“Why does a man leave his house three times on a rainy night and comes back three times?”
“Maybe he likes the way his wife welcomes him home.”
To start off, I must apologize if a typo slips through and I somehow call this film Rear Windows. By day I’m a mild-mannered tech support geek, and I’m required to type the name of that insidious operating system rather frequently. Remember, if it doesn’t work, shut up and reboot.
Lately I’m sure you’ve seen quite a few reviews of Alfred Hitchcock films here at DVD Verdict. That’s due to Universal’s recent release of another box set of his movies. I’ve noticed a thread of growing dissatisfaction with his work in those reviews, though always hedged because no one wants to express outright displeasure with the Master of Suspense. I feel the same way when faced with Rear Window, the divine face of Grace Kelly and the binoculars of Jimmy Stewart staring back at me, almost daring me to say an unkind word.
When I was sixteen, my younger sister and I used to drive up to the video store several times a week. I think we were the only teenagers intent on checking out every Hitchcock film. Rear Window was one of my favorites of his films, and I’ve seen it many times over the years. It was the only one of his films in this current batch of Universal releases that prompted me to pull rank to get the privilege of reviewing it. Watching it, I couldn’t help but feel that chord of displeasure for the first time…
L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) is a field photographer for a major magazine. He travels the world on dangerous assignments, risking his life for the perfect picture. That is, until a broken leg renders him wheelchair bound in his New York apartment. All he can do with his time is ponder his life and stare out his rear window (natch). For company, he has his insurance company nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and his uptown girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), and of course the residents behind the windows of the apartments surrounding his courtyard. He observes their daily activities, and thinks himself familiar with them.
One of the apartments is the home of a salesman (Raymond Burr) and his nagging invalid wife. Jeff’s curiosity is piqued when the wife mysteriously disappears on a dark and stormy night, after which her husband behaves in a peculiar fashion, coming and going with large suitcases, sending away large trunks, and cleaning large knives and saws. Did he kill his wife, or is it all a big misunderstanding?
Alfred Hitchcock, to say the very least, was an innovative filmmaker, very technically oriented, daring and willing to try just about anything. He was also an expert storyteller who could weave intricate webs of corruption, malice, and violence. The two sides of his filmmaking personality meshed quite well, but at times one would take precedence. I like to call these two types of films his Idea Films and his Story Films. The Idea movies were where he exercised his experimental urges, most often by taking one technical concept or storytelling conceit and using it for an entire picture. An example is Rope, which was composed of long takes with carefully (or not so carefully) placed cuts to give the illusion that it was told in real time without interruption. I think one of his most famous films, Psycho, could also be called an idea film. Its conceit isn’t as apparent as Rope: it defies the audience’s expectations. First, it’s black and white, which was already passé by 1960. It starts out as a caper movie, but kills the protagonist within the first half-hour. The killer seems to be motivated by a nagging mother, but it turns out the mother has been dead for years and her son has a split personality. The Idea movies weren’t quite as prevalent as the Story movies, no doubt because studios prefer to release crowd-pleasing yarns over experimental films.
Rear Window is a little bit of both. Hitchcock’s “experiment” in this film isn’t much of an experiment at all. The film is stage-bound, like a play, confined to one physical location. He had done that before, in Lifeboat, but here it’s a claustrophobic Greenwich Village apartment, not a boat on the open sea. The claustrophobia isn’t quite as daunting to the audience as it is to the characters, because Hitchcock’s active camera never seems to confine us to one place. Besides, the eponymous window opens us into many other similarly cramped apartments. So, told from this one small location is a vast tale of intrigue…or should I say, tales of intrigue, for Hitchcock was not content to tell a mere murder yarn. We get a full-blown commentary on the American urban lifestyle with its carousing, loneliness, heartlessness, anonymity, and lack of privacy. Jeff sees through his window the lives of other residents of his apartment block: the newlyweds always behind closed blinds (nudge nudge, wink wink), the life of the party composer, the ballet dancer entertaining suitors, the lonely old maid, and of course the salesman with the nagging invalid wife. But, the murder mystery is why most of us will want to watch. It unfolds through the eyes of Jeff, as we only (well, except for one scene…but I’ll make a comment about that later) see things that he would witness. The murder plot is standard did-he-or-didn’t-he fare, but is strengthened through Hitchcock’s keen storytelling sense and the unique way and perspective in which the story unfolds.
As for the disc, Universal does a fine job bringing to DVD for the first time (well, officially at least; my sister has a Hong Kong bootleg, but it’s not of the restored print). The film is presented in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen. Kudos to Universal for going anamorphic with this release, because not every studio supports making windowboxed anamorphic transfers of 1.66:1 films. The video quality is not up to snuff, even for a restored classic, but after seeing the before and after footage in the documentary, I’m in no way going to hold Universal at fault. They released the best possible disc given the circumstances. Audio is 2.0 mono with average sound quality. The film’s music can be a bit strident at times, but otherwise there’s nothing worthy of complaint.
