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Building My Movie Posters Puzzle: Rear Window

In late June of last year I took advantage of some free days to visit my Mother in Virginia for her birthday. It was a fun long weekend that included meals out, a screening of Finding Dory, and an unexpected shared activity when I ran across a puzzle in the book store that was just too good to pass up. It consists of thirty-nine posters from a wide variety of classic films stretching from the silent era of the 1920s into the 1970s. It was an engrossing project to undertake alongside my Mother and we naturally discussed several of the featured movies as we built it. What stunned me a little was that I had actually only seen twenty-six of the thirty-nine films honored. I have vowed to fill these gaps in my knowledge of film and take you along for the ride as I reconstruct the puzzle in question. I’ll re-watch the movies I’ve already seen along with experiencing the ones that are new to me and share my thoughts on each one.

I want to mention two things before we proceed beyond the break to a discussion of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 suspense film Rear Window. First of all, I should let you know that discussion will necessarily include some spoilers for the movie, so if you haven’t seen it I would recommend that you go rectify that situation (it’s available for rent through iTunes) and then come back to read the rest of this article. It’s an immensely engaging and electrifying movie that any film buff should have under his or her belt.

Secondly, I have to say that the version of the poster for Rear Window included in the puzzle which is the inspiration for this entire series is pretty far from my favorite.

Below, you’ll see just three examples of superior posters for the film in question. the first two from the left might appear on first glance to be two versions of the same concept with the second simply presented in the landscape format more prevalent in Great Britain. Look closer, however, and you’ll see that instead of the figures of the neighbors being watched appearing in the windows of the brick building, this second poster actually shows us our leads as if they are the ones being watched. I think this is a pretty interesting rearrangement for the purposes of the poster, but agree that it might be more compelling to people who have already seen the movie than those who are deciding whether or not they want to see it.

The poster on the far right was used for the movie’s 2000 re-release, with the proclamation “Back in theaters after 15 years.” This seems like an odd claim to make, since the most recent previous re-release of Rear Window at the time had happened in 1983. Would a gap of 17 years have been less punchy from a marketing standpoint? Ah well…the larger point here is that I sure wish the people conceiving my puzzle had chosen a better version. But let’s talk about the film itself, shall we?

The short story which would eventually become one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best-loved and most honored films was originally titled “It Had to be Murder” and was written by Cornell Woolrich. It appears to have been inspired in part by a pair of notorious crimes in Britain in which men murdered and dismembered the women they were attached to. The more famous of these crimes was that of Hawley Crippen, an American doctor living in London who was eventually convicted of murdering his wife when remains of her skin and pajamas were found buried in his cellar.

In Hitchcock’s film, the audience is placed in an apartment across from and behind the one where the murder in question is supposed to have occurred. Our primary fellow witness is professional photographer L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart), known to his friends as “Jeff.” He is confined to a wheelchair and is at least a week away from having a cast removed which covers his entire left leg and hip and extends all the way up to his waist. Jeff has been stuck in his apartment like this for six weeks already, with only visits from a home care nurse (Thelma Ritter), his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), and the view from his windows as true connection to the outside world.

The opening shot takes us visually to Jeff’s own rear window and then provides a full scan of the contents of his back yard and the apartments within his sight. Interestingly, this is executed with a very mildly jerky and uncertain pan. The sort an inexperienced photographer might perform. I’m pretty sure this is intentional and meant to put the layperson who is viewing the film in the place of someone who is actually there before returning to the more expert camera work by William Schurr.

Jeff’s back door neighbors include a shapely young dancer, a terminally single woman, a newlywed couple, a toiling songwriter, a couple sleeping on their fire escape, and a few more. Directly across from him is the apartment of a middle-aged couple in what appears to be a contentious marriage. It is this couple which becomes the target of Jeff’s suspicions when the wife goes missing and the husband played by Raymond Burr begins behaving strangely.

Burr had been working steadily as an actor for eight years by the release of the film, but had yet to record his most memorable performances in Perry Mason, Ironsides, or the original American version of Godzilla. Hitchcock asked the thirty-seven year old actor to play the murderous neighbor using a costume and mannerisms (including holding a phone in the crook of his neck as shown above) which called to mind those of famous producer David O. Selznick. Hitchcock apparently harbored a grudge against the producer, who he said in an interview had interfered with his film Rebecca to a degree he never experienced elsewhere. One suggestion Selznick made included the smoke from the final fire forming a huge “R” in the sky for “Rebecca.” Hitchcock believed this would have been met with laughter from the audience at an inappropriate time (another conflict was Selznick’s objection to the inclusion of any humor in the script). In the end, Selznick took home an Oscar as producer of Rebecca and Hitchcock took his revenge by modeling a murderer after him.

