Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Rear Window: Collector's Edition (1954)
Studio Line: Universal Studios - It only takes one witness to spoil the perfect crime.

None of Hitchcock's films has ever given a clearer view of his genius for suspense than Rear Window. When professional photographer J.B "Jeff" Jeffries (James Stewart) is confined to a wheelchair with a broken leg, he becomes obsessed with watching the private dramas of his neighbors play out across the courtyard. When he suspects a salesman may have murdered his nagging wife, Jeffries enlists the help of his glamorous socialite girlfriend (Grace Kelly) to investigate the highly suspicious chain of events...Events that ultimately lead to one of the most memorable and gripping endings in all of film history.

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: James Stewart, Grace Kelley, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Director; Best Screenplay; Best Cinematography; Best Sound. 1955.
DVD: Widescreen 1.66:1/16x9; audio English Digital Mono, French Digital Mono; subtitles Spanish; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 18 chapters; rated PG; 115 min.; $29.98; street date 3/6/01.
Supplements: "Rear Window Ethics: Remembering and Restoring a Hitchcock Classic". An original documentary on the making of Rear Window featuring interviews with cast members Georgine Darcy, assistant director Herbert Coleman, filmmakers Peter Bogdanovich (Last Picture Show) and Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) and Pat Hitchcock O'Connell, daughter of Alfred Hitchcock; Featurette: A Conversation with Screenwriter John Michael Hayes; Production Photographs: A poster and photograph gallery from the film; Theatrical Trailer; Re-Release Trailer Narrated by James Stewart; Production Notes; Cast & Filmmakers; DVD-ROM Features including access to the Original Script.
Purchase: DVD | Best of Hitchcock Vol. 1 | Best of Hitchcock Vol. 2

Picture/Sound/Extras: C/C/B

Much of the beauty of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Rear Window stems from its simplicity. All of the film’s action revolves around on small apartment, as our protagonist - daredevil photographer L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart) - spies upon the world around him. Jefferies is laid up due to a broken leg, and he has nothing better to do than snoop on his neighbors.

As such, the entire movie is told subjectively from his viewpoint, and the camera never shows anything that can’t be seen from his point of view. Many other participants become involved, such as Jefferies’ high society girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), his physical therapist Stella (Thelma Ritter), and policeman friend Lieutenant Doyle (Wendell Corey), but almost nothing occurs that isn’t shown from Jefferies’ vantage point; it’s a tremendously subjective film that only occasionally gives us information not available to the protagonist, and even then stays with the views that he could have seen.

As the story unfolds, we get into the lives of his neighbors, at least as interpreted by Jefferies. He has to guess about a lot of their specifics, so we learn about the others mainly through his ideas. All of it seems pretty banal until the invalid wife of one neighbor - Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) - disappears and Thorwald behaves in a suspicious manner. Jefferies believes Thorwald dispatched the Mrs. to the great beyond, and the majority of the movie involves his amateur, from-a-distance investigation of the events. Doyle remains skeptical, but Lisa and Stella are more than happy to get wrapped up in the apparent intrigue.

So was I, as Rear Window provides a slow-boiling but very compelling piece. Some will clearly find the pacing to move without enough rapidity, as RW wasn’t made with modern attention spans in mind. However, the pace creates richness that otherwise wouldn’t exist. I never felt impatient or desperate for action, as the nuances of the characters created a life and vividness that was more than satisfying.

It helps if you don’t know how the movie ends, but even when one is aware of the conclusion, the sublime execution of the film makes it a worthwhile experience. Actually, the calm tone of the program lends an even more compelling tone to it, because the whole thing seems so believable. Hitchcock never resorts to any contrived plot twists to amp up the action. Instead, the whole thing unfolds in an intriguingly realistic manner, and we can easily envision ourselves becoming part of this world.

