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Rear Window (September 11, 2008)

Rear Window began as a short story by Cornell Woolrich, published in 1942, called “It Had To Be Murder.” The short story was not set in Manhattan, as the film was. It had the Jimmy Stewart character, and the events he sees out of his rear window, but it did not have the character of the girlfriend, who was played by Grace Kelly in the film. John Michael Hayes wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock, and was nominated for an Oscar for it, as was Hitchcock for his direction, and Robert Burks for cinematography.

The set for Rear Window was constructed on the Paramount lot in Los Angeles. The studio didn’t have really large soundstages, however, Mac Johnson, the art director, found out that there were two floors below the stages that were used to store furniture. They took a stage, took out all the material below it, then removed the floors to create the entire courtyard set. Jimmy Stewart’s apartment was on the main floor of the studio, and thus he can look across and down into the courtyard. The sound in the film was completely diegetic, which I learned today means that all the sound originates from within the film set. The film set had four lighting styles – morning, afternoon, twilight, and night – and the appropriate lighting was used for each scene.

The director, Peter Bogdanovich, has called Rear Window Hitchcock’s testament film, by which he meant that it was typical of nearly all the characteristics that movie-watchers can see in all his films, from the early British films of the 20s and 30s to his final movies in the late 70s. One of the hallmarks of Hitchcock’s style, he says, is that Hitchcock tells a story simply from point of view. Often in this movie, you will see a shot of Jimmy Stewart looking out, then a shot of what Stewart is looking at, then Stewart’s reaction to what he sees. This is Hitchcock’s subjective story telling at its best. Similarly, when we first see Stewart, we see him in a wheelchair with his cast, then we pan over to his broken camera, then to a photograph of a crashing racecar, then on to other photographs. This tells us, without any words, who this man is, what he does for a living, and how he ended up in the wheelchair. Note too the moment when the audience sees something that Jimmy Stewart does not see. This violation of the subjective camera technique, which has been observed religiously up to that time, creates conflict in the audience.

The filmmaker Curtis Hanson has said that there are two things that need to be resolved in this film. One is whether Jimmy Stewart will marry Grace Kelly, and the other is, what the events he sees out of his rear window mean. These two conflicts move forward together, and comment upon each other. The various scenes that Jimmy Stewart sees comment upon romantic love and what it means (and doesn’t mean) to people. He draws conclusions from those scenes that affect his view of whether he will marry Grace Kelly. Note how Stewart’s conversations with Thelma Ritter move our understanding of the question of whether he will marry along.

The assistant director in this film, Herb Coleman, has said that he feels Grace Kelly’s opening closeup displays the most beautiful woman he has ever seen in film. Indeed she is lovely, dressed in the costumes of Edith Head, demure, yet enterprising. She is certainly one of the many reasons to watch this, very beloved, movie, called Rear Window.