Study Guide

Rear Window Behind the Scenes

  • Director

    Alfred Hitchcock

    Alfred Hitchcock never won an Oscar for directing.

    This is one of those facts that turns the whole Academy Awards thing into a collective facepalm. Because if you take all of the directors who actually have won and lined them up, you'd see that none of them could do what Hitch did. And the smart ones would have the good grace to admit it. Directors all over the planet have idolized Hitch. A star-struck Francois Truffaut, the iconic French film director, interviewed Hitch for eight days in 1962 and published their conversations in a book that's a bible for many directors. It's a total how-to on film directing and was recently made into a film featuring dozens of today's most celebrated directors discussing how these interviews influenced their own work.

    So why the snub by the self-appointed keepers of cinema as Art? Simple answer: he liked suspense movies. He enjoyed scaring his audience, tying them into knots and making them squirm in their seats. The Academy frowns on anything that smacks of popularity (when was the last time a comedy or science-fiction film won Best Picture?), and Hitchcock's movies were very, very popular.

    No one better understood how you could use cinematic technique to play on people's emotions, to tell a story using images instead of exposition. Hitchcock got his start in silent films, and he valued visual storytelling as the pure cinematic experience even after the advent of sound. He liked to say that he resorted to dialogue only when pictures couldn't tell the whole story: "In other words, we don't have pages to fill, or pages from a typewriter to fill, we have a rectangular screen in a movie house." (Source)

    The success of Hitchcock's early British films like the The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 version), The Lady Vanishes, and The 39 Steps won him international acclaim and earned him the attention of the big boys in Tinseltown. He signed a seven-year contract with producer David O. Selznick and moved his family to sunny California.

    His first American film was hugely successful. Rebecca is a murder mystery set in the English countryside and was inspired by the best-selling book by Daphne du Maurier. (The same author also wrote The Birds, another Hitchcock thriller.) Rebecca won Best Picture in 1941, the only Hitchcock movie to do so, and his fame skyrocketed. A string of notable films followed: Suspicion, Shadow of a Doubt, Lifeboat, Notorious, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds, Marnie, and Torn Curtain, among others.

    Hitchcock had a signature look to his films: the dramatic shadows and unexpected camera angles; close-up reaction shots to draw the audience into the characters' emotions; filming strange events in familiar locations.

    He had his favorite themes, too: the person wrongly accused; the mysterious blonde; a fascination with voyeurism, quirky characters, dark humor, mistaken identity, and of course, murder. In all of his films, strange things happened to ordinary people. The idea was that the ordinary world can be turned upside down in the blink of an eye and that we live under a constant threat of danger that we don't really recognize. In Hitch's universe, the world isn't as rational or as safe as it might seem to be. If those bizarre things could happen to these ordinary characters, they could happen to us, too. It's all deliciously unsettling.

    But it wasn't just camera angles, elaborate and suspenseful set pieces, and plot twists that made his films masterpieces. Hitchcock knew how to use these elements to manipulate the emotions of the audience. Every camera angle, choice of lighting, sound, or wardrobe was his way of speaking to the audience to create a specific feeling (source) "I enjoy playing the audience like a piano," he once told an interviewer (source).

    Hitchcock famously described the difference between shock and suspense. To truly engage the audience, he believed, you had to provide them with information. Here's his famous example: Imagine some people sitting around a table discussing baseball. Five minutes into the conversation, a bomb under the table goes off and blows everyone up. You've given the audience a few moments of shock, right? But to create suspense, Hitch said you have to show the audience the bomb under the table that's set to go off in 5 minutes and place a clock in the room so the audience can see the time ticking away. The audience is involved—they're thinking, "Don't talk about baseball—there's a bomb under the table!" Instead of a few seconds of shock, they've had 5 minutes of nail-biting suspense.

    That's what Hitch was after.

