best. Love the scene when Stewart is looking into Burr’s dark apartment and all you see is the red glow of his cigar. Interesting that Raymond Burr went from playing heavies and bad guys to become a TV icon in Perry Mason.

    • Yeah, that is pretty cool…. the red glow giving away Thorwald smoking in the dark. Kind of evil too, seeing as he just killed a dog. Poor puppy. LOL

      Yup. Burr became Mason and then Ozzy made a song about him! LOL :D I love Ozzy.

  8. Great write-up. I frequently go between Vertigo and this as my favorite Hitchcock film. This is a flawless movie in my opinion and I could watch it any day.

    • For me it’s Psycho duking it out with Vertigo, but this one is a not too distant third place. Not too shabby, given Hitchcock’s incredible filmography. ;)

      I know I enjoyed my rewatch this weekend. It hadnt been that long, but I really enjoyed it again nonetheless!

  9. Another great classics I still need to see!! Man, I am ashamed that I haven’t been able to do a Jimmy Stewart marathon yet, I REALLY want to do it before year’s end.

    • Well, its up to YOU to make it happen Ruth. We’re all rooting for you! :D Work Vertigo in there too, if you havent seen that one yet! :D You can get his two best Hitchcock films out of the way in one day!

  10. I first saw this in a ‘re-release after it was remastered, I think in 1983. Once again there is nothing better than watching a terrific movie on the big screen. I watched it again a few months back and it continues to amaze. You do a great job on these, it is a great feature on your site. Should it not be titled “Movies that everyone has seen”? After all everyone has seen this, right?

    • LOL. I once said in an email to a peer that you could cynically retitle this series “Movies I Already Know You Love” ;) As evidenced by Ruth’s comment directly above this though, Richard, you’d be surprised that not everyone has seen these yet. Honestly? I even got a shocking confession last week on “Jaws”. 8O No kidding, I got an “I havent seen this yet” on “Jaws”

      Regardless, it’s a great excuse to write up great movies, that’s all I need ;) Thanks for the kind words about it, though, definitely the heart of FMR!

  11. Hi, Fogs:

    Great, informative critique!

    A marvelous feat of engineering and Hitchcock’s innovative, yet brilliantly simple method of directing over distances through radio and remote control.

    Grace Kelly works flawlessly with Mr. Stewart and would have been badly miscast and wasted in the role Eva Marie Saint made her own ‘On The Waterfront’!

    Good stuff all the way around!

  12. Superb stuff Fogs. In my top 3 Hitchcock films without a doubt. I remember looking into this one at university and debating about whether he’s in a wheelchair with his leg in a cast represents some sort of castration anxiety.

    • HA! LOL Thats the kind of question only academians ponder, that’s for sure :D I might be able to support the fact that since this was the time when women were entering the workforce, it might represent anxiety over being replaced as earner, breadwinner, etc… but I dont think I’d go so far as castration ;) LOL :D

  13. Really nice! You really did this film justice and it doesn’t get any better than Rear Window. I was a sophomore in college when this was re-released for theaters. It was a very big deal, huge anticipation, because Rear Window, along with Vertigo, hadn’t been available for video rental and it hadn’t been seen by people for a long number of years. I was taking a hoity-toity critical film class and we just couldn’t wait to see it because we’d only been able to read about it. It didn’t disappoint! And of course we loved writing papers about such a fantastic movie with all the rich symbolism and stuff.
    And crossing over to this week’s Tossin’ it Out There favorite director question: I can’t and won’t narrow it down to a favorite, but I will say that for their book length interviews of directors, Truffaut and Cameron Crowe get a special nod as my favorites – they brought more of value to the world of film geeks than other directors. If you haven’t read Hitchcock:Truffaut it is a MUST. And Cameron Crowe did a great and wonderful thing when he followed in Truffaut’s footsteps to interview Billy Wilder for the book Conversations with Wilder.

    • Thanks Jan!

      Wait! Did you just comment on two posts in one? You… YOU CANT DO THAT! I m-m-mean. Wait. What? 8O

      LOL. As to the Rear Window availibility thing, I also heard that there was some kind of rights issue that prevented it from being shown on TV as most movies would have been. Per IMDb: “The film was unavailable for decades because its rights (together with four other pictures of the same period) were bought back by Alfred Hitchcock and left as part of his legacy to his daughter. They’ve been known for long as the infamous “Five Lost Hitchcocks” among film buffs, and were re-released in theatres around 1984 after a 30-year absence. The others are The Man Who Knew Too Much , Rope, The Trouble with Harry , and Vertigo. However, prior to the theatrical re-releases in the 1980′s, “Rear Window” was televised once, in 1971, on ABC, although the network technically did not have the legal right to do so.” :)

      I dont know if I should allow this crossover talk or not! I will say I’m a big Cameron Crowe fan, I’m glad someone gave him some love, even if he hasn’t been on his A Game for awhile.

      Truffant is French, right? LOL :D

      • Oui. And pardonez-moi. I had to choose between crossover talk (slightly shocking) or retreading the train o’ thought from comments in one post to another and that seemed…well, just wrong!
        I have not seen all the Truffaut’s by a long shot. But he did bring film fans a ton of great in-depth info about Hitchcock in the days before IMDb and Fogs’ Movie Reviews. :-)

      • No apologies necessary, Jan. It had just… never been done before, so literally, it surprised me. :D It was the first time I’d come across it, you caught me off guard!! :lol:

        Good times, Jan, Good times.

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