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  • Michael Rickard II

"Rear Window": How Alfred Hitchcock's Intermediate Adaptation of "It Had to Be Mu

“Murder” was written by Cornell Woolrich, a noted author of hard-boiled fiction. Woolrich was considered a peer of hard-boiled writers such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and many of his stories were made into films. As Foster Hirsch observes, “Woolrich stresses the ordinariness of his urban settings, and of his characters...A dry, reportorial manner, in Woolrich’s stories, is invariably a prelude to nightmare, as the seemingly everyday setting and the bland characters come quickly under attack” (43). Hitchcock captures these atmosphere in Rear Window with an ordinary man becoming embroiled in a terrifying situation. Hitchcock explores “Murder’s” themes of neighborliness and voyeurism throughout Rear Window. He adds a theme on relationships, exploring whether or not two different people from two different backgrounds can make it work. This is seen in Lisa and Jeff’s troubled relationship and the transformation it undergoes due to their investigation of the Thorwald murder. This theme is also shown in the subplots involving the neighbors.

Everything in Alfred Hitchcock’s film serves a purpose. Hitchcock uses film’s unique elements to adapt “Murder” in Rear Window. The medium of film has elements that are not found in literature. Adaptation: Studying Film and Literature discusses Robert Stam’s view that text is single track while film is multitrack. The five tracks of film according to Stam are, “1. theatrical performance (live or animated), 2. words (spoken and written), 3. Music, 4. Sound effects (noise and silence) and 5. Photographic images (moving and still) (qtd. in Desmond and Hawkes 36).

While Alfred Hitchcock employed all of the five “tracks” of film, he emphasized photographic images. Although he was by no means the first director to do so (F.W. Murnau’s silent film The Last Laugh told its story brilliantly without any intertitles), Hitchcock saw the camera as film’s most important storytelling tool. Hitchcock’s approach to filmmaking was summarized in an interview with critic turned filmmaker Francois Truffaut, “I always try first to tell a story in the cinematic way, through a succession of shots and bits of film in between” (Truffaut 61).

The opportunities Hitchcock saw in shooting “Murder” attracted him to the story. In the same interview he said, “It was a possibility of doing a purely cinematic film. You have an immobilized man looking out. That’s one part of the film. The second part shows what he sees and the third part shows how he reacts. This is actually the purest expression of a cinematic idea (Truffaut 214). Due to Hitchcock’s heavy use of photographic images, we shall begin with an examination of how he uses photographic images to adapt “Murder”.

The film opens with title sequence involving a medium shot of three windows with blinds drawn. A mixture of orchestra and light jazz music plays. The blinds slowly rise up one by one from left to right, revealing an apartment complex in the distance. The film’s establishing shot consists of the zooming in and panning around the outside of the apartment complex, giving us a cursory scan of the apartments and the courtyard. The camera then pans to a close-up shot of L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries’ face. He is asleep and sweating profusely. A close-up shot of a thermometer reveals why he is sweating-the temperature is over 90 degrees. The camera then pans around the apartments again in a long-shot, focusing on the Composer for several seconds before panning to the Old Married Couple sleeping on their fire escape. The camera then pans to Miss Torso. She is scantily clad and puts her bra on with the window open (albeit it with her back to the audience). All of these shots duplicate what someone would see if they were looking out of their window and peering out at their neighbors. Hitchcock is setting up the film’s exploration of “Murder’s” theme of voyeurism.

The camera returns to Jeff’s apartment where a medium shot shows him still asleep. The camera pans down, revealing he is in a wheelchair and that his leg is in a cast. Then in one of Hollywood’s most revealing opening scenes, Hitchcock shows us a broken camera followed by a shot of a photograph of a race car accident. The camera continues to pan, showing more photos of action shots, implying that Jeff is some sort of photographer. The camera pans to shots of camera equipment then a shot of a woman, only it is exposed as a negative (a subtle hint that while Jeff may have fun playing around with photographic effects, he views this woman as his opposite). The camera pans to a stack of fashion magazines with the woman on the cover. Fade-out. George Toles discusses the importance of the opening scene and what it signifies to the audience. “Hitchcock's camera actively asserts its independence from a character's point of view in this prologue, insisting not only on its separation from, but superiority to, the perceiving consciousness of any figure contained in his film's ‘world in a frame’” (236).

It can be argued that “Murder’s” theme of voyeurism is expanded beyond Jeffries’ voyeurism to the audience’s voyeurism as well. A later scene shows Hitchcock’s favor of using visuals to tell his story. Lisa has left Jeff’s apartment and a bored Jeff returns to voyeurism to pass the time. The camera pans around the apartment building opposite of Jeff. The lights in the apartments are out except for the Thorwalds. Then Jeff hears a woman’s scream and the sound of breaking glass. The next scene shows Stewart waking up to thunder as rain falls. He is amused by the older neighbors abandoning the fire escape to escape the rain. Stewart then sees Thorwald leaving. A close-up of Jeff’s watch shows it is nearly 2am. Something is not right. Fadeout. The next shot is a close-up of Jeff’s watch. It’s almost 2:35am and Thorwald has returned. The neighbors’ lives continue to unfold with a long shot that shows the Composer drunkenly entering his apartment and passing out in an armchair. A long shot shows Thorwald exiting the apartment once again into the rainy night, carrying a suitcase. After falling asleep, Jeff wakes up and a long shot captures Miss Torso returning after a date and keeping a would-be suitor at bay when he tries to enter her apartment. Jeff nods off. He is asleep but the camera never is and a long shot reveals Thorwald leaving with a woman dressed in black.

