‘Lisa, it’s perfect! As always!’
- Jeff (James Stewart) in Rear Window
That Hitchcock specifically meant Lisa to be a businesswoman, in addition to being a model, is evidenced by a 1974 deposition in which he testified in court that he patterned Lisa on Anita Colby (1914-1992).
- Elise Lemire(1)
The chain of little habits that were their lives unreeled themselves. They were all bound in them tighter than the tightest straightjacket ever devised, though they all thought themselves free.
- Cornell Woolrich, “It Had to be Murder”/“Rear Window”
SO WHAT’S WRONG WITH perfection?! Very little, although it’s worth remembering that SO WHAT’S WRONG WITH perfection?! Very little, although it’s worth remembering that Russia’s famous Bolshoi Ballet were considered so accomplished that when, one evening, one of the ballerinas momentarily mis-stepped, the whole audience cheered and applauded with delight. Jeff in Hitchcock’s film has become a bit like that audience: spoilt and a little bit cynical. But he is about to be taught a life-lesson. The plot of Rear Window may be traced back to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s cautionary tale, ‘Der Sandmann’ (1816)(2), the basis of the ballet Coppelia (1870) by Léo Delibes, in which the naïve youth Franz spies on a Dr Coppélius and narrowly avoids an untimely fate at his hands. Meanwhile, Franz’s girlfriend, Swanilda, has risked her own life to placate Coppélius and smooth a path towards her marriage to Franz.
Variants on, or complements to, the original Hoffmann tale will be found in the short story “Through a Window” (1894) by H.G. Wells – another favourite author of Alfred Hitchcock – and in the official source of Rear Window, Cornell Woolrich’s own short story “It Had To Be Murder” (1942), although neither contains the rich set of sub-plots detailing the lives of Jeff’s various neighbours that were invented for the film.(3) The neighbours were dreamt up by Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes. Each is given a little story of his/her own (e.g., the Composer, seen making slow progress on his composition – which, though, finally earns him love), somehow reflecting on Jeff’s relation with Lisa (Grace Kelly).
|Lisa (Grace Kelly), Jeff (James Stewart)|
‘Impotence’ and ‘Emptiness’
Jeff’s ordeal sees him confined to his apartment for several weeks, in a wheelchair because of a broken leg in a cast which mustn’t be jarred. Sadly, Lisa’s potentially seductive visits seem to remind him of his present ‘impotence’, although a turning-point occurs when she risks her life for his sake to gather evidence against the murderous Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) who lives in the opposite apartment, and whom Jeff quickly suspects of killing his wife. Note: when last seen, Thorwald’s wife was herself confined to bed, and given to nagging her husband for his extra-marital affairs. Implicit in such plot-construction involving overlapping characters is something not sufficiently noted of Hitchcock’s stories: their showing our ‘common humanity’, and even how ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I’! Hitchcock was a humanist.
In fact, he told François Truffaut that the film’s apartments show an assorted cross-section of people, and that the film ‘would have been very dull’ without it. All of the people live around an empty courtyard, which only somehow highlights their ‘liveliness’. Among them is the Sculptress, whose current piece of work has its own ‘emptiness’ in the middle, no doubt an allusion to the sculpture of Henry Moore (1898-1986), already internationally known by the time Rear Windowcame out. She calls it “Hunger”. That may be Hitchcock and Hayes’ little joke directed at those who always want an artwork to carry a literal meaning – and who, if they can’t find one, rank the work lower! (When Truffaut obligingly asked Hitchcock what was the deepest logic of his films, he simply said: ‘To put the audience through it!’)
