Turner Classic Movies is screening the digitally remastered version of Sir Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) at Fathom Events-sponsored movie theaters nationwide, Sunday, March 22, and Wednesday, March 25. TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz will introduce the two o’clock and seven o’clock showings of the film.
You might know Rear Window better as the Shia LaBeouf rip-off, D.J. Caruso’s Disturbia (2007). In 1942, Cornell Woolrich wrote the short story “It Had to Be Murder,” the basis for Rear Window, and died in 1968. His executor, Chase Manhattan Bank, sold the intellectual property to literary agent Sheldon Abend, and Abend’s trust sued DreamWorks Pictures when they released Disturbia without obtaining the rights, but the United States District Court dismissed the lawsuit, citing that Disturbia is just different enough from its source material that it doesn’t infringe upon anything.
Not that Shia LaBeouf is averse to ripping other people off. In 2013, he was caught plagiarizing writers Benoît Duteurtre and Charles Bukowski in his graphic novels, Stale N Mate and Let’s Fucking Party.
Between Disturbia and Jeff Bleckner’s 1998 remake starring Christopher Reeve (after he became a quadriplegic), Daryl Hannah, and Robert Forster, Hitchcock’s Rear Window is the only Rear Window worth talking about. It easily ranks among the director’s top three films, alongside Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960). It has a “hundred percent” critical rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, and it’s number forty-eight on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years… 100 Movies – 10th Anniversary Edition” list.
The film has certainly been influential. With its tale of a voyeur who may or may not witness a murder, it was a precursor to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) as well as Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981) and Body Double (1984). Jimmy Stewart stars as L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries, a restless, wheelchair-bound photographer who spies on his neighbors through his apartment window.
Hitchcock loved taking advantage of Stewart’s decidedly darker postwar persona. One of the greatest actors who ever lived, Stewart was typecast as the wholesome everyman in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) (fun fact: 1939 is considered the peak artistic year in Hollywood history, and 1946 was the industry’s most profitable; what a time to be alive). As a World War II fighter pilot, he was forced to kill people overseas (and risk getting killed himself), and the trauma of that experience is readily apparent in his portrayal of an obsessive, controlling pervert in Hitch’s Vertigo, and even in Rear Window – although Jeff was nominated as a hero for AFI’s “100 Years… 100 Heroes and Villains” list, it’s obviously problematic that he had to become a “peeping Tom” to see Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) murdering his wife.
Rear Window also gives insight into Hitchcock’s personality. The Master of Suspense’s muse, Princess Grace Kelly, is cast as Lisa Carol Fremont (Jeff’s socialite love interest), and Jeff’s voyeurism taps into Hitchcock’s prized theme of “normal” people getting in touch with their darker sides. John Belton, a professor of English at Rutgers University, argues that the film’s appeal lies in its celebration of pure spectacle, the thrill of looking and being looked at.
I agree with Belton, and also with the late, great film critic Roger Ebert, who wrote that Jeff’s role as the protagonist encourages us to invest ourselves in his actions, and, thus, share in his guilt when it comes time for him to pay the price. Indeed, the cinematography is full of P.O.V. shots, filtered through Jeff’s binoculars and telephoto lens. Whatever the reason, the climax of Rear Window is edge-of-your-seat, breathless, can’t-look-away suspense; Lars Thorwald doesn’t have to be a serial killer like David Morse’s antagonist in Disturbia – the body count may be lower, but the tension is much, much higher.
Rear Window is as much a technical achievement as it is a narrative one. The apartment complex was actually a set built on a soundstage, the largest indoor set in Paramount Studios at the time – some of the apartments were fully furnished with electricity and running water, and could be lived in. I’m most excited for the digital remastering; Hitchcock’s works have greatly benefitted from digitization, such as Vertigo, which is as breathtaking to look at with its colorful imagery of San Francisco as it is exhilarating to watch.
The only thing that could make Rear Window more unforgettable than it already is, is to see it up there on the big screen. I think of it every time I walk around my apartment with the blinds open, and I’m sure my neighbors wonder about me as much as I wonder about them. Hitchcock’s best characters are the ones who are no less flawed than their murderous counterparts, just in a different way.
Perhaps the most disturbing (and effective) thing of all about his pictures is how strongly the “average” viewer identifies with these so-called “heroes.”
Keep an eye out for Hitchcock’s obligatory cameo appearance, winding a clock in the songwriter’s apartment.