‘Rear Window’: ‘We’ve Become a Race of Peeping Toms’

Original Poster. This one is not nearly my favorite, but it's fun to count the willful inaccuracies in it.

Original Poster. A rather tawdry work, this poster, but it’s fun to count the willful inaccuracies in it. There are at least four mistakes — a maven will probably count more.

Since this week has been this summer’s hottest here in Manhattan (with dire predictions that the rest of the week will be even more sizzling), I thought that instead of ignoring the heat (a losing battle), I’d write about “Rear Window” (Paramount, 1954), which takes place in the middle of a New York heatwave. Nobody in “Rear Window” has air conditioning; I lived without it until the mid-1980s, though how I managed to survive those summers is a mystery I must never hope to solve. Moreover, everyone in Hitchcock’s picture lives with their windows wide open, without benefit of screens to keep the flies and mosquitoes out. New Yorkers in the 1950s must have been a much hardier lot than we’ve become in the years since.

There’s no consensus about which Alfred Hitchcock picture is his unrivalled masterpiece, though there’s plenty of agreement about which of them belong in the top four or five. I’m unprepared to say which Hitchcock picture I think is the best of the lot, but my favorite is unquestionably “Rear Window.” This surprises me somewhat, because as a rule I am highly allergic to its stammering, toupee-topped star. It drives me crazy when he’s called an “everyman.” If he’s Everyman, I’m content to be Nobody. In fairness, I must admit that, apart from a few missteps, he’s damned good in this one. In all of his reaction shots (that is, when he’s not talking), he’s exceptionally fine — really first rate. He speaks ironic and barbed dialogue badly, but he reacts to what he sees with intelligence and subtlety. “Rear Window” is more languorous than the average Hitchcock picture; the real suspense comes later than usual, but when it comes, it’s the most intense he ever concocted. (“Psycho” is scarier, but it’s less suspenseful than it is startling and terrifying.) The crime that sets “Rear Window” ‘s action in motion also comes late: almost thirty-two minutes into the picture. And Hitchcock, the old devil, doesn’t even show us the crime as it happens. Hitchcock is famous for his pictorial sense (show: don’t tell), but in this one, we hear the moment the crime is committed, and only half hear it at that. For much of the picture, we’re not even certain that any crime has occurred. If this is giving too much away, well then . . . oops. (It’s hot . . . ) If you haven’t already seen the picture, I can assure you I’ll divulge little else that is better not to know in advance. On the other hand, plot twists and surprises are a very small part of “Rear Window” ‘s bag of thrills: what makes it so enjoyable is not just its suspense (which, after all, is the opposite of surprise), but its setting, atmosphere and cast of supporting characters, few of whom have dialogue that we can hear. As so many critics have observed before now, “Rear Window” gives us the opportunity to spy on our neighbors with impunity — a consummation devoutly to be wished. Here’s how it opens. Dig that black cat, harbinger of troubles to come, that goes frisking by . . . Any picture that opens with a kittycat is already headed in the right direction, as far as I’m concerned.

Franz Waxman’s jazzy score that plays over the opening credits gives way to source music (what film scholars call “diegetic” music) one minute into the picture, when the radio announcer (Art Gilmore: the ubiquitous announcer/narrator throughout the 40s and 50s) interrupts with “Men? Are you over forty?” All of the scoring for the rest of picture is diegetic. The absence of music coming from an unidentified source (such as a studio orchestra) is not unique, but nevertheless quite rare in pictures, especially in the studio era. Hitchcock’s use of it reinforces the sense of verisimilitude in a near-subliminal manner; it also gives the action a lot of swing and verve. The scoring and sound effects are really wonderful in this picture. Hitchcock had a greater appreciation of the effectiveness of scoring than any other director I can think of. In fact, the only instances I can think of when the scoring of a Hitchcock picture was overly intrusive were in the pictures he made for his arch-nemesis, David O. Selznick, to whom he was under contract for seven fretful years. Hitch hated Selznick so much that he specifically altered Raymond Burr’s appearance, whitened his hair, gave him rimless glasses and costumed him to make him look like Selznick. By the time “Rear Window” was released, Hitch was hugely popular and an acknowledged master, with several more of his finest pictures and biggest hits still to come, while Selznick was the most despised man in Hollywood, swimming in debt, hopelessly addicted to pharmaceuticals (especially uppers) . . . and his career was over. But in the previous decade, during the years Hitch was under exclusive contract to him, Selznick — realizing he couldn’t bring Hitchcock to heel — had lent him out to other studios at exorbitant fees, paid him the minimum and pocketed the difference. Now that Hitch had finished out his contract and was riding high, he had no compunction about kicking the bastard while he was down. Besides, Hitch could never resist a good joke, especially if there was a good deal of cruelty in it: that’s what made him Alfred Hitchcock.

