The film Rear Windows is an adaptation of the story, It Had to be Murder, by Cornell Woolrich. It engenders the numerous possibilities that emerge whenever a book is rendered into a film. Critics often argue that, it is impossible to convert a book into a film since the interplay between the text and the reader’s imagination is not something that one can visually reproduce. However, The Rear Window distinguishes itself by the fact that it is not an attempt to turn the book into a film. On the contrary, Alfred Hitchcock endeavours to create the film by recreating the plot of the book. While it reflects the world described on paper, the film wanders from it to pursue new subplots and themes. Understandably, there are numerous similarities, but also differences in the two narrations based on the limitations and advantages of film compared to text and vice versa.
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The most notable quality of the film is the context of the story’s origin, which is presented to viewers with a melodramatic feel that could not have been achieved in the text. However, the director is careful to use Jefferies’s point of view by ensuring the audience can only see the courtyard from his window. As a result, they only see what he can, and this serves to make them anxious and even active participants in the action of the film and internal conflict he undergoes. The creation of cinematic anxiety is an attempt to arouse the curiosity of the audience as they strive to understand what is taking place outside since they are encumbered by the same limitations as Jefferies. In this way, the film succeeds at building a first person’s point of view without necessarily depending on narration. However, while the book has the advantage of vividly describing the scenes and emotions, in the film, this is only possible through using different lighting techniques and camera angles. Evidently, the director can compensate for his inability to string words together by leveraging on the power of lenses and lights.
As aforementioned, although the plot was the same, several elements of the short story were changed in the film giving it a slightly different dimension. Jefferies’s companion in the story is an assistant named Sam, but in the film, he was replaced with a nurse. In addition, there is a noticeable toning down of the authoritarian tone that characterizes Jefferies’ conversations with Sam. In the book, he was curt and often ordered his assistant around, which is juxtaposed with his respectful treatment of the nurse. The departure from authoritarianism is possibly inspired by the need to accommodate feminist critics. The director might also have deliberately included a girlfriend for Jefferies to give the film a more romantic undertone, by including sexual tension in its subtext.
The director uses strict framing in all the shots to heighten the effect of the restrictions on Jefferies’s view. In the film, the sliver of street appears as a tiny space, framed by two closely built houses, yet so much happens here (The Rear Window). Despite the smallness of the space, it serves to remind the viewer that there is a world outside the window, through which Jefferies is perpetually looking. In addition, his neighbours’ windows act both as portals for him to access their lives as well as frames through which the film insinuates the various moods of the occupants. The dancer brushes her hair sitting at the centre of the window and through this, her confidence is personified (The Rear Window). Conversely, Ms. Lonely heart is shown in windows that depict her loneliness in the same way the story describes it. Matching the windows with the owner’s character serves to translate the written emotions into visual terms.
The short story enhances the fear factor by forcing the audience to introspect about who could be watching them. Similarly, the film, by portraying a situation where Jefferies is spying on people who cannot see him compels the viewer to wonder the same. The depth of emotion that the short story evokes using words cannot be replicated in a film but the director used the tools at his disposal to substitute the vividly descriptive words. For example on page 2, Woolrich describes in detail the process of Jerry’s removing his hat “He didn’t remove his hat as though there was no one there to remove if for anymore. Instead, he pushed it farther to the back of his head by pronging a hand to the roots of his hair. That gesture didn’t denote removal of perspiration, I knew” (Woolrich 2). On the other hand, Hitchcock applies lighting effects and deep focus shots to translate the necessity of focusing on one character from the book to the film. Additionally, the lighting is used to enhance the tension which the writer so easily evokes in the book, by creating and capturing shadows. These are distorted to increase the suspense and melodrama, giving the film an intensified feeling of being on edge and inspiring fear in both the characters and audience.
Rear Window vs. Disturbia
There is section of film critics who claim that Rear Window was “plagiarized” by the creators of, Disturbia, a 2007 American thriller directed by D.J Caruso. However, when one compares the two films from through objective eyes, there are almost as many differences as there are commonalities. While there are distinct similarities in the plot, the ideas, and the perspectives are unique and the directors have used very different techniques. The Rear Window and Disturbia are especially differentiated by the fact that, the latter takes a contemporary view of the film while the former is more traditional. However, one cannot ignore the similarities especially in the opening sequences in both films, which employ an overt semiotic technique. In the two films, the characters are driven by loneliness and isolation to seek out, and make contact with the outside world, which they cannot access physically.
Consequently, they both end up involving themselves in the lives of their neighbours by invading their privacy and spying on them from their respective homes. There is, however a marked difference in the shooting since, Jefferies spends his screen time in his house and his view is limited to his neighbour’s house rear window. In Disturbia, Kale moves around a lot and he has a more extensive scope to observe with his binoculars (Disturbia). Another key difference in the shooting of both films is how the directors use music. Hitchcock plays the strings of a Bernard Herrmann Score, although the music is used sparingly in Rear window and it serves to increase the feeling of paranoia, rather than point out, or allude to the identity of the villain. In Disturbia, the director opts for an alternative rock score integrated with frenzied violins, which serve the purposes of indicating the actions of the villain early in the film.
Disturbia. Dir. Daneil Caruso. Perf. Shia LaBeouf and Aaron Yoo. Paramount Pictures, 2007. DVD.
Rear Window. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Paramount Pictures, 1954. Film.
Woolrich, Cornell. It Had To Be Murder. New York: Penguin Publishers. 1942. Print.