Friday, June 21, 2019

Rear Window (1954)

(This post is part of the Hotter'nell Blgoathon hosted by MovieMovieBlogBlog II)

There are those individuals whose favourite season of the year is summer. For them summer means going on picnics, fun days at the beach, long Sunday drives, and so on. I don't number among those people. For me summer means heat, humidity, sweat, and long days spent in air conditioning awaiting the arrival of autumn. Summer is by far my least favourite time of year. That fact is probably much of the reason Alfred Hitchcock's classic Rear Window (1954) appeals so much to me. Heat and humidity play a central role in Rear Window. It is one of the few movies that presents how truly miserable summer can be.

Rear Window centres upon photographer L. B. "Jeff" Jefferies, who is confined to his Greenwich Village apartment while recovering from a broken leg. Across a courtyard from the rear window of his apartment is another apartment complex. Because New York City is in the middle of an unbearable heat wave, nearly everyone leaves their windows open. Confined to a wheelchair and having only occasional visits from his socialite girlfriend Lisa (played by Grace Kelly) and his nurse Stella (played by Thelma Ritter) for company, Jeff has nothing better to do than watch his neighbours across the courtyard. Unfortunately for Jeff, he becomes convinced that a murder has occurred in one of the apartments across from his.

Rear Window was based on the short story "It Had to Be Murder" by Cornell Woolrich. The story was first published in the February 1942 issue of Dime Detective. Like Rear Window, "It Had to Be Murder" centres on a man confined to his apartment with a broken leg, who watches his neighbours' apartments from his rear window. And like the movie, in "It Had to Be Murder" the main character becomes convinced that a murder has occurred. According to Frances Nivens in First You Dream, Then You Die, a biography of Cornell Woolrich, Mr. Woolrich had been inspired to write the story after two little girls had spied on him in his apartment.

Producer and songwriter Buddy DeSylva bought the rights to "It Had to Be Murder" not long after it was published. The rights would later be sold to Joshua Logan and Leland Hayward, Joshua Logan planning to direct a film based on the story before he directed the film version of his hit play Mr. Roberts. Unfortunately for Joshua Logan, his agent, the legendary Lew Wasserman, sold the rights to "It Had to Be Murder" right from under him to another one of his clients, Alfred Hitchcock.

To write the script for Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock hired John Michael Hayes, who had a considerable resume in radio, including such shows as Escape, The Adventures of Sam Spade, Inner Sanctum Mysteries, and Suspense (a show which Hitchcock himself helped launch). Mr. Hayes would go onto work with Alfred Hitchcock on the films To Catch a Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).

The screenplay for Rear Window would run into some problems with Joseph Breen of the Production Code Administration (PCA). He objected to everything from sexiness of Miss Torso (one of Jeff's neighbours across the courtyard) to the implication that Jeff and Lisa were having sex (implied when she mentions that she is spending the night). Fortunately, Joseph Breen retired as Rear Window went into production. His place as the head of the PCA was taken by Geoffrey Shurlock, who was considerably more liberal than Mr. Breen ever had been. Mr. Shurlock had no objections to Rear Window.

In addition to the leads, Alfred Hitchcock cast Raymond Burr in the all-important role of the film's villain, Lars Thorwald. Aside from Mr. Burr's considerable experience playing bad guys on screen, he was also cast for his tall, stout build, which resembled that of producer David O. Selznick. Hitchcock had long harboured a grudge against Selznick, believing Selznick had interfered overly much in the films he made for him (which included Rebecca, Saboteur, Spellbound, Notorious, The Paradine Case, and Under Capricorn). As a bit of revenge, then, Alfred Hitchcock made Raymond Burr look as much like David O. Selznick as possible, giving the actor grey, curly hair and the same sort of glasses that the producer wore. Hitchcock even went so far to instruct Mr. Burr on Selznick's posture, ways he moved, and mannerisms, down to how he held a telephone receiver.

Given the plot of Rear Window, the sets in the film would play an important role, so much so that Jeff's apartment and the various other apartments can very nearly be considered characters themselves. Although the film was set in New York City, it was shot almost entirely at Paramount Studios. It took six weeks for set designers Hal Pereira and Joseph MacMillan Johnson to build the set for Rear Window. Ultimately it proved to be the largest set of its type ever built at Paramount. The set used a sophisticated lighting system meant to simulate natural lighting during both the movie's day and night scenes. The set also had a huge drainage system, a necessity during the rain scene in the film. Although Franz Waxman is credited with the score for Rear Window, it is limited only to the film's opening and closing credits. To keep the movie as realistic as possible, the only sounds in Rear Window are those one might hear in real life (songs on radios and so on).

Edith Head designed the costumes for Rear Window. She had previously worked with Alfred Hitchcock on his film Notorious (1946). She would work on many more of Hitchcock's films through the Seventies, including To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry, Vertigo, and The Birds.

Rear Window premiered on August 4 1954, at the Rivoli Theatre in New York City. Proceeds of the premiere went towards the American–Korean Foundation. It received its wide release on September 1 1954. Rear Window received overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics upon its release. William Brogdon of Variety wrote, "Hitchcock combines technical and artistic skills in a manner that makes this an unusually good piece of murder mystery entertainment." Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, "The boorish but fascinating pastime of peeking into other people's homes—a thing that New York apartment dwellers have a slight disposition to do—is used by Director Alfred Hitchcock to impel a tense and exciting exercise in his new melodrama, Rear Window, which opened last night at the Rivoli." Audiences as well as critics enjoyed Rear Window upon its initial release. It was the fourth highest grossing film of 1954. Since then Rear Window has come to be regarded as one of Alfred Hitchcock's greatest films. In fact, it is one of the few films with a 100% rating  at review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes.

Rear Window remains my one of my favourite Alfred Hitchcock films, and my favourite that he made with Jimmy Stewart (yes, I prefer it to Vertigo). Much has been made of how Rear Window addresses the theme of voyeurism, but for me a theme equally present in Rear Window is that of confinement and claustrophobia. After all, Jeff really can't go much of anywhere. He has a broken leg and is pretty much confined to his apartment. Because of this he is both restless and bored, and with nothing better to do he takes to watching his neighbours across the courtyard. The fact that New York City is in the middle of a heat wave only makes matters worse. While I have never had a broken leg nor have I been involuntarily confined for a long time, I can identify with Jeff to a degree. During the height of summer, when it is overly hot and humid, it is not unusual for me to remain inside for most of the time. Quite simply, I feel as if it is too hot and muggy to do anything. Fortunately, I have television, the internet, and plenty of books to keep me occupied, so I don't have to resort to watching my neighbours.

Much of the reason that Alfred Hitchcock made Rear Window is that he wanted to make "a purely cinematic film (as he told François Truffaut)." Arguably, Rear Window is the most cinematic film that Hitchcock ever made. Indeed, the movie's theme of voyeurism can not only be applied to the act of watching one's neighbours, but watching movies as well. That the film also manages to examine the themes of voyeurism and confinement while being a very entertaining suspense thriller is a mark of Alfred Hitchcock's skill as a director. While I won't say that Rear Window is the greatest film that Hitchcock ever made, it certainly numbers among them.


Caftan Woman said...

I love this excellent article on a movie that continually fascinates me. I once watched it four times in one week and would be doing it still if not for the family's intervention.

The first time I showed my daughter the movie she was a 'tween and asked about Burr, "Are you sure that's the Chief?"

Steve Bailey said...

I hadn't thought of REAR WINDOW as a summer movie, but you very well showed how it is. I also loved all the trivia about the movie with Josh Logan and Raymond Burr. Very enjoyable read -- thank you for contributing this to the blogathon!