Stewart’s “everyman” tone serves him well in the role, and his presence helps ground a character who otherwise could have become a creepy voyeur. Though some of Jefferies’ activities may be slightly unsavory, we rarely question him because of Stewart’s general earnestness. He also makes believable an attitude that many will not readily accept: he’s a man who doesn’t seem captivated by the legendary beauty of Grace Kelly. Frankly, I understood Jefferies’ lack of affection toward Lisa because she really was too perfect. She seemed like the sort who would never let a hair go out of place, and I could identify with Jefferies’ obvious glee when Lisa gets wrapped up in the deepening mystery.

It helps that Kelly created a natural arc within the character. Lisa doesn’t go from prissy fashion-plate to rugged adventurer overnight, and Kelly allows for both sides of the role to come through clearly. It’s a nicely subtle and understated performance that worked well for the film. In addition, Ritter provides solid but not gratuitous comic relief, and Corey provides the necessary skepticism that keeps the piece from becoming excessively fantastic; we have to be reminded that all of Jefferies’ thoughts have been inferred and that no evidence exists, and Doyle gives us that component neatly.

While Rear Window is a very well-acted piece, and the script provides a tight framework, the ultimate success still rests on Hitchcock’s shoulders. Frankly, I find the horror antics of later films Psycho and The Birds to be more enjoyable, but Hitchcock never provided a more capable directorial tone than he did during RW. It all goes back to the simplicity. Hitchcock communicates so much with so little effort, from the opening shots of Jefferies and his apartment - which tell us more about the character in a few seconds of footage than could have been achieved with 1000 words of exposition - to the short and to the point glimpses of the neighbors, RW represents visual filmmaking at its finest. It may not be my absolute favorite Hitchcock flick, but Rear Window definitely shows the director at the top of his game.

The DVD:

Rear Window appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.66:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The film was put through a much-publicized restoration that culminated in a spring 2000 theatrical reissue. I respect the work of restorers Robert Harris and James Katz, so I have to assume that RW must have been in a horrible state of disrepair prior to their intervention. While it always remained watchable, the new DVD of Rear Window presented a flawed image that clearly showed the ravages of time.

Sharpness generally presents an adequately focused and accurate picture, but this can lapse on quite a few occasions. At times the movie seemed fairly soft and fuzzy, and this problem appeared to go farther than just Hitchcock’s periodic use of “glamour photography” for Grace Kelly. Overall, the image generally stayed acceptably detailed, but I found the softness to seem a little excessive. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no concerns, though.

Given the film’s poor upkeep over the years, it’s not surprising that print flaws cause quite a few problems. Much of the movie seemed grainy, and other defects cropped up on many occasions. I saw a number of examples of speckles, nicks, grit, and blotches throughout the film, and periodically the image would “jump” slightly. While the flaws weren’t extreme, they nonetheless seemed fairly heavy at times.

Colors looked decent but could be fairly muddy. Some hues appeared a bit pale - such as Stewart’s blue pajamas - but for the most part, they seemed a bit excessively heavy. The movie featured a reddish tone that didn’t come across especially well. As with many of the other concerns, the colors weren’t really bad, but they appeared less than solid much of the time.

Black levels generally looked deep and dark, and contrast seemed decent. Shadow detail also was fairly clear, though some scenes came across as too heavy. I’d estimate about half of the low-light sequences should slightly excessive opacity, while the others seemed appropriately visible.

Ultimately, I had a great deal of difficulty with my review of the visual quality of Rear Window simply because I understood how flawed the original material was. However, I’ve perused many other reviews of the DVD and found their praise to be excessive. Does the image look good considering the damage done to the film? Yes - I think the restoration was successful. However, it remains a problematic image, and I don’t feel comfortable giving a DVD a grade based on the amount of work put into the transfer. As such, while I’m pleased with the efforts of Harris and Katz et al, I have to judge the picture based on what I saw, and that resulted in an overall grade of “C”.

