Review by C.J. Bunce
One of the first classic movies restored using a state of the art Technicolor dye-transfer process, the restoration of Alfred Hitchcock’s most stylish and suspenseful film, Rear Window, provided 1990s audiences a presentation of the film better than it was originally seen upon its initial release in 1954. That version was back on the big screen this week, thanks to Turner Classic Movies and the Fathom Events series. Inspired by a Cornell Woolrich short story about voyeurism and murder, Hitch’s classic piece of cinema still holds up, keeping a 2015 audience completely engaged with his unique use of humor juxtaposed with some pretty grisly circumstances.
Anchored by top performances from Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly, and just as superb supporting performances by Thelma Ritter and Wendell Corey, Rear Window is as atmospheric as any film of its decade. Hitchcock filmed primarily in the muted brown tones of a sweltering urban summer, but he used targeted deep reds to highlight key imagery: the mercury of a wall thermometer, a bright and significant bed of flowers, a perfect lobster dinner, crisp uneaten bacon, and a certain fashionable socialite’s lipstick in her opening scene. And yet, unlike Hitchcock’s The Birds or Psycho, the red of blood–and any gore at all–is kept off-stage. He didn’t need it. The suspense builds for two hours and even after 60 years, the payoff–and especially what we can’t see–is still able to transfix audiences with nail-biting action.
Highly memorable is the music–a soaring clarinet rises up above Franz Waxman’s jazz score from the film’s first scene, reflecting the liveliness of the block, the active and important parts of all the lives visible from the rear window of Stewart’s L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries, a war photographer laid up with a broken leg. Waxman’s stylish music propels the story forward despite Jeff’s claustrophobic, trapped circumstance. Love themes, like Bing Crosby’s “To See You is to Love You” and “Many Dreams Ago” reflect the seemingly hopeless plight of Miss Lonelyhearts–a single woman longing to find love who is attacked and then plans to commit suicide. Waxman’s own song “Lisa” takes on its own life, composed over the course of the film by a piano player across the courtyard, to get noticed by Miss Lonelyhearts, and be picked up as the love theme for Jeff and Grace Kelly’s character, Jeff’s girlfriend Lisa Fremont. And to relieve the tension at story’s end, a rousing accordion plays “That’s Amore” to the curtain.
Be warned: The relationship of the leads, Jeff and Lisa, will have you ripping at your seat by film’s end. For most of the film Jeff is a jerk. How could anyone so rudely reject Grace Kelly’s advances? Lisa throws herself at Jeff, but he thinks she is too perfect and… well, forget about the real villain: Hitchcock manages to make us want to kill the otherwise lovable Jimmy Stewart. Luckily, Jeff’s visiting insurance company nurse Stella, played by Thelma Ritter, and his friend Doyle, played by Wendell Corey, whose dialogue is full of some really funny lines, easily distracts us all from Jeff’s antics.
Hitchcock built his most elaborate stage set on the Paramount lot for Rear Window, a recreation of a Greenwich Village apartment block you’d swear was filmed on location with the real thing, requiring so many filming lamps he had to borrow extras from Universal and MGM to complete the production. The giant set is a stunning achievement by itself.
If you missed Rear Window’s return to theaters, you can still pick up the re-mastered version for home viewing on Blu-ray here, or find it in Hitchcock’s Essentials Collection here, or in Hitchcock’s 15-film Masterpiece Collection here, all at Amazon.com.