Stream On: Filmmaking 101—Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’

By on November 23, 2023

Alfred Hitchcock (Shadow of a Doubt, Rebecca), the “Master of Suspense,” was also one of the best directors in Hollywood. One of his signature techniques was the use of the subjective camera, placing the audience in the point of view of his protagonist. In Rear Window he goes one better, putting the audience in the protagonist’s apartment: we only see what is visible from there.


/Amazon /Streaming /🍅98%🍿95% /Trailer /1954 /PG

When we first enter the apartment of L. B. “Jeff” Jefferies’ (Jimmy Stewart), we’re shown his view—the camera pans across the courtyard and the facing apartments, coming to rest for a moment on Jeff’s sweating head (he appears to be asleep), before beginning a silent exposition dump: the camera pans to a wall thermometer (at 92 degrees); then back outside. An alarm rings and a couple arise from an air mattress on a fire escape (apparently it was too hot to sleep inside); a dancer (“Miss Torso”) is doing calisthenics in her flat before putting coffee on; a water truck passes in the street behind the alley; then it’s back to the sleeping Jeff, in a wheelchair. He has a cast on his left leg, and we’re shown a smashed camera on a table, a framed photo of a racing car coming apart in a crash (with one wheel flying towards the photographer), a few other dramatic photos, more camera equipment, a framed negative of a smiling woman, and then a stack of magazines with the positive image of said woman on the cover.

So, L.B. Jeffries is a magazine photographer who specializes in dramatic action photography, and he was recently injured at a racetrack when he got too close to the action. All this information was imparted before any dialogue happened. Outside of Jeff’s window is a courtyard showing other apartments in his complex, and a sliver of street with a restaurant can be seen beyond, through an alley.

The huge set–and it is a set—was designed by art director Joseph MacMillan Johnson and built on one of Paramount’s largest sound stages, Stage 18 (184’10” x 98’5″ x 40’00”). Construction took six weeks to complete. One of the largest sets ever built at Paramount, it comprised 31 apartments, 12 of which were completely furnished. All the apartments surrounded a multilevel courtyard approximately 70 feet wide, and some of the apartment buildings were almost five stories high. The set included a Manhattan skyline (the color of the sky changed according to the time of day), gardens, trees, fire escapes, smoking chimneys, and an alley leading to a street complete with a bar, pedestrians, and moving traffic. The courtyard was built below stage-floor level and the walls of Jeffries’ apartment could be moved to accommodate various camera angles. (The technical details come from American Cinematographer.)

Jeff is shaving in his wheelchair when his telephone rings, and we’re given the rest of the setup as he talks to his editor. He has another week in the cast (on the phone, he watches Miss Torso dance around her apartment) so he can’t take an assignment in Kashmir (Jeff looks over at a composer at work on his piano in another apartment—everyone’s windows are open in the heat and we can faintly hear some of the music). As he watches a salesman argue with his bedridden wife in another flat, he tells his editor if he can’t take an assignment soon, he’ll do something drastic—like get married, and listen to his wife nag. We can hear Jeff’s editor, who’s apparently married himself, say that wives don’t nag, they discuss.

Jeff counters, adding more exposition, “In high-rent neighborhoods they discuss. In my neighborhood, they nag,” still watching the salesman and his wife. So, living in a modest apartment, he needs to work, unlike his rich and glamorous girlfriend (Grace Kelly), whom we meet presently.

He’s reluctant to marry her, since he thinks she won’t take to the nomadic life of an international camera bum—but she’s all in when they notice that the salesman’s wife has disappeared and he’s behaving suspiciously. They involve Jeff’s day-nurse (Thelma Ritter) and his detective friend (Wendell Corey) in an unofficial investigation that soon turns deadly.

“Principal photography was completed in January 1954, the film’s overall budget being about $1 million. The world premiere was held at New York’s Rivoli Theater on August 4, 1954, with the Los Angeles premiere following approximately two weeks later, on August 16. The film was a resounding critical and commercial success and by May 1956 had grossed $10 million. David O. Selznick, the producer who, in 1939, brought Hitchcock to Hollywood from England, called the film ‘a brilliant display of motion picture craftsmanship.’” [American Cinematographer]

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