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Film

Gary Rydstrom on Rear Window’s ingenious sound design

Northwestern’s Block Museum hosted a screening of Rear Window that was introduced by Gary Rydstrom, Oscar-winning sound designer for Saving Private Ryan, Titanic, Jurassic Park, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and many other movies you love. Though I didn’t stay for the movie (I’ve already seen it on the big screen), I was eager to hear Rydstrom’s perspective on one of my all-time favorites.

He included this great quote from John Fawell’s Hitchcock’s Rear Window: The Well-Made Film:

Rear Window is so highly charged with a sense of the significance of the hidden, with the mystery of the barely glimpsed and distantly heard, that it is difficult not to carry this same sense of mystery back to our own world. Hitchcock’s cinema leaves us with a more highly charged sense of the mystery of the world. We notice certain things more after a Hitchcock film—a glass of milk, a woman’s handbag. Mundane items buzz with a mystery they did not have before. Hitchcock tends to invest us with his manifold neuroses. He makes us more wary of, and therefore more alive to, the world. Rear Window specifically heightens our attention to the barely glimpsed sights and distant sounds of our own neighborhood. It makes us more sensitive to the mystery of hidden lives, to the mysterious presence of loneliness and alienation in our own world.

Other notes from his brief talk:

  • He saw Rear Window on TV in 1971 as a 12 year old; turned him on to movies and sound design
  • His goal was to marry Grace Kelly (ditto)
  • We tend to think movie sound should be loud and dramatic; Rear Window‘s wasn’t, yet still an ingenious use of sound to this day
  • Film was a counter to criticisms of Hitchcock that his films were cold and clinical
  • The film’s hero is Lisa Fremont
  • Stewart’s Jeffries a criticism of the American male
  • Murder mystery was in service to the love story
  • Voyeurism generally has a reputation as a sickness, but this shows an upside
  • Diegetic music throughout (pianist, radio) comments on and contrasts with the action
  • Distance/echo of music around the apartment complex indicative of neighborly distance and alienation; also technically hard to do in 1954
  • Sound design changes once Thorwald appears
  • Pianist’s “Lisa” theme develops during movie along with the story
Categories
Film Review

Rear Window

Published in the North Central Chronicle on October 5, 2007, as part of a series called “Chad Picks Classic Flicks.”

Today we’re going to visit the 1950s, a time when television shows delivered the least objectionable content, when the president of the United States was roundly respected, and when rock stars needed only to shake their pelvises to cause massive public outrage. Indeed, in this time of traditionalism emerged a film that dared to talk in taboos and confront the peeping tom in all of us. This film is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954).

James Stewart, the “Everyman” of American cinema, plays L.B. Jeffries, a maverick freelance photojournalist who becomes bedridden after being on the receiving end of a racetrack collision. His cast-bound life is boring, and so far as he can tell, so are the lives of the neighbors with which he shares an apartment complex. Curiosity gets the best of Jeffries, as he begins to discreetly examine the personal lives of his fellow tenants with the zoom lens on his camera.

Jeffries’ peeping seems innocuous at first, but when he begins to suspect a murder has taken place in an apartment across the yard, his innocent spy games turn into a full-fledged investigation. He enlists his longtime girlfriend, high-class fashion designer Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) and his nurse Stella to help him solve his homespun whodunit, but all take umbrage with Jeffries’ perceived voyeurism.

Their indignations only last for so long. Soon both women are immersed in the mystery and they too become peeping toms, powerless to their desire to make other people’s business their own. From there it doesn’t take long for the team’s sleuthing to lead to danger. Their suspicions soon become known to the suspected killer, and the race is on for Jeffries to solve the murder or become a part of it.

A subtle, yet defining quality of Rear Window is how the potential of Jeffries and Fremont’s relationship is seen through the relationships of Jeffries’ neighbors. There is the frustrated bachelor musician; a possible outcome for Jeffries if he fails to tie the knot with Lisa. There is a sociable yet single dancer who has to fight off frequent marriage proposals; a possibility for Lisa if she leaves Jeffries. Then there is the boring, domesticated married couple; a possibility for both of them. Jeffries takes these possible futures, pairs it with his fear of commitment, and makes it difficult for Lisa to convince him to settle down for good.

Another thing I love about Rear Window is that it doesn’t necessarily show us what we want to see when we want to see it. Even as clues are revealed and Jeffries tries to rally support of his theory, it doesn’t seem like much is happening. We don’t see any bodies, there are no death threats, and our amateur sleuth hero might just be out of his mind. But this apparent inactivity is one of the film’s greatest triumphs. It’s like boiler pot: the steam builds ever so slowly until the tension becomes so overwhelming and it finally explodes.

Hitchcock was infamous for loving to use his films to make his audiences squirm. Mind you, not how Saw makes you squirm with disembowelments and decapitations, but rather with mind games and psychological trickery. He made the characters with which we identified and related consistently do the wrong thing, effectively tricking us into thinking or believing something we never imagined a decent person could think.

There are many other Hitchcock films I would recommend: Psycho, Notorious, and The Birds are all worthy of mention. But Rear Window is one of my all-time favorite films because remains wholly effective throughout despite having no soundtrack or significant action. It is as delightful as it is disturbing, as maniacal as it is moving. There are many films that intrigue, scare, and make you think, but none as brilliantly and successfully as Rear Window.