Rear Window (1954/2000)

by Michael Ward

Rear Window's theatrical rerelease is, among other things, a showcase for mainstream moviedom's emergent special effects technologies.

Coloring the Invisible

[Johnny Strange, a World War II veteran,] went to a lousy war movie. In it some green Navy kid, stranded in Bataan, kept letting the spoons fly off of hand grenades and counting to three before he threw them, usually just across a coconut log where evil-looking Japanese were shooting point-blank at him. It was so outrageous that finally about halfway through he had to leave. As he walked up the aisle he looked at the faces of the people bathed in the flickering light from the screen as they chewed handfuls of popcorn and watched the fighting with avid eyes, and for a brief insane moment he wished he had two or three grenades with him, to toss in among them. And see how they liked it.
—James Jones, Whistle

Blacker Blacks and Whiter Whites

cover art

Rear Window

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr

(Universal Pictures)

If the third millennium hasn’t turned out the way you’d hoped and you’d rather go back to the second, you’re in luck. The days when theatrical re-releases were commonplace seemed to be gone for a while there, done in by the advent of home video, but now several major Hollywood studios—not generally known for their habit of getting retro—have seized upon the new year as an opportunity to remind us of the past. On the last day of 2000, Warner Brothers plans to trip us all out by putting 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) back in theaters, just in time for it to inaugurate the year in which it was set, and Paramount and Universal Studios have also joined in, dusting off Rear Window (1954) for the big screen. This is happening about ten months sooner than the 2001 event. In fact, Rear Window‘s it’s been out for a few weeks in New York and Los Angeles’s fancier theaters, and as of mid-February, it will grace fancier theaters around the country.

Rear Window‘s theatrical rerelease is, among other things, a showcase for mainstream moviedom’s emergent special effects technologies. Universal is trotting out Rear Window to show off a dye process, originally experimented with in the 1970s, for restoring colors to film negatives that have faded with age. Once prohibitively expensive and imperfect, this process has been revamped and was recently used on Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Frank Ricotta, one of Technicolor’s vice-presidents, says that it has provided Rear Window with “blacker blacks” and “whiter whites” than the movie has ever had before—even when it was first released.

In the frenzy to improve upon originals, no one seems to have bothered to ask whether Rear Window‘s blacks and whites were already black and white enough back in 1954. The way in which 2001 has been improved upon is yet to be revealed, but I wake up in a cold sweat some nights, having had my usual recurring nightmare of a 2001: Special Edition in which the monolith has a computer-generated halo around it, courtesy of Industrial Light and Magic, and HAL has been re-engineered to be cute and plucky, like C3P0 or the freakish child robot from the 80s TV series Small Wonder. These days, it seems even Hollywood realizes that it’s no use trying to preserve the past.

Although touch-ups often irritate the hardcore cinema traditionalists among us (these would be the same people who handcuffed themselves randomly to Tinseltown landmarks every time Ted Turner colorized one of his Golden Oldies), maybe people aren’t questioning Technicolor’s project because it really isn’t possible to resurrect the Rear Window of 1954. Frank Ricotta—at least implicitly—admits as much when he claims that the new Rear Window has a wider color spectrum than the original. One has to wonder where all these exciting new colors came from. It’s not like Hitchcock’s set exists somewhere on an abandoned Paramount lot, waiting for someone to come along and refilm it with better cameras.

No, it’s much more likely that the people at Universal and Technicolor made their new colors up as they went along. This is why Vice President Ricotta doesn’t even pretend that Universal ever intended to “restore” the film to its “original” form. Should you come away from this new Rear Window with the impression that Lars Thorwald has a tan you don’t remember seeing in the unrestored version, for instance, it’s possible that this is a deliberate intervention on the part of the people who have restored the film. Such a theory would be tricky to confirm, though, since nobody ever bothered to quantify Raymond Burr’s hue and saturation in writing back when Rear Window was in production. Without such data, and having a negative of Rear Window that the Los Angeles Times says looks like it might have once been used to line a birdcage, the technicians at Technicolor are left to depend upon their best guesses, and we are left to guess what has been truly restored, and what Universal might have substituted for palette information that simply does not exist anymore.