Raymond Burr, David Selznick: When 'Rear Window' was filmed, Selznick's hair was snow white.

Raymond Burr, David Selznick: When ‘Rear Window’ was filmed, Selznick’s hair was white.

“Miss Torso” (Georgine Darcy), the beautiful ballerina manqué who loses her bra while her back is to us, is only the first of many Peeping Tom pleasures to come: the picture is full of such jokes; the next one happens moments later — we see it from the rear window (as, indeed, we see everything throughout the movie), but the Peeping Tom aspect comes not at eye level, but from the skies above. Two bathing beauties appear on “tar beach” in their pajamas, lie down out of sight, then drape their pajamas over the brick wall that hides them from our view. No sooner have they disrobed, but a helicopter appears out of nowhere and hovers above. Peek-a-boo . . . ! A classic Hitchcock joke.

Rear Window 02
Rear Window 02a
Rear Window 02b

The basic premise of the picture is simple. After an accident lands globe-trotting photojournalist L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) in a wheelchair for seven stifling midsummer weeks, he is stuck in his West Village apartment with nothing to do but look out his back window at his neighbors.

Rear Window 03

The Incomparable Thelma Ritter and What’s-His-Nose. She: ‘Oh, dear, we’ve become a race of Peeping Toms . . .’

A salesman, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), lives directly across the courtyard from Jeff’s apartment. When his nagging, invalid wife (Irene Winston) disappears suddenly, Jeff begins to believe Thorwald has murdered her. Thorwald is guilty, all right, but how Jeff pursues his investigation from his wheelchair is diabolically entertaining — and often hilarious . . . that is, until the final reel, when it becomes almost unbearably suspenseful.

“Rear Window” was not shot on location in Greenwich Village, of course. It wasn’t even shot on a backlot — Hitchcock avoided shooting outdoors as much as possible, since he had no control over the weather and he was a director who always sought absolute control over everything, including the weather. (This, by the way, made him the worst type of director to be under contract to Selznick, who was a dictator in all aspects of every picture he produced: Selznick always insisted on complete control over everything, especially the final cut, but Hitch never shot anything more than he knew in advance would be needed (he storyboarded every shot): this made it impossible for Selznick to re-edit anything Hitch shot. The outtakes for “Rear Window,” for example, didn’t add up to an entire reel of film (i.e., less than twelve minutes).) Quite remarkably, “Rear Window” was shot indoors on a soundstage. Paramount didn’t have a soundstage high enough to accommodate the setting Hitch had in mind. J. Macmillan (“Mac”) Johnson, the art director on the picture went to Paramount’s art director, Henry Bumstead, with the problem. Bumstead said, “Why don’t you cut the floor out [between the first floor and the basement]?” “They won’t let me do that, will they?” “I bet they will for Hitchcock.” And that’s how the problem was solved: the set went all the way from the bottom of the basement to the lighting grids — the poor lighting technicians up top grilled all through the shoot, like steaks under a restaurant salamander.

Preliminary sketch of the floor plan.

Preliminary sketch of the floor plan.

Alfred Hitchcock on the set during filming.

Alfred Hitchcock on the set during filming.

Jeff’s second floor apartment was therefore on the original ground floor, while the first floor garden apartments were located in what had been the basement. It was the largest indoor set ever constructed at Paramount. While the picture was in production, it became a favorite point of interest for visiting dignitaries to come take a look at.

Jimmy Stewart with Grace Kelly, the best and coolest of the Hitchcock cool blondes.

What’s-His-Nose with Grace Kelly, the best and coolest of the Hitchcock cool blondes, in her best role. She was never better or more beautiful.

Before anything amiss happens, Hitchcock establishes the discomfort of a New York summer before air conditioning, and the boredom endured by an action photographer who has been sidelined from his profession — but without boring us for a moment. This short clip — about fourteen minutes in to the picture — is a perfect example of how Hitch diverts us, develops character and creates atmosphere. Notice the amusing diegetic music: “That’s Amore” on a street musician’s calliope . . . That slays me.

(And what, may I ask, is that fatso landlord (Alan Lee) doing wearing a black cardigan in the middle of a heatwave?)

Another way Hitch keeps us interested while he creates the crowded little world where mayhem will occur is in the all-important area of good casting. First, we get the always-welcome presence of Thelma Ritter as Stella, the insurance company nurse assigned to Jeff’s case. Next, we get Grace Kelly, as Lisa Fremont, Jeff’s dazzling girlfriend, who works in the high-end fashion business. Here’s how Hitch introduces us to her. It’s famous for being one of the great entrances in pictures.

