- by Michael Rickard II
"'Rear Window': How to Turn a Short Story into a 112 Minute Film. Part Two of Four.&quo
Here's a final paper I wrote in 2015 on Hitchcock's classic Rear Window.
For Alfred Hitchcock, a literary text was merely a starting point for him in making a film. Hitchcock recognized the difference between literature and cinema. Hitchcock's approach to adaptation was explained in an interview, "What I do is read a story only once, and if I like the basic idea, I forget about the book and start to create cinema" (Truffaut 71). Although Hitchcock followed "Murder's" plot, the fact that he had to expand it into a full-length film gave him the chance to add to the story.
"It Had to Be Murder" features the protagonist Jeffries, his friend Boynes the police detective, Jeff's houseman Sam, and the suspected murderer Thorwald. In Rear Window, Hitchcock replaces the Sam character with a female nurse named Stella, and adds the major character of Lisa, Jeff's love interest. While Woolrich mentions the neighbors in "Murder's" opening, they play no role in the story other than to establish that Jeffries is so bored that he watches them intensively. Hitchcock adds the neighbors Miss Torso, the Newlyweds, the Composer, the Sculptor, and the Old Married Couple. The subplots involving the neighbors do far more than just pad the story in Rear Window. As Howe points out:
But all of this watching fails to divert him from his own problems because the stories he infers from his nearly obsessive observations of his neighbors' lives are variations on the theme of his own ambivalence about committing to marriage. Figures like Miss Torso and Miss Lonelyhearts represent opposite poles of gaiety or despair in the single life, while, as divergent examples of coupling, the newlyweds in the apartment adjacent to Jeff's represent the enthralling novelty of marriage, and Thorwald and his invalid wife its burdensome drudgery. As he continues watching, the identifications multiply in conflicting ways. For example, Jeff is identified not only with Mrs. Thorwald in that both are invalids, but also with Thorwald who seeks to be rid of his wife just as Jeff looks to evade what he sees as the marriage trap. (22).
The Lisa character provides a love interest as well as a damsel in distress. Hitchcock adds the plot of Lisa and Jeff's romance and the cultural and class differences getting in the way of their thoughts of marriage. It can be argued that the Lisa character also provides the audience with an emotional investment when she risks her life breaking into Thorwald's apartment.
Hitchcock's substitution of Stella for Sam not only expands the short story but creates more opportunities to explore the film's themes. In Murder, the character of Sam is one dimensional but Rear Window's Stella is a well-rounded character who provides a foil for Jeff, dispensing wisdom on romance as well as neighborly relations. Like Sam in the short story, she questions Jeff's penchant for watching his neighbors but she proves to be a loyal ally once Jeff convinces her something foul has happened. The Stella character also provides for additional dramatic situations with the Lisa character. Lisa and Stella are parallel characters. Although they come from greatly different socioeconomic backgrounds, they are both resourceful women and protective of Jeff. The two women act as Jeff's agents since he is trapped in his apartment. Stella reminds Lisa that life is not as antiseptic as the modeling world she lives in. This is seen when Stella talks of the blood Lars may be cleaning off of the bathtub wall. Lisa is taken aback but Stella reminds her that there is no nice way to describe murder.
The police detective Boynes is a flat character in "Murder" with his name changed to Doyle in the film. Although he has an expanded role in the film, he is a flat and static character. He serves the same presence in Rear Window as he does in "Murder", investigating Jeff's suspicions about Thorwald and erroneously concluding Jeff is wrong. In "Murder", Boyne fatally shoots Lars in self-defense but in the film, Lars is not shot.
Hitchcock keeps "Murder's" setting of a metropolitan city with Jeff living in an apartment in between his neighbors. Woolrich does not specify what city the story takes place in but we know from dialogue in the film that it is in New York, presumably New York City. The important thing is that the city setting is kept in order to explore the theme of people living close to one another but who do not act like good neighbors. This close proximity also makes it easy for Jeff to spy on his neighbors. "Murder" is told through the first person point of view. Hitchcock maintains this point of view in the film adaptation through his use of camera shots. A large number of the film's shots appear as if they are being shot through Jeff's window (hence the film's title). With Rear Window, Hitchcock could have used a variety of camera shots to provide multiple perspectives to the audience. For example, he could have shown Mrs. Thorwald's murder from inside the Thorwalds' apartment (the murder is not shown on-screen) or shot the scene where Lisa sneaks into Thorwald's apartment from Lisa's point of view. Hitchcock could have employed cross-cuts of Thorwald getting closer with shots of Lisa searching the apartment, building suspense. Instead Hitchcock maintains the point of view of Jeff looking out of his windows as Lisa conducts her search and Thorwald returns, then cuts to shots of Jeff and Stella's panicked faces.
"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.
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.