Dusk in Rear Window‘s artificial universe seems far more richly copper than any of the sunsets I’ve ever seen in my daily life. But it’s hard to say whether its exaggerated tones are a result of Hitchcock’s efforts to recreate an exterior courtyard on an interior soundstage, or whether they’re the doing of the restorers, overcompensating for the dull, washed-out sunset in the film’s negative. In any case maybe it doesn’t matter so much. Hitchcock’s sunset is certainly brighter than it would be in an apartment building on Ninth Street in Manhattan. Even as it investigates the way in which images are reordered by the cameras that take them, reimagined by the eyes that look on them, Rear Window has always had the Technicolor gloss of a magazine, the amplified brightness of a still life.

Lies About the Good Old Days, During the War

Arguably the most popular way of understanding Lisa’s (Grace Kelly) and Jeff’s (Jimmy Stewart) fascination with the macabre in Rear Window is as a sort of stand-in for the moviegoer’s voyeuristic infatuation with violence. There’s something to be said for this idea. Homebound with a pair of binoculars and an enormous telephoto lens (which Stella [Thelma Ritter] refers to as a “portable keyhole”), Jeff looks all the time; it’s his primary preoccupation. After a brief period of resistance in which she describes as “diseased” Jeff’s compulsive, morbid theorizing about Anna Thorwald’s (Irene Winston) fate, Lisa becomes an inveterate looker, too. Jeff’s apartment even resembles a movie house, with a panoramic window that mimics a theater screen and reveals such a wide vista of activity that the eye (Jeff’s, or ours) must track around to take it all in.

After Detective Doyle (Wendell Corey) scolds Jeff for looking in on people’s private lives, adding that “Lars Thorwald is no more a murderer than I am” before leaving the apartment in a huff, Lisa and Jeff brood over what they’ve done. “You’d think we could be a little bit happy that the poor woman is alive and well,” says Lisa, and pulls the blinds down over the window for the first time in the film. “Show’s over for tonight.” Perhaps in 1954 the audience could feel some of Lisa and Jeff’s shame over their secret wish to learn that Anna Thorwald has died, thus vindicating their theories about her murder. But in the Year 2000, the alignment between Jeff’s apartment and a movie theater doesn’t quite wash anymore. After all, the blinds clearly stand in for curtains, and how long has it been since you’ve seen a movie screen hidden by a curtain? Suddenly it’s as though you’re not seeing yourself in the way that Lisa and Jeff look; you’re seeing a long-gone moviegoer, evoked in the simulation of a long-outdated apparatus.

Restoring Rear Window entails not only the impossible task of retrieving the color spectrum of the movie’s original negative, but also exhibiting it in the sort of theater Hitchcock had in mind when he first put the movie together. This is doubly impossible, although when the curtain falls on Lisa and Jeff’s voyeuristic gaze, it’s a dim reminder of how much things have changed. Rear Window opens to a disembodied shot of the window in question, blinds lowered. They gradually rise as the credits unfold, finally freeing the camera to drift around the courtyard. One can only theorize about the alignment this sets up with the curtains that have just floated back from the movie screen in our hypothetical theater of the mid-1950s. The experience of watching the theater and the movie work in concert this way isn’t available to us anymore.

The newly restored film plugs doggedly away at its cinematic metaphor regardless. Just as the movie is affected by the variety of perspectives that an audience brings to it, so too are the narratives within the movie rewritten based on who happens to be witnessing them. Lisa, a fashion expert who always knows how to dress for an occasion, uses what the movie calls “feminine intuition” to deduce Anna’s murder from her husband’s cover story that she has left for the country without her alligator handbag. Being a nurse, Stella is the one to spot an impending drug overdose from a couple hundred feet away. And Jeff, with his background in wartime airborne reconnaissance and as a photojournalist with a taste for the violent and spectacular, is uniquely qualified to distill the telltale signs of murder from the seemingly innocent comings-and-goings of one Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr). Stella is an avid reader of mystery novels so she can theorize about how Lars might have disposed of the evidence. But it takes Jeff, a war veteran, to ask Rear Window‘s big, seriously fucked-up question: “Just how would you start to cut up a human body?”