Another scene relies on visuals to explore “Murder’s” themes of voyeurism and neighborliness as well as Rear Window’s added theme on relationships. Using the combination of long shots of the neighbors mixed with reaction shots from Jeff that capture his voyeurism, Hitchcock reveals the neighbors’ lives interacting with Jeff as he watches Miss Lonelyhearts setting a table for two and dining alone. Is this how Jeff sees his future? He certainly does not see it as Lisa’s future. When Jeff notes that Miss Torso (who is entertaining several men) is “queen bee with her pick of the drones”, Lisa replies that Miss Torso is doing a woman’s hardest job, “juggling wolves”. When Jeff observes Miss Torso has picked the best man, Lisa tells him Miss Torso does not love him. When Jeff asks her how she can be so sure, she reminds him that she said Miss Torso’s apartment reminded him of hers. Lisa subtly tells Jeff that she has her fair share of suitors but that she only loves Jeff.

There are a surprising number of long shots in the film. Hitchcock uses long shots to keep the audience’s view confined to what Jeffries would see from his apartment. This can be somewhat disconcerting as the audience cannot see through blinds and much of the action is limited to what can be seen through the neighbors’ windows. Hitchcock maintains this effect by providing closer shots (still long shots) when Jeff uses his binoculars and zoom lens, showing that there is only so much that can be seen. It also raises the question of how much Jeff can learn with a limited view.

Hitchcock departs from the longshots on a few rare occasions. This is used to draw our attention to the neighbors and to show them stepping out of their individual comfort zones and taking notice of the world outside their windows. For example the film’s climactic scene with Thorwald battling Jeff includes close-ups of the neighbor’s as they watch the battle going on. Hitchcock uses a lot of long takes in the film. Like the long shots, this simulates the effect of Jeff looking out at his window at his neighbors as well as a sense of his boredom. When Hitchcock uses quick cuts, this has the effect of showing us that something important is happening. For example in the scene where Miss Lonelyhearts is contemplating suicide, we see quick cuts of her followed by reaction shots of Stella and Jeff. We then see a shot of the Composer’s apartment where he’s playing music. A bit of dialogue reveals that Miss Lonelyhearts has stopped her suicide attempt thanks to the music she’s heard. (Here, the dialogue is necessary to ensure that the audience makes this connection). Later on, Hitchcock again employs quick crosscuts between Jeff in his apartment and Lisa in Thorwald’s apartment as she searches it, unaware that Thorwald is returning. This builds suspense as we wonder how she will escape Thorwald. We see quick cuts as Lisa tries to escape including a close-up of Jeff and Stella’s panicked facial expressions as they helplessly watch Lisa’s predicament.

The ultimate use of quick cuts is during Jeff’s battle with Lars Thorwald. Hitchcock uses a number of quick cuts and close-ups to show the intensity of the battle. The fight between Thorwald and Jeff features a lot of close-ups and medium shots. There are frequent cuts as we see close-ups of Jeff’s face, close-ups of Thorwald standing over him, and long shots of Doyle and Lisa entering Thorwald’s apartment. Then in a rare use of close-ups of the neighbors, we see shots of the neighbors as they watch the fracas between Thorwald and Jeff. Hitchcock speeds up the camera speed slightly, heightening the sense of urgency in the film’s climax,

The film ends with a reprise of the opening scene. The camera pans around the apartment building, showing us the resolution to all of the neighbor’s subplots. The Composer has a prospective hit on his hand with his new record as well as a romance from Miss Lonelyhearts. Miss Torso turns out to be Mrs. Torso as her army husband returns home. The Old Married Couple have a new dog and the honeymoon is over for the Newlyweds as they fight about the husband being unemployed. The Sculptor has finally finished her project. Last, we see Jeff in his chair, with both legs in casts. Lisa lays nearby reading a travel book. When she sees Jeff is asleep, she returns to a fashion magazine, showing she can adapt to either world. The film ends with the blinds being lowered.

Works Cited

Desmond, John M. & Peter Hawkes. Adaptation: Studying Film & Literature. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005.

Fawell, John. “Torturing Women and Mocking Men: Hitchcock’s Rear Window”. The Midwest Quarterly. 44.1 (Autumn 2002). 88.

Hirsch, Foster. The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2008.

Howe, Lawrence. “Through the Looking Glass: Reflexivity, Reciprocality, and Defenestration in Hitchcock’s Rear Window.” College Literature, 35.1, Winter 2008. 16-37.

Rear Window. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter, and Raymond Burr. Paramount Pictures, 1954. Film

. Spoto, Donald. The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures.. New York: Doubleday,. 1992.

Toles, George E. “Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window as Critical Allegory”. Boundary 2. No. 2/3 (Winter-Spring, 1989) 225-245.

Truffaut, Francois. Hitchcock. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.

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