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” 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.
“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”.
For 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.
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.
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?
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.
One 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.
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.
In 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.
“Rear Window” isn’t just a murder mystery, however, it’s a film with subtextual commentary on a number things.
Plainly, 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.
Other 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. Though 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…”
“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?
The 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.
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.
His 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.
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“.