|The sculptress with 'Hunger'|
Actually, emptiness was a device that Hitchcock used more than once. His masterly film a few years later, North by Northwest (1959), has a literally pivotal scene at Prairie Stop – which is surrounded by a vastness that nonetheless soon spells trouble for hero Roger Thornhill. Think, too, of the Gabriel Valley scene in Spellbound (1945), featuring a long sloping snowfield ending at a precipice which nearly proves to be the undoing of John Ballantyne and Constance Petersen when they ski down it. Woolrich’s “It Had to Be Murder”/“Rear Window” speaks of its cast-ridden hero ‘stewing in a vacuum of total idleness’, again suggesting that his condition is one that will attract trouble! Jeff in Hitchcock’s film picturesquely refers to ‘this swamp of boredom’.(4)
From the start, Rear Window shows itself to be a model of concise exposition and ‘pure cinema’. Its first four minutes or so, including the credits (behind which we see three window-blinds slowly rising, one after the other) tells us everything needful about the beginning of a new day in the apartment block. First off, we see the Paramount logo with its familiar mountain surrounded by a circle of stars – Hitchcock would have been pleased with this contrast to the urban setting of the film itself. On the soundtrack, by Franz Waxman, there’s an urgent, jazzy rhythm (all the better for not being your expected Hitchcock music perhaps). We hear a small metallic cymbal struck several times in rapid succession, presumably by a drumstick. However, this prelude quickly takes on board several other jazz instruments, including woodwinds. The three rising blinds suggest the presence of a mysterious, invisible ‘force’, an effect that Hitchcock clearly liked: think, too, of the credits sequence of North by Northwest with its surreal green background and encroaching lines that intersect, accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s musical ‘growl’ (this being an MGM film …), or of Marnie (1964) which begins with a sedate-enough set of credits except for a startling musical ‘cry in the night’, again of Herrmann’s doing. Next, slowly, the camera moves out the window to show the whole courtyard (or as much thereof as it can accommodate, short of employing a fisheye lens), then tilts down. Cut to a shot of a cat crossing one side of the courtyard; Hitchcock needed the moving cat to ‘motivate’ the cut downwards; in addition, the shot immediately affirms that animate life will be found here (and not just passing in a distant street). Soon we lose the cat and, with an upwards tilt, the camera begins to climb up one side of the courtyard, then back to the left.
Among several notable details, we see white doves perching on a low side roof. The camera continues to the left. Down a narrow side alley we glimpse the street. By now, the camera is swiveling to re-enter the apartment where we started. Next to the window is the sleeping figure of Jeff, and his face and brow are sweating heavily. This is another of Hitchcock’s impressive details – how did they get such realistic-looking perspiration?! It can’t have been easy.
Another cut follows logically – it shows the reason for Jeff’s sweating. A wall-thermometer states the temperature to be 94° Fahrenheit. The camera moves away, and we see that the angle has changed again: now we can see into the apartment adjoining Jeff’s where a man is shaving while listening to the radio. (All these early details are suggestive of morning activities.) A voice on the radio is asking, ‘Men, when you awake in the morning do you feel tired and rundown?’ Annoyed, the man moves to switch the station to one playing music. Hitchcock cleverly uses this moment to make a sound-cut (as well as a visual one) to a fire-escape balcony opposite, on which we can see a middle-aged man sleeping – but who, next moment, is awoken by his alarm clock ringing. Then we see that he is not alone. His wife raises her head, and she is sleeping alongside him, but in the opposite direction. (Could this symbolise Hitchcock’s cynical view of marriage?! Cf the newly-weds’ relationship later.)
The camera continues off them and now tilts down to the window of the photogenic Miss Torso. Barely decent, she does her limbering-up exercises as she prepares to boil some coffee. Again the camera moves on, briefly taking in the side alley – now children are to be heard and seen playing in the street – then back inside Jeff’s window, where he is still sleeping. (His face seems to have lost its sweat. Continuity error, or perhaps to avoid over-emphasis?) The camera continues on down Jeff’s sleeping form, showing it in a wheelchair (specified in the script as an Everest and Jennings), and his leg in a cast on which someone has written, ‘Here lie the bones of L.B. Jefferies’. (A suggestion of back-story, this. Who wrote that cheery inscription? …) But the omniscient camera has more to show us. It pulls back and pans left so that we see a smashed-up Speed Graphic camera (also specified in the script, with the comment, ‘the kind used by fast-action news photographers’), then up to photos on the wall (taken by Jeff, we infer), including one of a careening, up-ended racing car and a wheel hurtling towards the lens.
|Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy)|
‘And now we know everything!’
After offering brief glimpses of other ‘action’ photos (one of them of an atomic-bomb test – did Jeff cover that?), it moves downwards again and now we see an intact camera with its flash gun (we guess it’s the replacement camera) and, nearby, a framed negative-image of a smiling woman (very arty!).(5) Alongside it is a pile of what looks like ‘Life’ magazines. One of them features on its cover the same woman, but the image is positive. Fade to black. Fade-in to Jeff, sitting up and running an electric shaver over his stubble. Reader, it’s very tempting to summarise all of the above by saying, ‘And now we know everything!’
