I'll be returning to my Persephone collection soon, but I was in the mood for something something a little different this weekend. Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window is one of my very favorite movies, and it ranks pretty high on the list, too, when it comes to movies by Hitchcock himself (whose work I have long admired and never tire of watching). Hitchcock adapted a number of his films from books or short stories, and Rear Window comes from a short story by Cornell Woolrich which was published in 1942 under the title "It Had to Be Murder". It is collected in a Penguin edition along with four other stories, Rear Window and Other Stories (1994). Although this Penguin edition is out of print, a number of his books have been reissued by Centipede Press and Hard Case Crime.
Cornell Woolrich was born in 1903. He began his writing career as a student at Columbia University but dropped out in order to write full time. Along with Raymond Chandler and James Cain he was one of the creators of the noir genre in the 1930s and 40s. He was a successful writer of pulp and detective fiction and I read that more of his stories and novels have been adapted to film than any other crime writer.
When Hitchcock filmed Daphne du Maurier's short story "The Birds" it bore little resemblance to her story, and I recall reading that she was not especially pleased by this. Of course the screenplay was likely written by someone else entirely. In the case of Rear Window, although small details are different--there is no Grace Kelly/Lisa Fremont character, Thelma Ritter's Stella character replaced a man called Sam (both offering a bit of comic relief) his day houseman, but "Hal" Jeffries (or Jeff) and Lars Thorwald are just as I've come to expect them. Otherwise it is a fairly faithful adaptation.
"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 daily habits and activities. They were the rear-window dwellers around me."
Laid up in his apartment and only able to get from bed to window and back again Hal Jeffries hasn't anything better to do than watch his neighbors through his back window. There is the jitterbugging young couple who rarely spend an evening in, a lonely widow with her little daughter, and Lars Thorwald and his sickly, bedridden wife. It's the latter two that Hal Jeffries begins wondering about.
"In the fourth-floor flat at right angles to the long, interior "street" the three shades had remained up, and the fourth shade had remained at full length, all day long. I hadn't been conscious of that because I hadn't particularly been looking at it, or thinking of it, until now. My eyes may have rested on those windows at times, during the day, but my thoughts had been elsewhere. It was only when a light suddenly went up in the end room behind one of the raised shades, which was their kitchen, that I realized that the shades had been untouched like that all day. That also brought something else to my mind that hadn't been in it until now: I hadn't seen the woman all day. I hadn't seen any sign of life within those windows until now."
Thorwald had just entered his rooms, and scanned them in a way that was obvious he wasn't looking at someone rather than vaguely around the room. No greeting was exchanged. And Thorwald keeps looking out on to the back courtyard, looking for someone or at something. Worriedly. And so Jeff begins surmising and imagining just what might be going on in the rooms across the way. What else does one do when stuck all day in a chair but idly wonder what his neighbors are up to.
And so begins a little game of cat and mouse. Jeff pulls his detective friend, Boyne, into the situation. When he dispatches a few of his men to do a little surreptitious looking at Thorwald's apartment, they turn up nothing and Boyne accuses his friend of having far too much time on his hands. He won't get drawn in again and risk embarrassment, but Jeff has a few tricks up his sleeve to bluff Thorwald into incriminating himself. Unless Thorwald catches Jeff out first.
Rear Window is a classic movie based on a great story. It's not hard at all to see where the inspiration came to turn it into a film. What great suspense--a man temporarily invalided in his home thinks he sees a crime occur before his eyes, but no one believes him. His tricks to find evidence only ends in turning the tables. Now he is the sitting duck. I must read more Woolrich! Hitchcock definitely fleshes out the story and ratchets up the tension and suspense even more, but the original concept is brilliant. Maybe instead of summering in Italy this year I should have a pulp fiction season. Hmm. Well, something to think about anyway.
Next week either Mollie Panter-Downes or more Cornell Woolrich. Interestingly both were working at the same time, but their work couldn't be more different!