Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Movies I Like: Rear Window

Why I haven’t written about Rear Window before is beyond my comprehension. Really.

This is one of the best films that master-of-suspense Alfred Hitchcock ever made in his 50-year career as a filmmaker.

When I was a teenager, working for my mentor Bruce Walters, he would tell me stories about the film Rear Window and how effective it was. I had read about it in film books and heard stories, but the film had been, along with others of Hitchcock’s classic films, unavailable for 20 years or so because of legal reasons. But in the early '80s there was a release of Rear Window, the 1956 remake of his own film The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rope, The Trouble with Harry, and the amazing Vertigo.

They had been away for so long it was as if they were new releases. They were incredible to see on the big screen. These old films made millions at the box-office, and were hits once again.

But Rear Window was something special—I have never before or since seen an audience so involved in a film. We were all on the edges of our seats. The audience acted as a single organism—holding its breath, screaming, laughing, and biting its lips all in perfect unison. All of us feeling the same thing together. It was magical.

Even now, when I show scenes from the film in classes, people get caught up in the film and want to see more.

Rear Window, first released in 1954, was adapted from a Cornell Woolrich story by screenwriter John Michael Hayes. The film stars Jimmy Stewart as an adventurous magazine photographer who is trapped in his apartment because of a broken leg. He has little to do but to look voyeuristically out his window at the neighboring apartments. In the apartment directly across from him, he believes he sees a murder and the fun begins.

You may know the story because it was the basis for a more recent film called Disturbia. Others have borrowed from the premise as well.

But one of the things that makes Rear Window such a great film is not only Hitchcock’s flawless direction and visual storytelling to create tension and suspense, but the brilliant screenplay. The story beneath the external thriller is a love story. In fact, I would argue that the love story is the real story being told.

The film has Swiss-watch precision construction. The first act tells us that Stewart’s character does not want to get married. In the first dialogue in the piece Stewart is on the phone and we hear just what he thinks about marriage. And to underscore his point while he talks on the phone, he is watching a neighbor couple across the way in their apartment as they argue.

Soon after Stewart’s nurse comes in and they have a conversation about Stewart’s voyeurism and well as his reluctance to get married. 

Also in Act One, we meet Stewart’s girlfriend, a fashion model played by Grace Kelly. She is perfect and this is why Jimmy Stewart doesn’t want to marry her. She does want to marry Stewart, but he thinks his rough life as a photographer traveling to far-off lands and living in harsh conditions would be too much for her. After all, she is a woman who likes the finer things in life and is always dressed in the latest fashions.

 During the course of the story, Grace Kelly shows that she has a taste for danger. She even sneaks into the suspected murder’s apartment to collect evidence of the crime. Stewart becomes more attracted to her as he sees that she is more than a delicate fashion plate.

Here’s the thing that blows me away as good, old-fashioned, delicate and precise storytelling.

Not only are the arguing couple Stewart sees across the way an image of marriage and relationships, so is every other neighbor that Stewart watches. There is a middle-aged couple who have a dog as a surrogate child, but appear to be happy. There is a newlywed couple whose blinds are shut most of the time. There is an older woman, probably a widow, who sculpts a decidedly phallic piece of art. There is a lonely woman nicknamed “Miss Lonely Hearts” hopelessly looking for love. There is a sexy neighbor nicknamed “Miss Torso” who always has men swarming around her. Grace Kelly notes that the woman doesn’t love any of these men. She knows because it resembles her apartment, she says. There is also an unmarried songwriter across the way who does find love in the end.

Even the man suspected of murder is suspected to have killed his wife.

Each of these neighbors has a story reason to populate the story. When I say that they seldom make good films anymore, this is what I mean: Things now are often random. But in well-crafted pieces, things appear random and are anything but. Everything matters.

In films now they may have a murder story and they may have a romance, but those things would in no way be tied together. This is why things feel tacked on often—story elements are not integrated. Random characters and events strung together do not a story make.

Rear Window is the story of a man who learns that the woman he thought was so delicate has another side. Like him, she has a taste for adventure, but also likes her world of fine food and fashion. She is a complete human being with many sides.

If you want to see a genuine masterpiece – number 43 on AFI’s top 100 movies of all time—then see Rear Window. If you want to learn from master storytellers how to make your own stories better, then this a film you must see and study.

And see Rear Window on the biggest screen you can, because that’s how it should be seen. 


Anya said...

I saw this in a big auditorium in Boston a few years ago, and the audience was completely into it. It really holds up well!

Brian McD said...

Yeah, people really dig it. It's best to see it with a crowd. You were lucky to see it.

David Quinn said...