Notice how much work Hitchcock asks of viewers, no doubt because he understood that this draws us inside the film. It’s something he had always practiced. When Lisa turns on a trio of lamps to introduce herself and her three names (‘Lisa … Carol … Freemont’), one might recall the insouciant Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) in The Lady Vanishes (1938) slinging his belongings in quick succession over the bedposts of Iris (Margaret Lockwood) in a Ruritanian inn lacking vacant rooms. (Their relationship thus begins in a state of tension not dissimilar to the apparent impasse which Jeff and Lisa’s relationship has reached early in Rear Window.) The Lisa character appears to have three ‘sources’. The first is obviously Anita Colby. Elise Lemire (p. 71) quotes modelling expert Michael Gross who called Colby ‘the world’s first supermodel’. Lemire continues: ‘At the height of her modelling career, [Colby] appeared on fifteen magazine covers in one month.’ With Grace Kelly playing Lisa, Hitchcock would have known that he had a sure-fire winner! Second, John Michael Hayes told me - and others - that he based Lisa on his wife! More than once in the script there’s an almost gratuitous remark about Lisa to the effect, ‘She is a vision of loveliness!’
After she emerges from Jeff’s kitchen (it looks like) where she has donned the flimsy nightdress she brought with her in her Mark Cross case, the script notes breathlessly: ‘She is an ethereal beauty, in sheer pale peach night gown, covered by a gossamer matching kimono.’ (Lucky Jeff, but also lucky John Michael Hayes, I dare say!) And third, it seems likely that Lisa is modelled, to some extent, on Ingrid Bergman, reputedly one of photographer Robert Capa’s many ‘girlfriends’ – I recall reading that Hitchcock met Capa when Bergman introduced him on the set of Spellbound (1945). For a while, it seems that Capa had lady friends wherever his travels as a photographer took him. Interestingly, on Jeff’s wall hangs a decorative shield that might easily be interpreted as a female genital symbol, or trophy. Scholars have commented on it!(6)
|Stewart, Kelly ('in sheer pale peach night gown')|
Rear Window teems with marvelous things in all departments. The first of its marvels is the set and what it could ‘do’. Hitchcock even asked for ‘rainbirds’ to be installed above it so that when a summer shower descends in the early hours of the morning, he could control it like everything else. The white doves that seem quite at home here turn the set into a virtual aviary. The whole set feels lived-in. Equally, it is full of sensuous touches (including the summer shower) such as the many reminders of the heat. We see an iceman delivering a large block of ice for someone’s ice-box (in 1954 not everyone had refrigerators); the air itself seems to waft sounds across the courtyard, which has been stilled of undue activity by the heat. At the same time, the sounds really do seem to be arriving from a distance.(7) A woman singer and a siffleuse – possibly the same person – can clearly be heard practising scales or giving a professional clarion-like penetration to her whistling. (Note. The script identifies the siffleuse as the woman we had seen sleeping on the fire escape. Even when she whistles her little dog – which meets a sad end – the sound is impressively powerful. Hitchcock’s love of music halls and their variety acts may be felt paying off for him here and throughout.)
Multiple radios emit frequent musical ‘punctuation’ to the film’s story, enabling clever commentary or counterpoint for dramatic moments. Somehow the radios never seem to be turned on at the same time, though! So there is no jarring cacophony, only pleasing ‘effects’. At least one academic article is devoted to the Rear Window soundtrack. On the web, Roger Crane claims that he has detected 39 different songs or musical excerpts in Hitchcock’s film, many of them cleverly or wittily chosen. Example: a song, “Lady Killer”, directly contradicts the detective Doyle (Wendell Corey) when he asserts to Jeff and Lisa that nothing untoward has happened in Lars Thorwald’s apartment. If Lisa during the film provides us with a virtual fashion parade of her several outfits, the soundtrack constitutes a ‘hit parade’ of popular music of the 1950s. Example: the 1953 Dean Martin hit “That’s Amore”.
|Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr)|
However, it isn’t Jeff and Lisa’s theme tune exactly. Equally close to being that is, first, Nat King Cole singing “Mona Lisa” from 1950, and then, finally, the Composer’s own song on which he has being working throughout the film, called simply “Lisa” – and which with a triumphant flourish he reveals to an enthralled Miss Lonely Hearts that it’s now on disc. (We hear the words ‘Lisa … with your starry eyes’. Cf the lyrics of “Mona Lisa”: ‘Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa/ Or just a cold and lonely, lovely work of art?’ That certainly fits Jeff’s initial prejudice against his ‘too perfect’ Lisa!)