Also fairly average for the era was the monaural soundtrack of Rear Window. Although it improved as the movie progressed, dialogue often seemed somewhat brittle and edgy. I found all speech to appear acceptably intelligible, but I thought the lines came across as a little too rough at times. Effects also were thin, but these seemed typical of the period and presented no significant problems. Music was appropriately distant; since almost none of this element took the form of a proper score, music really acted like another effect, and these parts sounded accurately thin and detached. Ultimately, the soundtrack seemed acceptably clear for the era, but it didn’t sound any better than that.

As a Universal’s “Collector’s Edition”, Rear Window provides a nice mix of extras. Most significant is the new documentary called “Rear Window Ethics”. If you’ve seen the DVDs for other Hitchcock films like Vertigo and Marnie, the format and style of this piece will seem familiar. In a good example of not fixing what isn’t broken, this 55 minute program combines recent interviews with filmmakers like Curtis Hanson and Peter Bogdanovich, author Robin Wood, Hitchcock’s daughter Pat, participants such as Paramount publicity director Herb Steinberg, assistant director Herbert Coleman, and actress Georgine “Miss Torso” Darcy, plus restoration supervisors Harris and Katz. Their statements are interspersed with film clips and photos from the set, and we also hear a few sound bites from an old Bogdanovich interview with Hitchcock.

All in all, this is another solid look at the creation of the film. We find a lot of good information about the production and the various participants, and we also learn about the history of the restoration. The “before and after” shots shown are questionable as the two mainly look different based on brightness, but I still enjoyed this view of the classic film and its legacy.

Another valuable video program appears as well. “A Conversation With Screenwriter John Michael Hayes” offers exactly what the title states: an interview with the writer of the script. This 13 minute and 10 second piece uses the same format found during “RW Ethics”: an interview combined with film clips and production photos. The only difference is that we only find one participant: Hayes. I’d assume that he gets his own featurette because his material is so good it deserved to stand on its own rather than get mixed in with the others. We get a terrific discussion of the history of the film plus a lot of great anecdotes about working with Hitchcock and the others. It’s a solid little piece that added a lot to my appreciation of the movie.

More “Production Photographs” appear in a separate section. As is the case with all of the “Universal Monsters” DVDs, these stills are presented as a running video montage. Backed by Franz Waxman’s score, the images mix advertisements with shots from the set, and the entire package lasts three minutes and five seconds. I like the video presentation and thought this program offered a nice compendium of pictures.

Two trailers appear on the DVD, both of which come from reissues of Rear Window. The first arrived in a post-Psycho re-release, while the other arrived in the mid-Eighties and also promotes the re-appearance of four other Hitchcock films.

A few text features round out the main parts of the disc. We get some solid and fairly detailed “Production Notes”; an alternate set also appears in the DVD’s booklet. Lastly, “Cast and Filmmakers” provides brief biographies for Hitchcock and actors Stewart, Kelly, Ritter, Burr, and Corey. They could use more information, but they each provide a decent look at the participants’ careers.

A few DVD-ROM materials also appear. Easily the most significant is the film’s “Screenplay”. You can read the script on the right side of the screen as you watch the movie on the left. I love the addition of this sort of feature, and it’s especially valuable in the case of a classic like RW.

Finally, the DVD-ROM area provides an option to sign up for Universal’s e-mail newsletter as well as a few Weblinks. In the latter category, we find connections to the websites for Universal Studios, Universal Home Video, Universal DVDs, and Universal Pictures.

Although I was not born when Alfred Hitchcock created his greatest works - indeed, he only made three movies after my birth - I’ve been happy to check out his legacy on DVD, and 1954’s Rear Window stands with the best of his material. The film moves at a slow but compelling pace and uses simple methods to ensnare the viewer. Ultimately, it’s a very entertaining and well-executed piece. The DVD offers flawed but decent picture and sound plus some good extras. Although the presentation of the film isn’t great, it seems to represent the best that can be done with the movie. In any case, I thought the DVD was a nice package that I heartily recommend.

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