At first glance, it wouldn’t have appeared that “Rear Window” was a prime candidate for the full-blown restoration that is the specialty of the team of Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz. Unlike “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Spartacus,” Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece is not a 70mm widescreen epic that demands to be seen on the biggest of screens, or from which scenes had been cut or materials were missing. Unlike “My Fair Lady,” it is not a film for which theatrical prints and video copies (in addition to the negative) were so bad as to render the movie essentially unwatchable. Even Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” the team’s most recent effort, seemed a more pressing case for attention, if only because of its complex and lush visual scheme, as well as its soaringly romantic soundtrack.
But despite the fact that the perennially successful “Rear Window” had been reissued several times since its initial release, most recently in 1984, first-rate prints did not exist, and Harris and Katz found that the original camera negative had so deteriorated thanks to overprinting and poor storage that it could no longer be used for making new prints — hence the need for a from-scratch effort to create a restoration negative.
A bonus on this project is that it is the first restoration to use Technicolor’s recently revived dye transfer printing process, phased out in 1974 but now back to assure permanent retention of a film’s precise color scheme.
Result for the viewer may be less spectacular in obvious ways than Harris and Katz’s previous undertakings, which take a year or more to complete, but is no less gratifying than any of them, simply because of the film’s exceptional quality.
“Rear Window,” which stars James Stewart as a wheelchair-bound photojournalist who becomes convinced that a murder has been committed across the courtyard from his Greenwich Village apartment, was conceived by Hitchcock as “a purely cinematic film,” given its confinement to a single setting and one man’s point of view. Much has been made over the years of its frankly voyeuristic nature and the basic situation’s implicit thematic relevance to the act of moviegoing, and much of the picture’s power stems from the considerable sense of complicity the viewer develops with Stewart’s increasingly obsessed peeping Tom.
To young audiences seeing it for the first time, the film, which USA Films is handling for Universal and which opens Jan. 21 at the Film Forum in New York before fanning out to major markets in subsequent weeks, will look somewhat old-fashioned due to the obvious (but quite marvelous) studio set and the non-naturalistic use of color, which the restoration preserves with all due authenticity. Another delightful anachronism is Thelma Ritter’s character, an insurance company nurse who not only makes house calls to give Stewart massages, but sticks around to make him sandwiches. Modern health care has gotten worse than we knew.
Hitchcock’s supple and witty handling of a story that only slowly develops true tension lends the proceedings a complete sense of confidence, which in turn allows one to attend to the film’s many other fine qualities, such as John Michael Hayes’ brilliantly structured and beautifully written screenplay and the exceptional manner in which the ambient music and sounds coming from diverse apartments and city locations have been mixed to subtly alter moods.
Stewart’s wry and intelligent performance as a commitment-phobic middle-aged vagabond takes on additional fascination in the way his character does everything to push away his impossibly beautiful girlfriend but shove her out the window. For her part, Grace Kelly puts on an extraordinary fashion show and, with a little assist from some breathtaking slow-motion, gets to plant one of the sexiest kisses in cinema history on her immobile lover.
In what is close to a perfect film, slight flaws include a typically ’50s public lament by a woman whose dog has just been killed, and the inexplicable speeding up of some shots at the climax. It’s always amusing to see how Hitchcock made up Raymond Burr’s villain to resemble the director’s longtime producer, David O. Selznick, and it should also be noted that the original ending, in which a closing window blind yielded to a view of the Paramount logo, and which was cut in previous Universal reissues and on video, has fortunately been restored here.