Jeff’s seeming prejudice against Lisa gives his nurse/masseuse Stella (Thelma Ritter) plenty of material to taunt him with. For example, we hear her ask: ‘Is what you want something you can discuss?’ (Being gay used to be considered not discussable in polite society! Jeff reacts to Stella’s question with shock!) Stella is the film’s comedian – and possibly its warmest character. She is all pro-marriage, telling Jeff: ‘When I married Myles, we were both maladjusted misfits. We are still maladjusted misfits. And we’ve loved every minute of it.’ (Note that Hitchcock has managed to acknowledge marriage as the ‘preferable’ way to go, while accommodating the fact that there are other ways! Working in the film industry from its silent days, he regularly found himself collaborating with gay men and women. He is even on record as saying, ‘If I hadn’t married Alma I might have gone gay!’)
|Stella (Thelma Ritter) and Jeff|
Hitchcock, then, was a master at not willingly alienating potential members of his audience. Again Stella is important here. John Michael Hayes was explicit to me that when a film begins – and particularly a Hitchcock film – many viewers bring with them a certain ‘hostility’, both to each other and to Hitchcock. They feel challenged, and instinctively reciprocate by saying in effect, ‘All right Hitch, show us. Do your stuff!’ That’s why, at the outset, Hayes gave Stella the gag-line about diarrhoea: ‘When [a director of] General Motors has to go to the bathroom ten times a day, the whole country’s ready to let go!’ (She claims that she was thereby able to predict the stock market crash in 1929!) Hayes fed Hitchcock’s ‘humanism’ – his sense of ‘our common humanity’ –as expertly as any screenwriter ever did. And few people come away from Rear Window without having succumbed to its charm. In other words, once you find yourself hooked, you won’t easily tear yourself away.
Hitchcock made what are totally integrated films. You feel yourself part of a special world, not unlike the everyday one except that Hitchcock’s omits the boring bits, and which has its own special logic. Call it the logic of suspense. For example, Hitchcock would have admired the climax of Wells’s “Through a Window” in which the ailing protagonist, surrounded by medicine bottles, uses them as weapons against his attacker. Similarly, but even better, the ingenious Hitchcock has Jeff use one of his principal tools of trade, his flashgun, to baffle Thorwald just long enough to defeat his designs on Jeff’s life, and to summon help. (Even then, it’s a near thing!) An additional satisfaction: the triumph of brains over brawn …
Woolrich’s determinism is surely trumped by Hitchcock’s humanism. So is Rear Windowa profound film? I would say ‘yes’ – provided that you don’t ask for a literary kind of profundity, one of themes and ‘deep’ characterisations. No single character or story in Rear Window offers that, exactly. Rather, I suggest that its profundity is of a ‘virtuoso’ kind, as much of skills and dexterity as of wise thoughts! With plentiful Hitchcockian wit in evidence, of course, from the screenplay by the invaluable John Michael Hayes.
1. Lemire’s excellent essay, “Voyeurism and the Postwar Crisis of Maculinity in Rear Window”, may be found in John Belton (ed.), Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (2000).
2. Hitchcock’s personal library contained Hoffman’s complete works - in both German and English, I think.
3. Woolrich’s and Wells’s stories are sufficiently alike to suggest that Woolrich may have plagiarised from Wells!
4. John Bunyan’s morality tale Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) led the way with its ‘slough of despond’ …
5. If Robert Capa was in the filmmakers’ minds as a model for the Jeff character – see text – it should be remembered that he was both war photographer and portraitist.
6. I think, too, of film director David Lean who reputedly had a girl in every major port, from Ireland to India and even New Zealand where he nearly made a version of Mutiny on the Bounty.
7. Similarly, in Psycho (1960), the voice of ‘Mother’ berating Norman comes wafting from the house up the hill and is heard by a startled Marion. The rain that was falling when Marion first arrived has passed, and so the air is now clean and fresh, and the sound is exceptionally clear (an observant touch by Hitchcock). Also, the fact that Rear Window takes place during a heat wave is explanation enough for why so many of the apartment dwellers have their windows open - and serves as a suitable metaphor for the tensions that surface during the film. (Cf Ted Tatzlaff’s The Window, 1949.)
Ken Mogg has published widely on Hitchcock; his The Alfred Hitchcock Story(1999, revised 2008) covers every film 'in loving detail' (Bill Krohn, Cahiers du Cinéma). His recent writing includes a chapter on Topaz and (the script of) The Short Night in Hitchcock and the Cold War (Pace University Press, 2018), a chapter on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in Children, Youth, and American Television (Routledge, 2018), a chapter on "Hitchcock's Literary Influences" for A Companion to Alfred Hitchcock(Wiley Blackwell 2011, pb 2014), and an essay on "The Cutting Room" in 39 Steps to the Genius of Alfred Hitchcock (BFI, 2012). Ken has also written "Psycho Considerations" (2020), on the hitchcockmaster website if you click here.
Ken Mogg's email address is email@example.com.