Take One (1968) - Rear Window
- article: Rear Window
- author(s): Alfred Hitchcock
- journal: Take One (1968)
- issue: volume 2, issue 2, pages 18-20
- journal ISSN: 1192-5507
- keywords: Alfred Hitchcock, Ben Hecht, Cary Grant, Dial M for Murder (1954), François Truffaut, Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Conrad, Juno and the Paycock (1930), MacGuffin, North by Northwest (1959), Notorious (1946), Psycho (1960), Rear Window (1954), Rope (1948), Sean O'Casey, Secret Agent (1936), The 39 Steps (1935), Vertigo (1958)
by Alfred Hitchcock
I chose this picture because of all the films I have made, this to me is the most cinematic. I'm a purist so far as the cinema is concerned. You see many films that are what I call photographs of people talking. This film has as its basic structure the purely visual. The story is told only in visual terms. Only a novelist could do the same thing. It's composed largely of Mr. Stewart as a character in one position in one room looking out onto his courtyard. So what he sees is a mental process blown up in his mind from the purely visual. It represents for me the purest form of cinema which is called montage: that is, pieces of film put together to make up an idea.
When the film was originally invented, when cutting was invented, it was the juxtaposition of pieces of film that went through a machine that displayed ideas on the screen. Unfortunately today a lot of that is lost: It's not being used sufficiently, or sometimes not at all. I think it was Pudovkin, the famous Russian director many years ago, who took a close-up and he put various objects in front oi a woman's face and it was the combination of her face — she never changed her expression — and what she looked at (whether it was food or a child or what have you) that seemed to give an expression to her face. I made up the whole of the film production section of the Encyclopedia Britannica and I took the idea of this film as a prime example of the power of montage. For example, if Mr. Stewart is looking out into this courtyard and — let's say — he sees a woman with a child in her arms. Well, the first cut is Mr. Stewart, then what he sees, and then his reaction. We'll see him smile. Now if you took away the center piece of film and substituted — we'll say — a shot of the girl Miss Torso in a bikini, instead of being a benevolent gentleman he's now a dirty old man. And you've only changed one piece of film, you haven't changed his look or his reaction. This is one of the reasons why I chose this film. You see, many people think that a little dialogue scene in a movie is motion pictures. It's not. It's only part of it. Galloping horses in Westerns are only photographs of action, photographs of content. But it's the piecing together of the montage which makes what I call a pure film.
In Vertigo and other of my pictures a lot of the visual "pure cinema" techniques are used, but the subject matter is the thing that lends itself to certain treatments. I use the cinematic technique as often as I can, but sometimes there isn't the opportunity. Certainly I think that this film of all of them presented the greatest opportunity.
I have made films based on stage plays (back in the very early days of talking pictures) where I found that when filming a stage play, it's best not to, what they call in our business "open it up," because a stage play is designed for a limited area of presentation, that is, the proscenium arch. Some years ago I tried to get around this problem when I made a film called Rope. It was a stage play and it played continuously in its own time. And I tried to give it a flowing camera movement and I didn't put any cuts in at all. I tried to do it as if I were giving the audience all opera glasses to follow the action on the stage, but basically it was on stage. I think people make a dreadful error when they "open up" stage plays. What do they do when they say "open it up"? Well they open it up with a shot of Fifth Avenue and a Yellow Cab pulls up, the characters come out of the cab, they cross the sidewalk, they go into the building, they press the button for the elevator, they go up, they get out of the elevator, they go around along a corridor, they press another button, and when the door opens, where are we? Back on the stage.
For Rear Window each cut was written ahead of time. It's like scoring music — I prefer to make a film on paper. People ask me, "Don't you ever improvise on the set?" and I say "No, I prefer to improvise in the office while we're writing. That's where the ideas come from." So I prefer to design this kind of film well ahead of time, with each cut in its proper place. It's like composing. A lot of films are made where they have a first draft script and make it up as they go along. To me that's like a composer trying to compose music with an orchestra in front of him. He has a blank sheet and he says, "Flute, give me a note will you." So I work strictly on paper.
There's no score in Rear Window. I was a little disappointed at the lack of a structure in the title song. I had a motion-picture songwriter when I should have chosen a popular songwriter. I was rather hoping to use the genesis, just the idea of a song which would then gradually grow and grow until it was used by a full orchestra. But I don't think that came out as strongly as I would have liked it to have done.
