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Sunday, 2 August 2009

Book of the film: Rear Window

Rather the short story of the film, really, since its length is only about 16,000 words.

Cornell Woolrich was popular and prolific, producing a slew of short stories in the 1930s and 1940s. His influences were F Scott Fitzgerald and James M Cain, among others. His biographer, Francis M Nevins, believes Woolrich’s recurring leitmotif is loss of love. ‘Murder in Wax’ (1935) was his earliest attempt at a first-person narrative from the perspective of a woman. The Black Angel (1943) is about a terrified young wife’s race against time to prove the innocence of her husband convicted of murder, again a first-person female viewpoint. He was introverted and lived with and was dominated by his mother, Claire Attalie. She died in 1957, aged 83. Woolrich died in 1968, aged 65.

Alfred Hitchcock made his film of ‘Rear Window’ in 1954, based on Woolrich’s story ‘It had to be murder’ (1942), starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly. It’s unlikely that anyone reading this hasn’t seen the film, but I’ll still attempt to avoid spoilers. The point of the story is that the hero is confined to his apartment room and idly watches his neighbours – and fears that one of them has murdered his bedridden wife. But how can he prove it?

Many a good film has sprung from a short story, whether by Woolrich, Poe, Kipling, Lawrence, Conrad, James, du Maurier, Philip K Dick or King. The essence, the outline is evident, but there’s scope to add, which screenwriters may find easier than trying to cut out subplots, characters and events from a full-length work when working from a novel.

Woolrich was inventive and wrote with plenty of pace and ‘Rear Window’ is a good example of his shorter work. The first-person narrator is Hal Jeffries and he’s stuck in his apartment for some reason, watching the antics of his neighbours through their back windows. He states ‘… my movements were strictly limited… I could get from the window to the bed, and from the bed to the window, and that was all.’ The humorous ending of the story reveals that Hal was stuck in there with a plaster cast on his leg – which really cheats the reader since if we are to be in the scenes with Hal, we’d see the cast. The film, obviously, begins with a close-up of the cast on the leg of LB ‘Jeff’ Jeffries (James Stewart).

Unlike in the film, the story has no female involvement. Kelly plays a young socialite girlfriend Lisa Fremont. In the film, Stella (Thelma Ritter), a cranky homecare nurse, calls daily; this role in the story belongs to Sam, a black friend/helper who brings in food or papers and is a mite superstitious: ‘My old mammy told it to me… Any time you hear (a cricket), that’s a sign of death – someplace close…’ Another character is Hal’s long suffering pal, Byrne, who worked on Homicide; the film character is Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey). And of course Lars Thorwald, played with such menace by Raymond Burr.

All of the philosophising between Stewart and Kelly was contrived padding and a little foreshadowing for the film – and actually slows the pace and dilutes the suspense which tends to build and build in the story. Indeed, Woolrich was a master at cranking up the suspense, often creating a race against the clock to save his protagonists. He certainly has a way with suspenseful phrasing – ‘I never heard the door open…behind me. A little eddy of air puffed through the dark at me.’

The denouement is slightly contrived in the story, but just believable; the film’s version is almost as bad, though giving Stewart the occupation of photographer makes sense of it.

As with so many works that have been translated into celluloid and reached millions, the action of reading has to attempt suspension of prior knowledge, which is not easy, otherwise the written source material offers few surprises. Even so, this is still worth reading.

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