Paradoxically, the more popular a picture from the studio era has been over the years, the worse condition it is likely to be in. This is because when a picture was a hit, more prints were struck from the original; each time the original was run through the copier, the previous coat of lacquer (used to protect the film stock) was removed, then replaced with another coat, which compromised the integrity of the original film stock. When a coat of lacquer was removed, it usually took portions of one or more color layers (most often, the yellow layer) with it. “Rear Window” had fallen into such terrible shape, it couldn’t be shown until technology had advanced far enough to be able to do something to repair it without running the risk of permanently damaging it. When “Rear Window” was shown on television in the 60s, for example, the entrance of Grace Kelly was in such terrible shape, they simply omitted it. On the existing print, she was Margaret Hamilton green.

Grace Kelly's entrance before restoration: the yellow layer was completely gone.

Green Goddess: Grace Kelly’s entrance before restoration.

Throughout the picture, Hitchcock diverts us with little vignettes of the goings-on in the various apartments that share the courtyard. With dazzling efficiency, Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes introduce us to the lives, loves, sorrows and joys of a wide variety of people. Perhaps the story I like best is that of poor Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn), who lives in the apartment immediately below Thorwald, the wife-murderer. Here’s our introduction to her:

Isn’t Judith Evelyn incredible? What a devastating, heartbreaking actress . . . ! I’ll never forget the first time I saw this scene in a movie theatre. It was back in 1983, when five Hitchcock pictures, which had been out of circulation for more than a decade, were restored, remastered and then released in theatres across the country. This Miss Lonelyhearts sequence is the essence of Hitchcock’s method in “Rear Window”: he allows us to peer in on a private moment that first surprises us, then makes us laugh (or, more probably, snicker) at the foolishness of the character we’re spying on . . . and finally, he surprises us again with a coda that makes us ashamed of our initial callousness. I remember how the whole audience (including me) laughed at the discovery that Miss Lonelyhearts had opened the door to an invisible gentleman caller, laughed again at the prim way she accepted a phantom peck on the cheek, and again at her elaborate politeness to her daydream date . . . and then the gasp of remorse when she could no longer keep up the fantasy, when she suddenly shivered, and in awkward little jerks, brought her head to rest on her forearms, and her shoulders continued to shake as she wept. Oh, the pity of it! I remember how I recoiled with shame and remorse for having laughed at that pathetic creature. The heartbreaking cruelty of that sequence strikes me as being some of the best filmmaking I’ve ever seen. Thirty years have passed since first I saw it and it still gets me every time. And you know, one iota too much or too little and it wouldn’t work at all. As a technical acting feat, it continues to stun me, even as it moves me. Judith Evelyn gives what can only be described as a silent movie performance, but without a trace of the silent era’s artificial Delsarte-style pantomime or histrionics, such as seen in this still from Lon Chaney’s “The Phantom of the Opera”:

Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin in full Delsarte mode . . .

Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin in full Delsarte mode . . .

Believe me, I’m not stretching a point: “Rear Window” terrified audiences in 1954 fully as much “The Phantom of the Opera” terrified audiences in 1925 — and nearly all the terror and suspense of “Rear Window” has no more dialogue than any silent picture. But there’s a big difference. When “Rear Window” was re-released in 1983 — twenty-nine years after its original run — it was still as terrifying and modern as when it was made. But in 1954, twenty-nine years after “The Phantom of the Opera” was released, the acting style, not excluding Chaney’s celebrated performance, made it seem two hundred years out of date. I was fortunate to see “The Phantom” in a grand old Santa Barbara movie palace four years ago, to the accompaniment of a mighty Wurlitzer: it was revelatory, hugely entertaining — and utterly silly. Yet here it is, almost sixty years after “Rear Window” was released, and watching Judith Evelyn’s performance is like watching documentary footage taken yesterday by a professional Peeping Tom. As for the rest of the picture, it’s just as modern as it ever was. Judith Evelyn is my favorite of the courtyard denizens, but the rest of them are all interesting and amusing in their own various ways.

After the night of the crime, Stella the nurse comes to give Jeff a rub-down and to fix him breakfast. From Stella’s first entrance early in the picture, she’s been saying she can smell trouble, so when Jeff tells her what he thinks has happened, she’s interested, but not surprised — nothing surprises her.

My God, just look at that old broad act . . . ! She is the best: she acted with everyone; she stole every scene she was ever in, but at the same time, she always made the people she worked with look good. If I had to choose, I’d probably have to say that her amazing performance in “Pickup on South Street” is her crowning achievement, but I don’t know if I’ve ever really, truly loved her more than in “Rear Window.” Everybody in the business loved Thelma Ritter, and no one — not Bette Davis, not Burt Lancaster, not anyone — ever minded getting upstaged by that diminutive Brooklyn dynamo.

A second crime is committed later in the picture, and again Hitch takes care not to let us see it happen. This time, we don’t even hear it happen. Instead, we learn of it when a neighbor screams upon discovering that a murder has been committed in the courtyard. It’s one of the most famous moments in the picture. The real suspense begins shortly after this scene, which makes this a fine place for me to leave off.

 

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