  • Screenwriter

    John Michael Hayes

    Rear Window got its start as a short story called "It Had to be Murder" by Cornell Woolrich. It was snapped up by Paramount and turned over to Hayes, who'd just come to Hollywood a few years earlier after spending most of his career after World War II in radio. Rear Window was his first collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock, and he must have done something right. They worked together three more times in the 1950s, following up this film with To Catch a Thief, The Trouble With Harry, and The Man Who Knew Too Much.

    Hayes seemed to have found exactly the right tone Hitchcock was looking for in these movies. He excelled at light, witty dialogue and could use dark humor quite well to get a few ghoulish giggles out of the audience. That suited Hitch just fine, as he enjoyed injecting some gallows humor into his films. In one case, the two actually based a whole movie on a darkly comic premise: The Trouble With Harry is about a body that won't stay buried.

    Hayes picked up an Oscar nomination for Rear Window's screenplay. (He lost to a movie called The Country Girl, which incidentally won a Best Actress Oscar for Grace Kelly.) He kept writing screenplays well into the 1970s and retired from the movie biz in the '80s to teach writing at Dartmouth College, although he came back one more time for a movie called Iron Will. He died in 2008 at the ripe old age of 89.

  • Production Studio

    Paramount Pictures

    The Short Version

    Paramount Pictures distributed the movie, and Hitchcock shot the whole thing on their Hollywood soundstage.

    The Slightly Less Short Version

    Paramount is the second-oldest major Hollywood studio, arriving just after Universal Pictures in 1912. Back then, it was called Famous Players Film Company, formed by Adolph Zukor and the Frohman brothers. The pairing closely mirrored the film industry at the time: Zukor made nickelodeons, and the Frohmans were theatrical producers. This was back when the movies were far more of a novelty than an art form, and these guys' previous jobs show us the kind of rag-tag way film slowly evolved into art.

    Paramount was their distribution partner, organized in 1914 as a means of getting the films out there. In 1916, they merged with the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company to create the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, and still used Paramount as their distribution arm. That famous studio logo with the mountain on it was in place in 1917, and it stuck.

    Paramount never really had a genre specialty the way Warner Bros. made gangster pictures or Universal made monster movies. But it did believe in the star system, and some of the earliest screen idols—Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford, among others—all worked for the studio. That continued into the '30s and '40s, with the likes of Marlene Dietrich and the Marx Brothers taking over from their silent film predecessors. It even had cartoon characters like Popeye and Betty Boop to compete with that pesky mouse and his buddies over at Disney.

    Its connection to theatrical distribution, in place since the studio's earliest days, actually got the company into trouble with the U.S. government. It more or less blackmailed theaters into taking a bunch of its cruddy, lesser pictures if they wanted to get the big movies featuring its stars. (In modern terms, imagine a theater not being able to show The Avengers unless it also showed Sharknado 6 throughout the run.)

    The whole thing came to a head in a famous Supreme Court decision in 1948, United States vs. Paramount Pictures, which forbade movie studios from owning their own movie theaters. The court said it violated anti-trust laws designed to prevent monopolies. That hit Paramount hard, and after several decades of being a major player, it went into a slow decline. That was about where it was when Hitchcock was filming Rear Window.

    Television ended up saving Paramount. It got in on the TV deal early, in 1939, and the 1960s saw its fortunes turn with the likes of Star Trek and Mission: Impossible (the TV show, not the movies). At the same time, a producer named Robert Evans was hired to head the studio, and he started to turn things around with blockbusters like Rosemary's Baby, The Odd Couple, Chinatown, and The Godfather, which was actually the all-time box office champ for a while until those pesky Lucas/Spielberg types showed up.

    Paramount continued making hit films in all kinds of genres for many years, including comedies like Airplane!, action movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, musicals like Footloose, gangster movies like The Untouchables, and all of those Star Trek movies still getting made today. Iron Man was theirs for a while until Disney snapped him back up. And, love 'em or hate 'em, the Transformers movies have made a ton of money for the folks on the mountain.

    Hitchcock was a regular at Paramount in the 1950s, with the likes of Vertigo, To Catch a Thief, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The Trouble With Harry coming out of the studio. The studio got to distribute Psycho, too, though Hitch shot it over at Universal because Paramount was spooked by the film's themes (which is why you can see Norman and his infamous motel when you take the Universal Studios Tour).

