Joshua Bers February 28, 1995
Flashes on paper and film
in Rear Window
Cornell Woolrich's short story Rear Window reads, at times, like a film script or an outline rather than as a complete narrative. Frequently sentences are left unfinished in the middle of a thought or when they are terminated they aren't grammatically complete. Hitchcock, in adapting this bare-bones story, had quite a lot of room in which to add his own flavor. On the surface, the differences between the film and the short story are quite apparent. Most noticeably the film has the glamorous Grace Kelly playing the role of Lisa, that is absent from the story. Whereas the movie has the many subplots of the other windows, i.e. miss Torso, miss LonelyHeart, etc., the story mentions only one, the lonely widow with a child. Underneath the polished look and Hitchcockian perfection of the film, however, lies the framework of the short story: A man in a cast looking out his back window solving a mysterious murder. From this foundation the two diverge greatly at times, converging again at others. The final scene in Jeff's (Jefferies') room is one point where film and paper are quite similar. It is the smaller details of this sequence on which I would like to focus attention; especially with respect to the differing (visual and literary) mediums involved and how each comments upon the notion of looking.
Books, pictures, and movies can merely document action but are incapable of any themselves. Both Jeffs are plagued by this inability to take action for they are confined to a chair. The text describes the situation (p. 290). "There wasn't a weapon in the place with me. There were books there on the wall, in the dark, within reach." In the film Jeff's photographs that we see surrounding him replace the books. Both are equally useless in providing them with protection against a physical attack. The props of books and photographs at the same time reflect on the passivity of their respective mediums while exposing the helplessness of the protagonists.
From this impotent state the text and film rescue their protagonists with literal sight impediments that hinder Thorwald's actions and in the case of the film distort the viewer's eyesight as well. In the text Jeff takes the bust of a famous philosopher, Rousseau or Montesquieu, in protection from Thorwald's fatal vision, the movie's Jeff uses his camera's flash. "I hoisted the bust to my other, upward shoulder, balanced it there precariously for a second head, blanket tucked around its ears. From the back, in the dark, it would look--I hoped---" recounts Jeff. In the film, Jeff has the flash in his lap as a relic of an earlier powerless moment. He was going to use it to warn Lisa of Thorwald's return when she was searching his apartment but failed to because his visual attention was diverted by miss Lonely Heart.
Hitchcock must have had Woolrich's description in his head in making the flashbulb sequence of Thorwald's assault. It is one of the few passages in the story with so much attention paid to detail. "Time was up. The flash of the shot lit up the room for a second, it was so dark. Or at least the corners of it, like flickering, weak lightning. The bust bounced on my shoulder and disintegrated into chunks," Jeff describes. During the confrontation montage, in the film, the camera shifts point of view to the unfamiliar perspective from Thorwald's eyes. Jeff literally overexposes the frame as well as Thorwald's eyes with each flash of a bulb. The image projected is first of Jeff shielding his eyes then of the flash, cut to a medium shot of Thorwald closing his eyes, pushing up his glasses to rub his eyes and then cut to a reverse perspective from Thorwald's eyes that is toned red with a central opaque red ball blocking Jeff from view. The montage repeats this sequence for each flash. In the text Jeff describes Thorwald's second shot as, "It was like looking a sunrise in the face." The film delivers this image quite vividly and effectively.
Whereas in the short story the flashes (gun shots) are all described from Jeff's perspective, Hitchcock uses the freedom of perspective that the camera affords to break the viewer away from Jeff and associate him/her with Thorwald's viewpoint of the flashes (flashbulbs). The shocking quality of a flash also serves as a literal enlightenment of the viewer. The viewer, much like Jeff, when looking intensely in the dark with dilated pupils is graphically warned that one is likely to get jolted by what one sees.