|Rear Window (Collector's Edition)|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 06 March 2001|
While Hitchcock fans and movie buffs in general often argue as to which is the best of the director's many films, few disagree that 'Rear Window' is, at least, in the top three. A sleek, elegant, funny and very suspenseful movie, it's also original, imaginative and perfectly realized. This DVD is the best way so far for a home video buff to own the film; it's likely to remain the best way for years to come. And the disc is laden with fascinating extras.
The movie was restored a few years ago by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, who appear on the included documentary; they explain why the movie needed to be restored, and give examples of before-and-after shots. The discussion is useful because to many, the differences between the unrestored and the restored 'Rear Window' are not as great as might be expected.
Even when it was new, 'Rear Window' was understated, even muted, in terms of color and design -- and it still is. Instead of vivid Technicolor hues, art directors J. McMillan Johnson and Hal Pereira, the great cinematographer Robert Burks and Hitchcock used a more realistic palette that emphasizes the very ordinariness of the setting.
For those who haven't seen it, 'Rear Window' is about Life magazine photographer L.B. "Jeff" Jefferies (James Stewart) sweating out a hot summer trapped in his small New York apartment by a broken leg that's almost healed. He spends his time watching his courtyard neighbors out the rear window of his apartment, even photographing their activities. He's always been a man of action, and he has to do something.
He's visited regularly by day-care nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), a witty, down-to-earth philosopher type (no one in movie history was better at these roles than Ritter) who amuses Jeff with her directness, honesty and sharp tongue. He's also frequently visited by Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), a model and fashion writer from a very upper-crust background. There's no doubt that Jeff is in love with Lisa, but he just can't see her traipsing around the world on the photographic assignments to out of the way places that he loves so much, which frustrates Lisa.
The screenplay by John Michael Hayes, one of Hitchcock's best collaborators, gradually shifts from basically a romantic comedy to a suspense thriller when Jeff begins to suspect that henpecked neighbor across the way, salesman Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), has murdered his wife, scattered her cut-up body about the city, and is about to skip town with a girlfriend.
Everyone, including Stella, Lisa and Jeff's war buddy Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey), now a cop, finds this highly unlikely. But we know Jeff's right. This is one of the very few weaknesses in this beautifully-constructed film: we never for an instant doubt that Jeff is right about what Thorwald has done.
'Rear Window' is one of Hitchcock's tiny group of "stunt" movies: virtually every shot is either within Jeff's apartment or out the window from the perspective of Jeff's apartment. Hitchcock considered 'Rear Window,' like 'Psycho,' an exercise in "pure cinema," but it's also obvious that he and Hayes worked very hard in adapting Cornell Woolrich's short story to the screen. Though on some levels, it may seem slight -- the romance is not as passionate as in 'Notorious' or 'Vertigo,' for example, and the suspense is confined primarily to the last third -- but it's one of Hitchcock's most creative movies.
What we see, including the murder, reflects what's going on in Stewart's apartment. He's (temporarily) an invalid, frustrating the woman who loves him; Thorwald's wife is an invalid, and frustrates him. With the possible exception of the dear little busybody of a sculptress (Jesslyn Fax), every one of those other windows relates in some way to love, its presence, its lack, its distortion, though there's no question that the movie comes down hard in favor of love, despite Robin Wood's morose pronouncements in the documentary.
Hitchcock was one of those smoothly professional artists whose skills were so finely honed that almost everything looks simple; he's to directing what Astaire was to dancing, or Sinatra to singing. He never seems to work at anything, and yet his movies are so intricately designed, so tightly put together that they can be -- and have been -- endlessly discussed and analyzed. But of course, that's not what made Hitchcock such an enormously popular director. He liked to say that while other directors' films might be slices of life, his were slices of cake -- confections. Which really means that they were a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
This disc includes two trailers, the original and the 1962 reissue (narrated by Stewart), production notes, and biographies. Of particular interest is an interview with screenwriter John Michael Hayes, who offers insights into Hitchcock's working methods. (For example, he insisted that the writer spend considerable time with Grace Kelly -- gee, what an onerous task -- to capture her personality in the script.) The documentary by Laurent Bouzereau isn't as good as those he did for the earlier Hitchcock DVDs from Universal; it covers the ground, but seems skimpier. It's a good job, but not a remarkable one, as the others were.
The sound in the film is masterful, as always with Hitchcock. Here, he uses relatively little original music (what there is, is by Franz Waxman), and instead relies upon source music, including the popular "That's Amore." The development of the film is paralleled by the development of the song being worked on by the neighboring songwriter; the movie ends with the song finished. The track on the DVD is, of course, mono, since the film wasn't shot in stereo.
Hitchcock is probably the best movie director ever, at least in regard to the kinds of movies he made. He was a thoroughly commercial filmmaker, drawn to stories both because he liked them for personal reasons, and because he thought the audience would like them, too. He rarely took on material that in itself was serious or timely; he made romantic thrillers, comedies and suspense films -- but he consistently made them better than anyone else ever has. This doesn't necessarily mean that he made the very best examples of each of those genres, but rather that no one else made so many of them, so well.
And 'Rear Window' is one of Hitchcock's best movies, a timeless, entertaining thriller with vivid characterizations, sharp lines and an unusual situation. It's wonderful to have it back again, particularly in the form of this attractive DVD, one of many Universal has released in their "Alfred Hitchcock collection."