Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Rear Window (1954, wr John Michael Hayes, dir Alfred Hitchcock)

As the BFI is in the middle of its Hitchcock celebration, I thought I might as well re-post a couple of things I did a while ago on his films. Here's Rear Window, from July 2010; I'll do my thing about anti-heroes in Dial M for Murder and Strangers on a Train tomorrow.

(I haven't checked the links at the bottom, so apologies if any of them have died.)


Last week we went to see Rear Window at the BFI, as part of the Grace Kelly season. It was – shamefully - the first time I'd seen the film, and although it didn't grip me on first viewing as much as some of Hitchcock's other films, a repeat viewing the following morning revealed what an impressive bit of work it is. 

(NB - Even if you can't be arsed reading all this, there are some useful links at the end.)

Even if you haven't seen the film, you're probably familiar with the set-up. James Stewart plays LB 'Jeff' Jeffries, a photo-journalist who is recovering impatiently in his New York apartment after breaking his leg on a dangerous assignment. To pass the time he observes the people who live in the apartments across the rear courtyard from his building.

Together with his girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), Jeff becomes suspicious of one of his neighbours, 'the salesman' (Raymond Burr), eventually deducing that he must have murdered his wife. When the police find nothing suspicious about the situation, Jeff and Lisa decide to investigate the woman's disappearance themselves. 

The script was written by John Michael Hayes, in the first of his collaborations with Hitchcock. The development of the script is covered in some detail in Steven DeRosa's excellent book Writing with Hitchcock, which covers the four films the writer and director made together (Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry and The Man Who Knew Too Much). 

Anyway, the following struck me after seeing the film (not all script-based, but worth thinking about when 'seeing' and 'hearing' your script in your mind):

1. The importance of arena. This was drilled into us during the MA at Bournemouth; we even had a unit devoted to writing a script based on extensive observational research of a location

The film takes place entirely around the rear courtyard, and the cast of characters Hayes created sheds light from a variety of angles on the themes of the film – particularly the problems of romantic relationships, reflecting the difficulties Jeff and Lisa are facing in their own relationship.

The diverse cast of economically but richly drawn characters also creates a rich sense of verisimilitude. It may not seem the most natural comparison, but it brought to mind the secondary characters whose lives revolve around the crossroads in Watchmen (the book, not the film).

2. I haven't read the original story (by Cornell Woolrich) on which the film was based, but Hayes's script seems to be an interesting study in adaptation – particularly the inflation of a simple story into a rich feature-length script. Lisa Fremont doesn't appear in the original, but her creation allows Hayes to generate the whole romantic subplot that is interwoven with the mystery.

It's also worth noting the skill with which Lisa is created; she's not just a random collection of traits. Her outlook and lifestyle naturally generate conflict with Jeff, while her skills and insights come in handy and push forward the story (eg her statement that Mrs Thorwald wouldn't have left voluntarily without taking her wedding ring or best handbag.)

3. Voyeurism and complicity. Hitchcock makes very precise use of subjective camerawork, thus dragging the viewer into complicity with Jeff's voyeurism. When Jeff and Lisa start to feel uncomfortable about their prurient prying, the viewer also questions their desire for dark doings. 

It's no coincidence that most of the windows we look through in the film are the same dimensions as the cinema screen, and the most chilling moment is when the murderer, Thorwald, realises “we” are on to him and looks up to meet our gaze.

Roger Ebert has referred to this aspect of the film:

The experience is not so much like watching a movie, as like ... well, like spying on your neighbors. Hitchcock traps us right from the first. As [Jeff] idly picks up a camera with a telephoto lens and begins to scan the open windows on the other side of the courtyard, we look too. And because Hitchcock makes us accomplices in Stewart's voyeurism, we're along for the ride. When an enraged man comes bursting through the door to kill Stewart, we can't detach ourselves, because we looked too, and so we share the guilt and in a way we deserve what's coming to him.

4. Cracking dialogue. Hayes had written hundreds of hours of wise-cracking radio drama before teaming up with Hitchcock, and the dialogue sparks with wit throughout the film, giving life to otherwise static scenes and creating vivid and memorable characters – especially Jeff's straight-talking nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter).

5. Sound design. As far as I could tell, every bit of sound in the film was digetic (ie, it came from a source within the film, rather than being layered on as an external soundtrack). Not only that, but we hear it as it would be heard from from Jeff's apartment, so things aren't always clear. 

This heightens the subjectivity of the film and our identification with Jeff; we experience everything from his perspective rather than an omniscient “third-person” point of view.

As Roger Ebert alludes to above, this really pays off when we share Jeff's terror at Thorwald's ominous footsteps approaching the apartment at the climax of the film.


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