For extras, you get a documentary, an interview with screenwriter John Michael Hayes, a photo gallery, two trailers, production notes, cast and crew bios, and DVD-ROM features. The 55-minute documentary is entitled “Rear Window Ethics,” and is another in the series of original documentaries produced by Laurent Bouzereau. It features interviews with a variety of people involved with the production, other filmmakers who have been influenced by Hitchcock (such as Peter Bogdanovich and Curtis Hanson…just once I’d like to see Brian De Palma go on record in one of these documentaries about how much he’s stolen from Hitch), restoration experts, and Hitchcock’s daughter Pat. It is a very complete look at the making of Rear Window, what it means to other filmmakers, and the lengths to which they had to go to make a restored print. The interview with John Michael Hayes runs about 13 minutes. It’s similar to the material in the documentary, but gives you a more complete commentary by someone intimately involved with the film. The photo gallery is more of a slide show that runs about three minutes, and gives you a look at promotional materials for the film. I would have liked to have seen on-set photos, but perhaps those are unavailable. The production notes are standard fare, and repeat much of the information in the documentary. If you have a DVD-ROM drive (if you have a reasonably fast computer, I’d highly recommend adding one, as they can be purchased for under $100), you can watch the film while reading along in the script. You do this in chapters. When the film portion of each chapter is complete, it repeats rather than moving on to the next chapter. It’s something of a mixed blessing; it gives you a chance to finish reading the script, but on the other hand it’s irksome for fast readers. You can also print out the entire screenplay (though I wish they’d provide it in the much prettier Adobe Acrobat format rather than plain text).
So, what’s the rumpus? There’s obviously a lot to like about Alfred Hitchcock’s work in general, and Rear Window in specific. I have a few problems with the film itself, but I think most of my concerns and annoyances with it are external. First, the problems with the movie itself.
I love the structure of Rear Window: how it is confined to one location and how the story unfolds through the eyes of a single person. However, Hitchcock breaks his own rules on a couple occasions. In one instance, we see things happening while Jeff is asleep, thus giving us more information than he knows. It works, I suppose, but it gives us god-like omniscience that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the movie. The other rule-breaking instance is more apparent, when we finally leave the confines of the apartment for a one-minute scene. Again, I suppose it works, but there were other ways to show Jeff in peril inside the apartment and would have been less jarring to the flow of the movie.
Hitchcock stated on several occasions that the actual filming of a movie was the most tedious part of its making. It’s also been claimed that he thought very little of his actors. In Rear Window, that workmanlike approach to acting that was obvious in his other films is perhaps even more prevalent. James Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Thelma Ritter were all fine actors, but here they seem mere servants to the plot with little in the way of actual acting to be done. Talk, point, look, repeat — that’s about the extent of it. James Stewart was a fantastic actor with great range, but it’s as if he’s on autopilot. All Grace Kelly has to do is look pretty. Thelma Ritter…well, she gets the movie’s best monologues, but her emotional range is from sardonic to sarcastic. Of course, this is just the negative way of looking at the film. For what they do, all three are excellent. We don’t get to see much of Raymond Burr, since most of his scenes are played through binoculars or a telephoto lens, but he’s just as good as he was as Perry Mason.
The complaints that arise from outside the movie are perhaps just me being catty, but hey, we believe in being balanced. Hitchcock was an innovator in his own time, but time itself has been unkind to his films. While nearly any film will look dated in 47 years, Rear Window seems particularly so. Despite the great lengths to which they went to recreate a Greenwich Village apartment complex on a set, it’s still painfully obvious it’s a set lit by artificial lighting. Despite some prescient comments about the lack of privacy in our society, made altogether too true by the Internet and consumer tracking that knows our every move and preference, his social commentary is quaint and sometimes downright sexist. Perhaps most odious of all — and the furthest out of Hitchcock’s control — his work, that seemed so fresh and original in the 1950s and ’60s, has been mimicked, parodied, copied, paid homage to, and borrowed from so many times in the subsequent years that it’s lost much of that charm of individuality. I think just about every one of his more popular films has been parodied on The Simpsons at one point or another, including Rear Window (“Grace, c’mere! There’s a sinister-looking kid I want you to see!”). There’s the Mel Brooks movie High Anxiety, a riff on several of Hitchcock’s films. Just how many movies have used the pull-back/zoom camera move Hitch utilized, if not outright created, in Vertigo? Why didn’t Hitchcock’s estate sue Robert Zemeckis and the other makers of What Lies Beneath for shameless artistic theft? Closer to this film, the voyeur theme has cropped up in numerous films, nowhere worse than the Sharon Stone film Sliver. (Or what that about kinky sex and unknickering in restaurants? I couldn’t tell.) Rear Window was remade as a made-for-TV movie (and I know this is going to sound insensitive, but…), no doubt so that the now-paralyzed Christopher Reeve could star in a movie. In fact, I can’t think of another classic filmmaker who has been imitated so frequently, and if imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, then Hitchcock has been flattered beyond all reason.
All that said, it’s still no reason not to like Rear Window; it’s simply the perspective of a film nut who stretched his mind in the opposite direction than past viewings. Vertigo or Psycho may receive more critical lauding, but Rear Window is easily the equal or better of those films. Behind North By Northwest and Strangers On A Train, it’s still one of my favorite Hitchcock films.