Not much is made of Jeff’s participation in one seriously fucked-up war, in which many bodies were terribly injured or worse. But the movie seems to want you to notice he was there, repeatedly blocking Grace Kelly in front of a framed photo of a younger Jeff and Tom Doyle—who pose with what appears to be a reconnaissance plane—and giving Doyle lots of chances to refer to his and Jeff’s wartime tour. “How did we ever stand each other in that plane for three years?” he asks Jeff.

This comes right after Doyle stands at Jeff’s mantle and casually glances over the apartment’s sole color picture: a cheerful, if unremarkable, still life. He favors the still life, even though black-and-white wartime photos, which fill the apartment, would serve better to jog his memory and help him answer the question he’s about to ask. It’s a scene that begs to be blocked in front of the picture of Jeff and Doyle together at the airfield, but at no time do the characters ever look at this photo or remark on it. He may be a homicide detective, but Doyle is suddenly uninterested in uncovering violence once his mind drifts to the war. As he gazes at the happy still life, he absently reminds Jeff about the constitution to explain why he can’t search Lars’s apartment. This is in the middle of Lars’s prolonged effort to erase signs of his murder. His flat “must be knee-deep in evidence,” Jeff argues; had Doyle chosen to go ahead and violate Lars’s civil rights, he would have walked into a chamber of horrors.

His refusal to see the evidence first-hand leaves Lisa and Jeff to try and explain what they have witnessed to make them think a murder has taken place. When their enumeration of the evidence against Thorwald starts to bend Doyle’s ear, he changes the subject by suggesting that they trade “lies about the good old days, during the war.” What could exorcize the subject of murder from a conversation quicker than lies about one of the most murderous armed conflicts in history?

By this point, Lisa and Jeff are so infatuated with their own theories about Thorwald’s murder that they keep on about it, despite Doyle’s parry to the conversation’s thrust. Doyle, though, can bide his time, because he knows the truth: everything is about the war. It is the foundation of Rear Window‘s fictional world, having brought Jeff success in his career, and, ultimately, having left him homebound with a broken leg and a seasoned eye for the grotesque. And this truth comes out when Jeff, haranguing Doyle to sneak into Thorwald’s apartment without a search warrant, scolds him not to be so careful. “If I had been careful piloting that reconnaissance plane during the war,” Doyle retorts, “You wouldn’t have had the chance to take the pictures that won you a medal and a good job, and fame and money.”

The war, memories and images of the war’s violence, are a silent presence looming over Rear Window. Mentioned in passing but never really discussed even in lies, the war nevertheless creates the events we see and orders Jeff’s imagination so that he is able to discern, from the quotidian kaleidoscope beyond his apartment window, Thorwald’s subtle signatures of cover up and murder.

A Tour of the East River

Thorwald’s crime looms over the movie too, of course, even in the scenes seemingly unrelated to him: scenes constructing a wrangle of urban life that unwinds cyclically in the various homesteads that Jeff can see. Exquisitely crafted, with an ambient soundtrack that drifts smoothly in and out of the diegesis, these scenes are rightly praised as a pinnacle of Hitchcock’s artistry. And yet they also do simpler, but still necessary, work: fulfilling the genre prerequisite that a mystery should have dead-ends and distractions to make it tougher for the audience to figure out the crime.

Rear Window‘s mysterious crime is this: Lars Thorwald administers a sharp, blunt shock to his wife, killing or immobilizing her. If she is not dead already, he snuffs her out while she is unconscious. He then drags her corpse to the bathroom and laboriously dismembers it with a saw. He buries at least one of the corpse’s hacked-off limbs in a courtyard flower garden, but when a dog sniffs at the ground over it, he gets scared and exhumes it. Some other parts of Anna’s body find their way into the East River.