Raymond Burr’s performance is remarkable in its economy and impact, presenting us with a man who has committed a brutal murder, but somehow retains a trace of our sympathy. Lars isn’t a criminal mastermind or a smirking villain, but a man who clearly never expected himself to be in this situation. Burr communicates this mostly through the slumped and rumpled physicality of his performance. Succeeding despite having almost no lines of dialogue at all.

Rear Window is, without a doubt, primarily a suspense film based on claustrophobia and paranoia. These elements are part of what continues to make the movie compelling for a wide audience more than sixty years after its initial release date, but the film’s central theme is the divide between the voyeurism of modern society and personal satisfaction. The movie appears to have an opinion on the topic based on how it presents its characters, but the fact that Jeff’s snooping ends up resulting in the capture of a brutal killer can be offered up as a counterpoint. Even as the other characters in the film pester him to leave private things private, it is only through invasions that justice is done. Viewed in that light, this is the kind of movie that could start a long contentious conversation if you showed it to a wide variety of people and put its questions to them. With the expansion of the internet and the availability of instant information sharing through increasingly advanced portable technology, voyeurism no longer seems like such a vice, but more like the status quo. Kind of makes me wonder what this same story set in the modern day would look like.

Like much of Hitchcock’s output, Rear Window possesses an effortless elegance in its storytelling that is both populist and artful. He has patience that many filmmakers don’t, but is also rarely showing us something we don’t need to see or telling us something we don’t need to hear. Despite his tendency to prescribe things for his actors and penchant for indelicacy at times at their expense, many of them were still devoted to his vision and results.

The film’s female lead Grace Kelly apparently had a choice between playing opposite Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront and working with Hitchcock again on Rear Window. That’s a toss-up in terms of the quality of the final product. On the Waterfront was the runaway winner at the Oscars that year, but as it turns out, while Eva Marie Saint also won Supporting Actress, Kelly took home Best Actress for a different project, The Country Girl. Either way, it seems to me that each actress ended up in the role that suited her best. The Waterfront role is that of a brittle and immature working class girl. Hardly what you’d think of in connection with the glamorous Kelly.

She did, however, have a little bit of a reputation for having affairs with her co-stars. This reputation might not have been deserved, but it was widespread enough that Jimmy Stewart’s wife wasn’t keen on him working with her. On set witnesses didn’t suggest that anything ever happened between Kelly and Stewart, but did confirm that the future princess of Monaco was quite a flirt. For his part, Stewart was reportedly flattered and appreciative, but remained friendly and professional. Perhaps the fact that his wife was so often on set helped. Kelly certainly wore legendary costume designer Edith Head’s creations about as well as anyone ever did.

While I’m absolutely giving Rear Window the highest of recommendations, that doesn’t mean it is devoid of some faults. Some of these are due to when it was made. One particular voice performance sticks out like a sore thumb to a modern ear. It doesn’t last long, but it sure is cringe-inducing. Other era-specific moments aren’t necessarily faults, but still seem odd to a 21st century viewer. Did people in New York City in the fifties really leave their windows and doors open and unlocked so much? Lars walks right into Jeff’s apartment at the end of the movie. Hitchcock’s tampering with film speed a couple of times over the course of the movie is maybe a little more obvious to the more savvy filmgoer nowadays than it might have been in 1954.

The grisly nature of the killing is dodged in part due to the movie’s need to keep us guessing over how reasonable Jeff’s suspicions are, but I doubt much of it could have been shown anyway. In this particular situation, the limitations of what they could show actually works in the film’s long term favor. Nobody really wants to see what’s inside that hatbox.

Rear Window, while not quite as iconic as something like Psycho, Vertigo, or North By Northwest, still holds a significant place in pop culture history. You usually don’t get spoofed in The Simpsons unless they think plenty of people will get the joke.

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Posted on July 15, 2017, in Movies, reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Great series, and the puzzle’s poster isn’t my favorite either; I like the one in the middle the best (I think Daffy gives a good explanation on why it’s effective). A similar film to “Rear Window” that I also enjoy is the great Barbara Stanwyck in 1954’s “Witness to Murder”.

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  2. It’s nice to see this series return, and featuring one of my favorite movies, too. Grace Kelly was never more alluring in film than in this one, and Thelma Ritter turned in one of her terrific supporting performances. I love this exchange between her character and Stewart as Jeffries:

    Jeff: You know, I think you’re right. I think there is going to be trouble around here.
    Stella: …What kind of trouble?
    Jeff: Lisa Fremont.
    Stella: Are you kidding? She’s a beautiful young girl and you’re a reasonably healthy young man.
    Jeff: She expects me to marry her.
    Stella: That’s normal.
    Jeff: I don’t want to.
    Stella: That’s abnormal.
    Jeff: I’m just not ready for marriage.
    Stella: Every man’s ready for marriage when the right girl comes along. And Lisa Fremont is the right girl for any man with half a brain who can get one eye open.

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