Rear Window has a happy ending, but I don't think you have to drag in a happy ending. I think that an audience will accept any ending as long as it's reasonable. Years ago I made a film of Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock. It has a tragic ending, a very grim ending, but there was no other way around it. Vertigo ended with a girl falling from a tower in the same manner that she had helped a murderer with previously. The ending depends really on the nature of the content of what has gone before. Sometimes if you've created a lot of suspense in an audience it's very essential that you relieve that tension at the very end.
The rhythm of the cutting in Rear Window speeds up as the film goes on. This is because of the nature of the structure of the film. At the beginning, life is going on quite normally. The tempo is leisurely. There's a bit of a conflict between the man and the girl. And then gradually the first suspicion grows and it increases. And naturally as you reach the last third of your picture the events have to pile on top of each other. If you didn't, and if you slowed the tempo down, it would show up considerably. In the film Psycho, you start off with just a sack of money and a girl who is suddenly murdered in a shower. The shower scene was made very violent because of what was to follow. The pattern there was that events again increased, but I'd decreased the violence because I'd transferred the violence from the screen to the mind of the audience. So I didn't have to be violent later on because I'd built up the apprehension — having given them a sample, shall we say, and so it was a matter of going on and on increasing your tempo of events but keeping the violence down and letting the audience carry that for you, you see.
When you come down to the question of color, again it's the same as the orchestration with cutting. If you noticed in Rear Window, Miss Lonely Hearts always dressed in emerald green. To make sure that that came off, there was no other green in the picture, because we had to follow her very closely when she went across the street into the cafe. So I reserved that color for her. In Dial M for Murder I had the woman dressed in red to begin with and as the tragedy overtook her she went to brick, then to grey, then to black.
Since my scripts are worked out beforehand, there is no opportunity for creative work on the part of the film editor. I don't mind the film editor being in ... well, in fact, even with the writer I let him be part of the direction of the picture. Working closely with the writer I can tell him how we're going to shoot it, what size image, and so forth. So I'm willing to share the creative end of it with the writer and the same would apply with the editor. But, you see, where the work of the average editor comes in is when he's given a lot of film to sort out. This is when directors use many angles of the same scene. But I never do that. As a matter of fact when this film, Rear Window, was finished somebody went into the cutting room and said, "Where are the out-takes? Where is the unused film?" And there was a small roll of a hundred feet. That was all that was left over.
If you want to be really mean towards the character in this film you could call him a Peeping Tom. I don't think it's necessarily a statement of morality because it's a statement of fact. You don't hide from it, there's no point in my leaving it out. When Grace Kelly says that they're a couple of fiendish ghouls because they're disappointed that a murder hasn't been committed she's speaking the truth. They were a couple of ghouls.
The MacGuffin in this story is really the wedding ring, which is the clue. The MacGuffin is really a nickname for what happens in spy stories. Or it's the papers that are stolen. It's something that the characters in the film care a lot about, but the audience doesn't worry about it too much. It's the plan for the fort or what have you. In Rudyard Kipling it could always be the Khyber Pass and the forts around it. Years ago I made a film called Thirty-Nine Steps and someone said, well what were the spies after, and it turned out to be a lot of gibberish which nobody ... it was an airplane engine or bomb-bay door or something. As a matter of fact I refuse to use the kind of thing which most people think is very important. In the picture North by Northwest, Cary Grant speaking of the heavy or the spy says to the CIA, "Well, what is the fellow after?" and they answer, "Well, let's say he's an importer-exporter." And Grant says, "But what of?" and they answer "Government secrets." And that's all that was needed. The word MacGuffin comes from a story about two men in an English train, and one says to the other "What's that package on the baggage rack over your head?" "Oh," he says, "that's a MacGuffin." The first one says, "Well, what's a MacGuffin?" "It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish highlands." So the other says, "But there are no lions in the Scottish highlands." And he answers, "Then that's no MacGuffin." To show you how people do make a big mistake about this kind of thing, I once designed a picture with Ben Hecht. It was called Notorious. And it dealt with the sending of a woman, Ingrid Bergman, and an agent down to Rio to see what some Nazis were up to. They were up to something. So the producer said, "Well, what are you going to have the Nazis doing down in Rio?" And I said, "Well, I thought that we were going to have them searching for samples of uranium 235." And he said, "What's that?" And I said — this is 1944 — "Well, that's the stuff they're going to make the atom bomb out of." And he said, "What atom bomb? I've never heard of it." And I said, "No, it isn't out yet." As a result of me making this mistake, the producer didn't believe a word I said and finally sold the project to another studio, for only 50 percent of the property. He could have made 100 percent had he not made that cardinal error. Then I did meet some producers years after who said, "You know, we were offered a story of yours, Notorious, and we thought that was the Goddamndest thing on which to base a picture. How did you know years before it happened?" I said, "Well, there were all kinds of rumors. The Germans were dealing with heavy water in Norway." And so those producers lost all kinds of money for the wrong kind of thinking. But they still think that way. They still think that if the film's a spy film that it's all about ... well, the MacGuffin.
