Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film Rear Window is an adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s 1942 short suspense story “It Had to Be Murder.” Woolrich’s stories have been adapted into over 30 films, but there is no doubt that Rear Window is the most well-known of all of them. Hitchcock’s additions to the original story, yet loyalty to its limited visual perspective, make it particularly noted among film critics. Even a quick search for “Rear Window” will bring up sources about the particular way in which it was filmed. Hitchcock’s adaptation of the story brings up some interesting points of discussion for our class. I’d like to bring up a few points below, and then continue with this topic for my final paper.
John Farwell discusses the filming of Rear Window in his book, Hitchcock’s Rear Window: The Well-Made Film. He states, “Hitchcock dedicated a large portion of his interviews to explaining the fruitfulness of establishing constraints on a film, both in the film’s set and its camera perspective. He faults films that take plays, for example, and ‘open them up,’ setting them in woods and valleys, the real world to which the stage has no access” (16). As we have previously discusses, many film adaptations of plays create a lush atmosphere and setting, unavailable in the previous mode. Although Rear Window is based on a short story, the first-person protagonist’s view of the events which take place is limited, as he is incapacitated. Hitchcock uses this viewpoint in his film. For the most part, we see scenes of L.B. Jeffries’ neighbors inside the frame of their windows. Jeffries, played by the amazing James Stewart, watches his neighbors from his apartment window- as the characters disappear from Jeffries’ line of vision, leaving through doors or hidden behind walls, so too do they disappear from the viewers’ sight. Hitchcock’s filming allows viewers to feel as Jeffries does, frustrated yet compelled by the mystery of what goes on behind the building walls. It also heightens a sense of anxiety throughout the film. Below is the view of what Jeff can see from his spot in the apartment complex:
There are no female leads in Woolrich’s story. In the original text, Jeffries has a black servant named Sam who takes care of him and who Jeffries sends to Thorwald’s apartment during his investigation. In Hitchcock’s adaptation, Sam’s role is shared between two women: Stella (Thelma Ritter), Jeff’s spunky nurse and Lisa (Grace Kelly), Jeffries’ love interest. The addition of a love story does not only work to expand Jeffries’ personality, but creates interesting parallels between the people whom Jeffries watches and himself. A few of Jeffries’ neighbors are observed in Woolrich’s story, including the newly married couple, Miss Lonely-Hearts (a lonely woman who Jeff often watches) and of course the Thorwalds. For those that are not familiar with the story, after Mrs. Thorwald’s disappearance, Jeffries becomes suspicious of Mr. Thorwald as being a murderer. The addition of Lisa as a love interest creates an important relationship between Jeffries and the “rear-window dwellers” as Woolrich puts it. Jeffries’ resistance to committing to their relationship is riddled with fears that become apparent as he watches the unhappy couples around him. Furthermore, Thorwald’s wife was an invalid before she dies, with Mr. Thorwald consistently taking care of her. As Lisa visits Jeff, a vision of pure beauty and perfection (she literally brings him a gourmet lobster dinner!), Jeff becomes uneasy- it is unclear if this is due to his disability, or because of his active career as a traveling photographer (another addition in the adaptation.) The couples around him work as foils to his own relationship, heightening his fears of commitment.
The disability narrative becomes much more pervasive in the Rear Window than in Woolrich’s story. Interestingly, evidence is given throughout the story that Jeffries is incapacitated, but readers don’t actually know why. Not until the last line of the story do we find out that Jeffries has a broken leg. In Rear Window, we see Stewart’s broken leg relatively from the start of the film. However, there are points when the camera focuses on Jimmy Stewart’s face, and the mystery becomes so compelling that one may forget about his disability. That is, until Lisa is in danger, and Jeffries is incapacitated, completely unable to do anything to help her. The anxiety attached to Jeffries disability is heightened in Hitchcock’s film due to his affection for the female lead. This anxiety does not exist in Woolrich’s story, except when Jeffries fears for his own life, not another’s. In his book, Fawell discusses the sexual undertones that are pervasive in the relationship of Jeff and Lisa, focusing around the fact that Jeff has a cast up to his waist. Fawell also points to the spyglass that Jeffries uses as an obvious phallic symbol, compensating for his sexual frustration. I find this reading too basic. Although, certainly Miss Torso, the female ballerina who Jeff frequently watches dance, is saying something about his masculinity. Fawell also compares the energy and vitality of Lisa and Stella to Jeffries bitterness and his state of being an invalid. Certainly through Hitchcock’s brilliant filming, there are many scenes where Lisa is shown as taller than Jeffries, and scenes where Jeffries is emphasized as small and emasculated. However, I would argue with a simple reading of Jeffries as emasculated because of his disability- much of his commentary is focused on his fear of marriage stifling his artistic work and his career. In turn, his temporary disability allows Lisa to somewhat prove herself to Jeffries, as she must act as his body. Furthermore, it is Jeffries who figures out the murder before anyone else- not his female counterparts. I wonder if the important roles of Lisa and Stella can be read as feminist- although conforming to 1950s stereotypes, the two women are still shown as more active and powerful than Jeffries- yet, is this only because of his disability? What does this say about gender and its relationship to disability?
Rear Window is seen to this day as one of the only films in which a disabled character is the protagonist and hero of the tale. While researching Rear Window, I came across an adaptation of the Hitchcock film which was made for television, starring Christopher Reeve. A detailed review of the 1998 film is found here: http://www.chrisreevehomepage.com/m-rearwindow.html. I have not watched it yet, but this adaptation of Hitchcock’s adaptation heightens the disability aspect even more, since Reeve’s disability is permanent, as is his character’s- he is unable to breathe on his own. Although Jeffries is injured in both legs at the end of Hitchcock’s film, the double casts indicate a temporary state. Furthermore, throughout the film Lisa makes comments about there being only one week left of Jeffries having to be in a wheelchair. This again complicates a disability reading- the main character’s disability is almost comical at times because it is temporary. I am curious to see how the 1998 version of Rear Window compares with the original. Sexual frustration also seems to be a focus in this adaptation.
I hope to continue to research these issues in my final paper, and I also will focus on specific scenes to analyze how the portrayal of disability works in this film. I would like to find interviews of Hitchcock talking about this film, as well as look at specific filming techniques used. Although I am by no means a film studies expert, I’ll attempt venturing into this subject for the sake of this wonderful film!