Alfred Hitchcock created Rear Window during his experimental period in the 1940s. His concept was an entire film shot from one vantage point. By constructing the entire film around the rear window of a Greenwich Village apartment, he symbolized the movie watching experience, and the experience of everyday social media, viewing people’s lives though a phone or computer. Hitchcock’s film is based on the short tory “It Had to be Murder” written by Cornell Woolrich. The idea of the film, Rear Window, literally embodies the idea of this course, Visual Literacy, which is relaying a story or message visually. Hitchcock creates and transforms a written piece of literature into a visual story, or film, and he does so using video imaging and compositional elements.
“It Had to be Murder” is about an injured man named Hal Jeffries who is confined to his apartment, with only his housekeeper Sam to keep him company. He watches his neighbors from his window to pass time, and observes their everyday routines and habits. One particular neighbor starts to behave strangely and Jeff notices. The man packs up his wife’s clothes, and then Jeff discovers that his wife is not in the apartment anymore. His suspicion is that his neighbor has murdered his wife. However, police do not believe him, so Jeff investigates and uncovers the mystery himself with the help of Sam.
Rear Window is essentially the same story, however, there is a bit more detail to Jeff’s character, and of course, a love story component. The character of Hal Jeffries is transformed into L.B. Jeffries, an adventurous photographer with a broken leg. He spends his recovery time in the same way: watching his neighbors through his back window. However, to create drama, only a week before his cast comes off, he hears a scream in the middle of the night from across the street. After noticing his neighbor leaving his apartment several times in one night, much like Hal Jeffries, he suspects his neighbor of murdering his wife. With the help of his nurse, Stella and his girlfriend, Lisa, he starts to investigate what truly happened. The film adds a subplot of Jeff and Lisa’s dysfunctional relationship, and the way working together to solve the murder brings them closer.
In addition to plot, both versions of the story, “It Had to be Murder” and Rear Window are visually rich. Woolrich uses very specific and descriptive language in “It Had to be Murder” to create an image for Hitchcock to draw from for Rear Window. Vivid pictures are drawn by Woolrich because of his imagery and wording, “leaning slightly out, maybe an inch past the window frame” and “the haze I saw rising around his head.” Visual imagery and pictures from the short story line up to the visuals, language, and images in the film.
The fisheye lens with rounded blackening around the corners is used to display the image of the lens of a telescope on the screen. The fisheye lens is used to create a genuine feel of the point of view of a human looking around in the camera shot and on the screen.
The imagery also describes other elements of the short story and film. Much of the language and imagery used describes the lighting of the the short story, and its effect on the plot. Lighting is a theme in both the short story and the film. “It Had to be Murder” uses imagery, such as: “un slanted down on one side of the hollow oblong,” to describe the lighting of the scene. Daytime and nighttime are major components of the lighting that also uses a color palette.
The daytime is portrayed in a color palette of neutral colors: tan hues, dull red tones (brick), and grayish undertones. Also, during the day the buildings are bright contrasting with the darkness in the windows and rooms (because people are gone and their lights are off), and the lamps and streetlights are off.
There is a sunset in the first day to night transition to emphasize the transition creating a city symphony grouping. The sunset uses the warm oranges and red tones, and creates a color palette for the time of day the sun sets.
Nighttime is portrayed in a color palette of bluish-blackish tones which is common for nighttime, but also derives from the short story’s mention of, “blue night-shade in my room.”
The use of lamps, porch lights, and shadows create the nighttime effect. Lamps and streetlights are turned on to give reason for having enough light on screen to show activity on screens without taking away from the night time feel.
In the shot below, there was a deliberate choice to keep the lamp in the frame to again emphasize the idea that it is night because lamps signify night.
Shadows generally symbolize night. Because light sources of the night, lamps, strike a subject from the side, instead of from above, the sun, a shadow is created.
The use of lighting, daytime versus nighttime, is used to describe plot as well. The short story uses imagery, such as: “leave her in the dark like that” to describe plot in which Jeff is voicing his concern that the man would leave his wife in the dark like that, implying that she is possibly not there, and even suggesting that he murdered her. Also, the light, or lack of light, allows Jeff to spy on his neighbor. In the short story it says that the man could not see Jeff behind darkness of bay window. In the film, Jeff reprimands Stella, his nurse for being in the light, and tells her to step back out of the light.
Light is also used to draw attention to certain elements in the scene. For example, Jeff is focusing on the cars in alley when the ballerina turns her light on and the focus switches to ballerina because of lighting (34:48-34:56).
Framing and leading lines are also used to place focus and direct the camera shot to certain subjects. The windows are very strategically used to frame the people in their apartments.
This is partly because they whole concept of the film is to shoot the film entirely from Jeff’s apartment which causes the viewer to only see people when you can see them through the window, and not when they are in between the windows or behind the shades. Even though the viewer cannot see the activities happening behind the shades or in between the windows, the camera sometimes follow the motion of the person in between the windows. For example, the camera panned diagonally up to follow the motion of the man, who supposedly killed his wife, walking up the stairs (35:30-36:15). This element adds to the suspense of the entire film’s plot which is whether or not the man murdered his wife; the fact that the viewer cannot see the actual murder only activities before and after the murder add to the suspense.
The zooming in on certain characters faces and the rule of thirds of certain characters places focus on these characters. Occasionally, the camera will cut to and zoom in on characters that are speaking. The camera will also zoom in on a character not speaking to create the idea that, that character is thinking about what just occurred, the camera zooms in on Jeff for this effect multiple times. Rule of thirds is used for visually pleasantry to focus on a single character in a shot, or to balance the focus between two characters in a shot.
Camera movement is also used to place focus on certain activities in the apartments, and follow what Jeff is examining through his window. The camera pans around the apartments and follows the movement and activities of the people. This sweeping motion also mimics the “semicircular” eye gaze used in “It Had to be Murder” to describe the man looking around for people watching him after the possible murder.
Lateral panning is used to scan the apartments up and down and from side to side, and the camera will sometimes pause and even pan back quickly if motion and activity is detected to shift focus to that activity. This camera movement creates the effect of point of view, much like the viewer is following the eyes of a human. The point of view is often at eye level to add to the effect that we are following the viewpoint of a human, most likely Jeff. As the camera follows what Jeff is looking at, the viewer is following what Jeff is seeing.
Overall, Alfred Hitchcock effectively uses several compositional elements and video imaging to adapt “It Had to be Murder” into a suspenseful film, Rear Window. His challenge of shooting an entire film from one vantage point is achieved while also being visually pleasing.