As if performing careful, clinical cuts with a scalpel, visual artist Jeff Desom deconstructed the iconic backdrop of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window for a 2012 Vimeo Awards-winning short film essay. As August marked its 60th anniversary, I unearthed my short 2012 PopMatters post on the film’s backdrop and Desom’s tribute.
For his project, Jeff Desom used only the original footage from 1954’s Rear Window; the beloved back courtyard of the film’s Greenwich Village apartments is here in all of its glory, planted just beneath the bedroom of the film’s hobbled protagonist, L.B. Jeffries, played by James Stewart. A three-minute excerpt of Desom’s project is online, as the full “Rear Window Loop” is currently unavailable publicly:
Over the course of three minutes for his Timelapse, Desom grafts panels from the richly dressed, busy setting of Rear Window, and nudges the pieces back to the fore, returning them to the backdrop before emphasizing specific, inert sections as well as the mundane doings of the tenants. He retains the sequence of the original film’s lethargic and memorable opening moments, accentuating with acute panning and emulation of tilt shift photography. Desom comments on his project briefly at his Web site: “Since everything was filmed from pretty much the same angle I was able to match them into a single panoramic view of the entire backyard without any greater distortions. The order of events stays true to the movie’s plot.”
In lesser competent hands, Rear Window‘s courtyard would have been little more than an uncomplicated setting to which the film is largely confined. Instead, it’s a lively, urban microcosm that Hitchcock uses to frame a chilling story.
Amid a whirlwind of domestic chores, rooftop pigeon activity, and a scantily clad dancer, a sliver of the Manhattan skyline pokes between the aging brick facade and the angular rain gutters that snake across the buildings behind Jeffries’ apartment. Voyeuristic inclinations and suspicion of murder drives the recuperating photojournalist’s sleepless vigil toward Rear Window‘s nerve-wracking finish, and we’re privy to all of it, as if watching from our own fourth-floor walkup. Veteran New York Times critic Bosley Crowther cited the director’s “dramatic” use of color and attention to specifics when the film hit theaters:
Without any gory demonstrations, (Hitchcock) strongly suggests the stain of blood. In the polychromes seen from a rear window on steaming hot summer days and nights, and in the jangle and lilt of neighborhood music, he hints of passions, lust, tawdriness and hope.
The courtyard and essentially the back face of the buildings behind it is where everything transpires in Rear Window. In Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and in Light, author Patrick McGilligan notes that the set (“thirty-one apartments in all, twelve fully furnished”) was designed by Joseph MacMillan Johnson and populated with actors who received meticulous instructions from the director via short-wave radios. McGilligan also details that Paramount’s Hal Pereira, who would one day have been nominated for 23 Academy Awards, was a “department head” who gets credit for production design of Hitchcock’s films with the studio while “the real work was done by key subordinates behind the scenes.”
Rear Window‘s original framework owes to a short story that suspense writer Cornell Woolrich called “It Had to Be Murder” when a crime fiction magazine published him under a pen name in 1942. Within the first five sentences of “It Had to Be Murder”, Woolrich prods at the voyeuristic core of his piece while introducing a lonely, temporarily disabled photojournalist with too much time on his hands:
I didn’t know their names. I’d never heard their voices. I didn’t even know them by sight, strictly speaking, for their faces were too small to fill in with identifiable features at that distance. Yet I could have constructed a timetable of their comings and goings, their daily habits and activities. They were the rear-window dwellers around me.
The aesthetic of that courtyard was as critical to Woolrich’s 1940s pulp magazine story as it would one day be to Hitchcock’s acclaimed opening sequence. Years later, it’s quite worthy of an evocative, three-minute homage, even if it we’re just getting a peek at Desom’s project.
This post originally appeared at PopMatters. It has been edited minimally.