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  • Michael Rickard II

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

Hitchcock also uses photographic images to show symbols related to the film’s themes. Many of them are Jeff’s photographic tools such as his camera, his binoculars, and his flashbulbs. When Jeffries flashes the flashbulbs in Thorwald’s eyes, it is symbolic since Jeffries’ continues to keep Thorwald in the dark about what he knows of the murder.

In some ways, Jeffries’ role as a photographer is a reflection on Hitchcock the director. If nothing else, it is about the audience as voyeur. As Falwell comments:

There are visual correspondences between Jeff's situation and a movie director's just as there are between Jeff and the filmgoer. Jeff is a photographer who has broken his leg on assignment and has taken to peeping on his neighbors, first through binoculars, and then as his interest intensifies, through the telephoto lens of his camera. Like a director, Jeff sits behind his camera, weaving fantasies with the people on the other end of the lens. Since the camera moves so often with Jeff's point of view, especially viewing the people across the way, Jeff's eye is often the director's also. By making Jeff an invalid, Hitchcock has struck on a visual correspondence to the director on his set, sitting in his chair, behind the camera, while others dance, strut, and act before the camera-the static progenitor of a world of color and activity. Like a director, Jeff can dream but he cannot do, and it's hard not to see a correspondence between the dull pajamas Jeff wears throughout the film as Lisa parades around in him in a panoply of colors to the staid suits Hitchcock wore as he sat placidly before scenes of unparalleled romance and passion (88).

Not only is Jeff trapped but the audience is trapped too. Like Jeff, the audience can only watch as events unfold before them.

The wedding ring that Lisa steals from Thorwald’s apartment also serves as an important symbol in the film. As Donald Spoto notes, “…she slips on the ring not only to prove their suspicions about the fate of Mrs. Thorwald but also as a kind of proposal for Jeff” (221). The wedding ring is more than just the evidence that damns Thorwald for his wife’s murder; it is also a dual symbol of Lisa’s competence and her continued desire to marry Jeff.

Although Hitchcock relies heavily on photographic images in his films, it would be a mistake to believe that he does not utilize the other elements of cinema. For example, Hitchcock uses dialogue in Rear Window to help tell the story. Jeff’s “insurance company nurse” Stella dispenses homespun wisdom that helps further the film’s exploration of its themes. She tells Jeff that neighbors need to get out more, reinforcing the theme that people are no longer neighbors. Stella also foreshadows the danger Jeff will face. She warns him that his voyeuristic tendencies will lead to trouble. Stella serves as a sounding board for Jeff and as a way to establish his troubled relationship with the “perfect” Lisa without unnecessary scenes. “I’m looking for a woman who is willing to do anything and go anywhere and love it” Jeff tells Stella. Jeff does not think that Lisa meets her requirements but he will be proven wrong by the film’s end.

Lisa’s first scene with Jeff and their dialogue shows their cultural differences. Jeff asks Lisa about the beautiful dress she is wearing and is shocked when she tells him it costs $1100. She says she loves it and when Jeff points out that she’d only wear it once, she replies that that’s her job. Another example of how dialogue is used is the scene where Lisa tells Jeff she is going to replace his worn-out cigarette case with a silver one engraved with his initials. This shows the class difference between the two. Jeff likes his old case as it was picked up in Shanghai. Lisa wants something better for him. Jeff doesn’t want Lisa to get something better for him as he is happy with what he has. This scene and the dialogue shows Jeff and Lisa’s difficulty in understanding the different worlds they live in.

Hitchcock ignores “Murder’s” dialogue but he captures the story’s plot and themes in Rear Window with his own dialogue. One of the film’s strongest scenes features dialogue (which does not appear in the short story) where the neighbor whose dog has been murdered cries out, "You don't know the meaning of the word neighbors. Neighbors like each other, speak to each other, care if anybody lives or dies! But none of you do!” This added scene ties in with Woolrich’s exploration of the theme of neighborliness found in “Murder”.

Hitchcock’s use of dialogue is often combined with visuals in order to enhance the story. For example, when Jeff spies on Thorwald as he goes through wife’s purse, Jeff’s dialogue reveals to the audience that Thorwald is making a long distance call. It would have been impossible for Hitchcock to show this to an audience since he uses long shots when he shows Jeff’s neighbors and no one could see the numbers Thorwald was dialing. Dialogue is also used to establish backstory in the film. One casual piece of dialogue reveals that Jeff and Doyle were in the war together in aerial combat and that is how Jeff made his reputation as a photojournalist. It also shows the basis for Jeff and Doyle’s friendship.