None of this is shown, of course, which ? given the audience’s alignment with Lisa and Jeff—is tantamount to saying that neither of them has seen a crime take place. That their theories are deduced entirely from circumstantial evidence proves to be a problem for them when they try to convince Doyle that a murder has really taken place. The murder’s invisibility is coarsely attributable to another unrestorable aspect of the culture surrounding Rear Window‘s composition and release: a pre-MPAA prohibition on showing bodies being dismembered or violently penetrated. Six years later, in Psycho, Hitchcock would explicitly stage the butchery that, in Rear Window, occurs wholly offscreen. Still, the specific event that takes Marion Crane’s life—the blade going in ? occurs only in the audience’s mind.

Had Lisa and Jeff been able to supply Doyle with an eyewitness account of Lars’s murder, this would have been enough to merit Doyle’s search warrant and Rear Window would have ended much sooner than it does. Since what Jeff and Lisa see is more or less what the audience sees, though, for them to witness the event would mean that we would witness it along with them. And in 1954, as in 1960, it was simply too frightful to show the infliction of wounds that cause death. The movie revolves around Jeff and Lisa’s struggle to convince Doyle of an unseen murder, so it is largely about the prohibition against the frank simulation of violence, just as Psycho‘s shower scene is largely about not seeing the knife go in.

Because the murder in Rear Window is conveyed solely through Jeff and Lisa’s speculative testimony and through the outwardly innocuous actions Lars takes to cover up his crimes, the movie is free to be much more brutal than Psycho in the sort of murder that it narrates. In the latter film, Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh) lifeless body remains intact; the less fortunate Anna is not only murdered but torn apart.

Earlier on, Stella supposes that Lars has disposed of Anna piecemeal, “scattered” her all over New York City. That seems to be just what he has done, sometime in the process of dispersing her personal effects in crates that Jeff and Lisa believe to contain parts of her body. When Lars confesses (as most Hitchcock villains—with their deeply submerged sense of right and wrong—eventually do), he promises to take Doyle on a “tour of the East River,” where one presumes that Anna will be put back together, as least as well as a forensics team can manage. There follows a bit of falling action in which Jeff, having now had both legs broken, looks forward to another seven weeks of purgatory, and Lisa, thrilled in her new life as an amateur crime reporter, still finds that her love for the fashion magazine Bazaar can’t be denied. The movie ends by showing Lisa curled up with her shiny copy of Bazaar, while the songwriter croons her name on the suddenly no-longer-ambient soundtrack.

Once the blinds that were raised in the beginning are lowered again, the movie’s tidy closure seems absolute. But when the lights go up, you could conceivably be imagining another scene the movie doesn’t show, in which Lars—still not knowing what anyone wants from him, a little insane and sick with a rage so seething that the movie never goes near it—guides Doyle to the remaining portions of his dead wife. Around this time Doyle would set about to solve the mystery of what has made Lars the way he is, since the more important puzzle—how to go about reassembling Anna from a pile of floppy or decomposing limbs—isn’t ever going to get solved.

If you’d watched the movie in 1954, then, as you stepped back out into the sunlight, you may have thought briefly about the news you’d heard, mostly on the radio, about the bodies coming back in pieces from the war in Korea. That conflict had only ended the year before. The radio didn’t mention the state of those bodies, and the emergent technology of television certainly didn’t show them, the way it would later, in Vietnam. That wouldn’t matter, though, if you were one of America’s ten million-plus World War II and Korean War veterans, because you’d probably have a pretty vivid picture of just what the radio was talking about. You’d seen GIs bracketed by mortars or incinerated by German 88s, conscripts ripped apart by American firebombs or offshore Naval shells, Japanese civilians in the wake of the atomic bomb. You’d seen these things even if, now, you never discussed them.

One wonders whether Universal, in the process of restoring the cheerful brightness of Doyle’s favorite still life and the shiny gloss of Lisa’s magazine, will find a way to cast these recollections into clearer relief, too.

Rear Window


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