  • Production Design

    35mm Technicolor

    Rear Window was shot on 35mm film in Technicolor on a huge soundstage at Paramount Studios in Hollywood. Plenty of movies in the '50s were still shot in black and white. Technicolor was a very expensive process, first because the cameras were much more complicated than black-and-white ones but also because you needed the tech boys back at the Technicolor labs to properly develop the film for you. Rear Window was a big deal, with the most famous director in the world and two of Hollywood's biggest stars in its corner. No way they were going to make this in black and white, especially with Grace Kelly's gorgeous wardrobe.

    Colors seem more vibrant with Technicolor. They pop a little more, and there seems to be more of a contrast between the bright colors (like red and yellow) and duller ones (like gray and brown). (Source) Even the nighttime scenes have a certain lushness to them, which adds to the slight sense of a dream (or an altered state of consciousness).

    Hitchcock built the enormous set on the Paramount soundstage. The apartment/courtyard set was 98 feet wide, 185 feet long, and 40 feet high. There were 31 separate apartments, 12 of which were completely furnished, including electricity and running water. The actress who played Miss Torso even lived in her apartment during the entire filming. Jeff's apartment was actually at stage level. The soundstage floor was excavated, and the courtyard was actually about 25 feet below stage level. It took about 1,000 arc lights to simulate the sunlight for the daytime scenes. The lights got so hot at one point that they set off the sprinkler system. (Source)

    The director stayed in the set of Jeff's apartment during the entire shoot and spoke to the other actors remotely through flesh-colored earpieces. Pretty, pretty, pretty clever.

  • Music (Score)

    Franz Waxman

    German-American composer Franz Waxman was the John Williams of his day, one of the premier film composers of the 1940s and '50s who contributed gorgeous music to a number of classic films. (Source) He studied music in Dresden, Germany, and was just getting started as a film composer when the Nazis took over Germany in 1933. As a Jewish man who'd had the stuffing kicked out of him by a gang of goose-stepping Nazis on the street, Waxman, with his wife, decided that America might be a little more welcoming.

    They moved to Paris, then to Hollywood. He soon got the attention of director James Whale, who was working on a sequel to his smash hit Frankenstein. Waxman scored the music for Bride of Frankenstein, which became a classic, and he was off to the races. His real big break came in 1940, when Alfred Hitchcock used him for his movie Rebecca. The film was a huge hit and won two Oscars, although Waxman had to settle for a nomination that year. But, no matter. He was the toast of Hollywood, all of the big directors wanted to be his bestie, and Hitchcock came back to him multiple times to score his movies. And, he managed to score two Oscars himself before Hitch hired him again to compose the music for Rear Window.

    You'd think the music of a guy with that resume would fill a film. But, in fact, Rear Window uses his score only sparsely, notably in the opening credits and toward the end. (Waxman also composed the song "Lisa," supposedly written by Jeff's musician neighbor in the movie.) The rest of the film doesn't use a musical soundtrack at all. Hitchcock wanted to stress the diegetic elements of the movie's soundtrack—the sounds that occur within the "real" world of the movie, such as the traffic down the street, the pouring rain, and the distant conversations and radios of Jeff's neighbors.

    That makes Waxman's modest score something of a scene-setting endeavor instead of a constant mood accompaniment. Most of the time, the score tells us what to feel in a given scene. But Hitchcock didn't want that cluttering up his movie. So he let Waxman prep us during the opening credits (with a very hepcat '50s beat, no less) and then told him to take a break until the end. It's a bold choice, and it makes for a very unusual movie, especially for a big-time studio production like this one. Hitch never did things the way people expected, and Waxman was more than happy to give him a hand.

    Waxman continued composing throughout the '50s and into the '60s, when he tried his hand at television scores as well. Sadly, he died rather young, in 1967, at the age of 60. He left behind a staggering number of musical scores, but wouldn't it have been great to see what he would have done with Star Wars?