Dialogue is used repeatedly to evoke “Murder’s” themes of voyeurism and neighborliness. “I’m not much on rear window ethics” Lisa tells Jeff after they’ve witnessed Miss Lonelyhearts fighting off her would-be lover. “Whatever happened to that old saying, love thy neighbor?” Lisa asks Jeff to which Jeff promises to revive it tomorrow, beginning with Miss Torso. Lisa pulls down the blinds, signifying that the show is over. This proves to be wrong as not long after, a neighbor’s scream is heard and there is the revelation that the Old Married Couple’s dog has been murdered. We see reaction shots as the neighbors look out of their apartments, suddenly united by the tragedy, all except one-Thorwald. Thorwald’s indifference is the clue that reignites Lisa and Jeff’s investigation.

Another important cinematic element is dramatic performances. Francois Truffaut observed about Hitchcock that “The neutrality you expect from your actors is an interesting concept. The point is clearly made in some of your more recent pictures, like Rear Window or Vertigo. In both films, James Stewart isn’t required to emote; he simply looks- three or four hundred times-and then you show the viewer what he’s looking at.” (Truffaut 111). How much did dramatic performances play a part in Hitchcock’s filmmaking?

While dramatic performances were not as important to Hitchcock as they were to other directors, he knew the value of star power, acting ability, and proper casting. The film’s two stars played roles they were often cast in with James Stewart playing an everyman type and Grace Kelly playing the beautiful and elegant model Lisa. Although it could be argued that Hitchcock could have cast anyone since he relied more on the camera than he did on dramatic performances, it is difficult to imagine Raymond Burr playing Jeff or Thelma Ritter playing Lisa. Instead, they perform in suitable roles with Raymond Burr capturing Thorwald’s ordinary but dangerous nature. He is no criminal mastermind but his desperation makes him dangerous. Thelma Ritter often played working class characters and she shines in her role here as Jeff’s nurse.

An example of Stewart’s contribution to Rear Window is his subtle use of facial expressions. For example in one short scene, James Stewart is seen watching the recently arrived newlyweds. He watches with interest as the husband carries his wife across the threshold. A medium shot of Stewart shows him watching with interest as the newlyweds embrace and kiss. He looks away but his facial expressions reveal his curiosity and he looks back at them until they pull the window curtain down. Stewart’s acting combined with Hitchcock’s use of the camera show us Jeff’s voyeuristic nature. In another scene, we see a close-up of Jeff’s face when Lisa returns from her mission to investigate Thorwald. Stewart’s facial expressions convey how impressed he is with her. Another great scene made all the better by Stewart’s facial expressions is at the film’s climax. Hitchcock keeps the camera on Stewart’s face as Jeff answers the phone again, thinking it’s his detective friend Doyle. The look of panic on Jeff’s face tells us he realizes that he is in danger. The camera stays on Stewart as he looks around, panic-stricken. He hears something and we see a long shot of his apartment door. A medium shot reveals Jeff is frozen with fear. Finally he moves, taking his flashbulbs, preparing for his confrontation with Thorwald.

Although Hitchcock is known for his intensive use of visuals, his use of sound is evident in Rear Window. Some of it is obvious while some of it is subtle. A siren goes off in the distance when Mrs. Thorwald discovers her husband talking to someone behind her back. This foreshadows the danger she will encounter. This is reminiscent of the scene in The Blue Angel where a foghorn goes off as Professor Rath is about to enter the nightclub and meet his doom in the form of femme fatale singer Lola Lola. Hitchcock’s use of the sound of breaking glass and Mrs. Thorwald’s scream send the message that something terrible is happening.

Hitchcock also relies on music to tell the story. Rear Window’s score was composed by Franz Waxman who wrote the opening and closing music. Hitchcock also uses diegetic music to subtly enhance the story. For example, “Amore” plays when we see the newlyweds entering their new apartment. The people at the composer’s party sing “Mona Lisa” as Miss Lonelyhearts entertains her guest. Finally, there is the piece of music the Composer writes that lifts Miss Lonelyhearts out of her suicidal spirit and that he shares with her at the film’s end.

Alfred Hitchcock clearly employs an interweaving strategy with Rear Window to adapt the short story “It Had to Be Murder” into a feature length film. He maintains the story’s plot of a nosy neighbor (or voyeur depending on how you interpret things) who believes his neighbor has committed murder and expands the story by adding a love interest along with a tapestry of subplots involving the daily lives of the neighbors. These additions help Hitchcock explore “Murder’s” plot and themes, expanding the short story into a feature film.

Rear Window is an intermediate adaptation of “It Had to Be Murder”. Hitchcock retains the short story’s protagonist, antagonist, and two supporting characters (changing one from male to female). He also adds the major character Lisa in order to provide a love interest for Jeffries. Hitchcock also adds several subplots to the story both to expand the story into a feature length film and to further explore the theme of voyeurism and neighborliness. Hitchcock’s addition of the Lisa character, the romantic subplot, and the theme of whether two very different people can find lasting love is enough to make the film an intermediate rather than close adaptation. Hitchcock’s retention of the Jeffries character, the setting, the themes of voyeurism and neighborliness, and Jeff’s investigation of the murder are enough to keep it from being a loose adaptation.

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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