Judge Mike Rubino wishes his neighbors would stop watching him.
Our reviews of Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection (Blu-ray) (published December 11th, 2012) and Rear Window (published May 10th, 2001) are also available.
Jeff: Why would a man leave his apartment three times on a rainy night
with a suitcase and come back three times?
Rear Window is one of Alfred Hitchcock's first mature masterpieces. It exhibits every theory and theme Hitch is known for alongside a stellar cast and a suspenseful story. It's no secret that the film is just about perfect. Now, Universal's Legacy Series has given it the DVD treatment it deserves.
Facts of the Case
Photojournalist L.B. "Jeff" Jefferies (James Stewart) is stuck in his second-story apartment with a broken leg. Unable to traverse the Sahara and mix it up with race cars, his only excitement comes from watching his neighbors across the courtyard in his Greenwich Village apartment complex. His hobby takes a turn for the macabre, however, after he thinks he witnesses a murder.
While staring out the window, becoming increasingly more paranoid, Jeff must deal with the more immediate issue of his girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly), who is dying to marry him. He continues to tell her that he can't be tied down, that her Fifth Avenue lifestyle will never mesh with his, but she refuses to listen. Lisa is not only willing to care for Jeff, she's ready to prove that she too can be adventurous, by breaking in to his neighbor's house to find out the truth about the murder.
Rear Window is based on the short story by Cornell Woolrich called "Murder from a Fixed Viewpoint."
Rear Window is one of Hitchcock's best films, not because it's unique, but because it embodies everything the auteur was all about. The film is the sum of every skill and technique Hitchcock had been using up until that point, and it started an incredible run of films that include North by Northwest, Vertigo, and, of course, Psycho. While each of those films are groundbreaking in their own right, the pure precision in which Rear Window was filmed is evidence enough that Hitchcock was a master.
The plot is simple (and has been spoofed, parodied, and copied ever since): Jefferies, through his own paranoid curiosity, thinks he has witnessed a murder. He's been voyeuristically watching all of his neighbors during the six weeks he's been wheelchair-bound, but only the hefty Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr, Perry Mason) seems to really be up to no good. For as much as Rear Window is a murder mystery, it's also a love story between a stubborn man and his loving girlfriend.
The original short story, aptly titled though it may be, didn't include much more than a man watching a murderer from a window. There was no love story, and certainly no one like Lisa. Hitchcock's decision to create Grace Kelly's character was a wise one, as it provides plenty of depth and conflict for James Stewart to work with. It seems crazy to see such a stubborn, over-the-hill photographer pass up a woman as beautiful and loving as Lisa, and yet Jeff does it without blinking. He comes off as quite the jerk, really. But his suspicions are contagious; soon he not only has Lisa on board, he also has his insurance-appointed nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter, Birdman of Alcatraz), getting in on the act. The whole story unfolds at a slow boil that finally, and naturally, bubbles over in the excellent final act.
Rear Window is, in this humble reviewer's opinion, a perfectly paced and shot film. The story is communicated largely through imagery and editing, rather than exposition or description. At the opening of the film, as the camera glides from the courtyard into the window of L.B. Jefferies, we see his cast, the smashed camera, and the dangerous photographs that explain his current situation. Once the camera enters Jeff's apartment, it doesn't leave for the rest of the film. Hitchcock then uses a three-step camera angle sequence to let the story unfold: he first shows Stewart looking at something, then cuts to a wide angle from Stewart's POV facing the subject (in this case it's usually a neighbor), and then the camera cuts back to Stewart's face to show his reaction. The idea that the camera would never cut to anything closer than a wide angle outside the apartment is not only a daring stylistic choice, but it also reduces the audience to the same voyeuristic level as Jeff. The only occasion Hitchcock uses a close-up is to highlight the romance between Kelly and Stewart.
Hitchcock filmed the entire movie on one massive set: a recreated Greenwich apartment complex and courtyard. Doing so allowed him the flexibility to control the lighting, layout, and sound within the film moreso than if he had scouted a real location. And while there are times when the set does feel as if it's on a soundstage, the sound design he achieves in this film is incredible. With the exception of a few musical cues, the majority of the movie's sound effects and score are diegetic (meaning that they are all generated by something in the world of the film). So if there is a scream or a loud noise heard in the apartment across the way, it was actually made at that part of the set but recorded with microphones in Jeff's apartment. The sound instantly becomes more realistic and immersive.
The same can be said of the film's jazzy score by Franz Waxman. The main theme of the film, titled "Lisa," is actually composed as the movie unfolds by a musician living in the apartment next door. When the film begins, and Lisa first appears at the apartment, the musician working in the loft apartment next door is simply messing with chord progression; however, by the end of the film, the completed song emerges just in time to save the life of a suicidal woman (known as Ms. LonelyHeart). All of these sound effects and musical cues are made all better by the excellent Dolby Digital Stereo track accompanying this re-release.
As is explained in the film's featurette about the restoration process, Rear Window (along with a number of other Hitchcock films) was in terrible shape a few years ago. The original negatives were missing up to 90 percent of their yellow film layer; thankfully, they were able to digitally replace the layer of yellow, making this the best transfer the film has ever had on home video.
Further enhancing this Universal Legacy Series release is a ton of well-produced special features spread across two discs. One the first disc, alongside the film, is a commentary track by John Fawell (author of Hitchcock's Rear Window: The Well-Made Film). The track is overloaded with details, stories, and technical notes; it's clear Mr. Fawell knows this movie inside and out, and he provides a meaty commentary track. There are also production photos and notes on the disc, as well as the original theatrical and re-release trailers.
The second disc contains a number of excellent documentaries on the film and Hitchcock's career. The biggest and best of the bunch is Rear Window Ethics, a 60-minute documentary created just for this release. The doc breaks down the film's style and technique, as well as the restoration process, with the help of experts and surviving crew members. As a small follow-up, there is a 13-minute conversation with screenwriter John Michael Hayes about his experience writing the film. Then there are two featurettes, seemingly created together, called Pure Cinema: Through the Eyes of the Master and Breaking Barriers: The Sound of Hitchcock. Both featurettes present great insight into Hitchcock's film career, and include interviews by contemporary directors like Martin Scorsese, Guillermo Del Toro, and William Friedkin.
The final two special features are not as enjoyable, but their inclusion is certainly appreciated. First is an interview between Alfred Hitchcock and French filmmaker François Truffaut, which awkwardly includes Truffaut's translator. So essentially there are three people talking, two of which are speaking French, and all while the film is playing. It's pretty hard to sit through. There is also an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents called "Mr. Blanchard's Secret," which is essentially an early version of Rear Window. The episode kind of stinks, but Hitch's intro is pretty humorous.
Rear Window is a classic, and ranks as one of Hitchcock's best films. It's referred to, in one of the featurettes, as one of the director's "testament" films, meaning it embodies everything he was known for, in terms of style and substance. He tells a gripping suspense tale with a touch of humor—or a romance underscored by macabre paranoia. With pitch-perfect performances by Stewart, Kelly, and the entire cast, this film deserves every last ounce of praise.
Universal also deserves props for releasing a fantastic, and comprehensive, treatment of the film as part of its Legacy Series. The special features are well-made and insightful, without being terribly repetitive. This is a must own.
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• Commentary Track with John Fawell
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