On the question of violence, you see, you've got to go right back to the three-month-old baby. He's held in his mother's arms and the mother says to him, "Boo!" And the mother is being violent. And the child gets the hiccups and then the child smiles and the mother is very pleased with what she's done. It starts as early as that. In other words she scares the hell out of the baby. And that's how fear is born. And later the child grows up and goes on a swing and becomes violent to itself. It goes higher, and higher, and higher, and then it goes over the top. And next it tries a new kind of violence by going to the midway and going on the roller coaster, and then it goes shooting at rifle ranges, and knocking down objects. And the child is forced to read Hans Anderson or Grimm — you'll notice the word "grim." They take the child to see Hansel and Gretel and how they push an old woman into the oven. So there's nothing new in it. We've always had violence — it's communication. We've always had violence. We didn't have television, we didn't have radio years ago, but the violence was always there. Little boys point at each other and say "Bang, you're dead." And the other little boy rolls over. They don't believe it. People are fearful that children who are brought up to look at movies and television are violent. It isn't true. A little boy once came up to me and said "Oh, Mr. Hitchcock, in that scene in Psycho, what did you use for blood, chickens' blood?" And I said, "No. Chocolate sauce." But he said, "What did you use?" So I'm not sure that all the hullabaloo about violence is really correct. So far as the average individual child seeing movies, seeing Westerns with horses rolling over and bodies falling.... It reminds me also, going back to Psycho, I had a call from the Los Angeles Times. One of the reporters said, "A man has just been arrested for the murder of three women. And he confessed to murdering the third woman after seeing Psycho." What did I have to say about it? I said, "What film did he see before he murdered the second woman? And am I to assume that the first woman was murdered after he had just finished drinking a glass of milk?"
The delineation of suspense covers a very, very wide field. Basically it is providing the audience with information that the characters do not have. The most simple example, the elementary example, is if four men are seated around a table and they're having a discussion about baseball, anything you like. Suddenly a bomb goes off and blows everyone to smithereens. Now, the audience get from that fifteen seconds of shock. But up to that time you've spent five minutes on a conversation about baseball. And the audience are without any knowledge that that bomb is under the table. Now let's take it the other way around. We show the bomb under the table, and let the audience know it's going to go off in five minutes. Now you go on with your conversation. Now the conversation becomes very potent, with the audience saying, "Stop talking about baseball, there's a bomb under there." Just as in Rear Window people were anxious about Grace Kelly being in the room and the man coming along the corridor. You're giving them information that neither of the characters have. So now you know there's a bomb under there and at the end of five minutes it's about to go off. You've driven the audience to the point of anxiety. Now a foot must touch the bomb and someone must look under, discover there's a bomb, pick it up, and throw it out the window. But it mustn't go off under the table. Because if you create suspense in the audience, it needs to be relieved of that suspense. Now, I made a film years ago from a Joseph Conrad story called Secret Agent. And I had a scene where a small boy carries a package across London. And he didn't know, but the audience knew, that a bomb was inside. And it had to be left at a certain place at a certain time. Well. I showed every form of holdup. He was even held up by the Lord Mayor's procession. Then he got onto a slow-moving bus, stop signs, go signs, policemen. And it drove the audience crazy. And I'd told them one o'clock and then I let it go on to one minute past one, two minutes past one. And at four minutes past one the bomb went off and blew up the bus, the boy into little pieces. I'd committed a cardinal sin. I had let that bomb go off. People were furious, angry.
I remember at the press show the leading London press woman critic came up and nearly hit me. "How dare you do a thing like that!" I hadn't relieved the suspense.
Yes, I saw Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black. I thought it was quite well done. Well, people said that it was a tribute to me. The only thing that bothered me was I didn't know how the woman got to know that there were five men up in that room. But maybe he was getting mixed up with the MacGuffin.