This is on my top 5 for "films you can study over and over again and never see all of it."

Re-watch the marriage sequence between Lisa and Jeff, specifically after dinner. He's on one side of the screen with the other single artist (Miss Torso) and she's framed with the married couple.

When she talks about marriage, Hitch has framed the shot to keep that huge pole barrier between them. When she moves in to close the distance, Hitch puts them both together...that is, until Jeff answers her. Hitch cuts back to a shot of Jeff SOLO, but with a giant brick wall behind him. Lisa's reaction is our reaction: This dude's a brick wall, lady.

So much "random" here that is, in reality, great filmmaking.

Brian McD said...


You are correct Hitchcock never let anything happen in a frame by chance. He was very smart about why he did everything.

He was also articulate about his process: http://www.amazon.com/Hitchcock-Revised-Helen-G-Scott/dp/0671604295

Kevin Sterling said...

Hi Brian. We studied this movie in my first screenwriting class over twenty years ago. I still remember how spellbound I was with not only the film itself but by the enthralling storytelling. I am curious how much you attribute the power of this film to the screenwriter and how much to Hitchcock himself?

Brian McD said...

Hello Kevin,

Well, in many cases it can be hard to draw a clean line between writer, director and even actor in terms of who did what. Sometimes they themselves can’t even tell you. Having said that, in the case of Hitchcock you can look at his body of work and become fairly familiar with his style and the consistencies from one film to another. There are Hitchcock traits that you can be pretty sure came from him.

By all accounts Hitchcock worked very closely with his writers and from what I understand he worked enough on the screenplay to have earned a screenwriting credit, but he never took one.

Hitch’s wife Alma was a writer and went over the stories and scripts as well.

I know from what I have read that Hitch thought in terms of 3 acts, so he knew how the structure a script from that standpoint. But when you look at his work, the visual storytelling is always perfect – he understood better than anyone that he was telling stories with pictures. He was of course the master of suspense and understood how to evoke feelings of anxiety. Those elements we can guess Hitch had much to do with.

But some of his movies are deeper than others, they get at more than just suspense – they have more weight somehow. Shadow of Doubt, Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, and Lifeboat are the ones that come to mind for me. I may be forgetting some. When you look at the writers of those films and look at their other work it is quite clear that their fingerprints are on the work. If you ever read, or see, anything by playwright Thornton Wilder you will recognize his work clearly. Shadow of a Doubt is as much Wilder and it is Hitchcock. The film is a child of two creators and shares equal parts of their DNA.

I think this can be said for Hitchcock and John Michael Hayes with Rear Window.

I know that Hitchcock cared more about how the film was put together rather than the themes or subjects of those films, so I think t was always the writers who brought that and Hitch let them bring it.


I hope that kind of answers your question. Sorry for the long-winded answer.

Thanks for reading the blog and taking the time to write.

Misty M. said...

I just stumbled across your terrific blog as recommended by a terrific animation artist blogger and I began scrolling through your fascinating posts. I started immediately scribbling notes from your advice on writing and at the same time I saw that you like to talk about really great classic films.
Now, I am an artist, not necessarily a writer yet, but I have been really enjoying crafting a story and picking up advice here and there. But, what I can attest to is being a fan of classic films. As I went farther back through your archives I expected to find one of my favorites somewhere along the way, and finally I did. Rear Window. Excellent! I had the joy of watching it only a couple of weeks ago again. It has always been a favorite of mine. I love Hitchcock, Stewart and of course Grace Kelly. I also recently watched Vertigo again after several years of having not seen it. I'm learning more and more that it's the parts of the story you leave out that make people want more. I think that was true with those films. In Rear Window, we only have a hunch that the guy killed his wife. Along with Stewart's character we all wanted to find proof too. It was like they were watching the same movie we were and yet they were able to interfere with it and we almost felt like we were able to reach into the movie with them. Does that make sense?
Other favorites of mine- Key Largo... All Frank Capra films...North by Northwest... Casablanca of course... Lifeboat. I look forward to reading more of your work. Thanks!

Brian McD said...

Hello Misty M,

Thanks for visiting the blog. Glad you found some things you can use.

Yes, I do like a lot of older films. I am also a big Capra fan. Here's my It's a Wonderful Life post: http://invisibleinkblog.blogspot.com/2009/08/its-wonderful-life-another-film-i-like.html

I just recorded a podcast that should be up soon where I talk about It's a Wonderful Life.

I like the other films you mentioned as well. I keep thinking about doing a Key Largo post. Maybe I will soon. Thanks for the reminder.

In case you are interested here are some podcasts I have done:






Thanks again for taking the time to write. I hope you come back to the blog from time to time.

-- Brian