Cinematic introduction of the main character in Rear Window

Always show, don’t tell! (Unless you are Alan Ball, remember? 🙂 ) Today, I’ll show you a perfect example of that “always show, don’t tell” rule. The movie was written by John Michael Hayes and directed by Alfred Hitchcock – the ultimate master of cinematic storytelling.

Quite early, we are introduced to the main character played by James Stewart. What is interesting though, is that the introduction happens through one single camera movement. Nice!

On imsdb.com, there is a script to Rear Window. I don’t know whether it is the original screenplay or just a transcript. Nevertheless, the opening scene is described there very nicely. So the following words are not mine, but the words found in Rear Window script.


Rear Window (1954)
Rear Window (1954)

The camera starts in the backyard, then pulls back swiftly and retreats through the open window back into Jefferies’ apartment. We now see more of the sleeping man. The camera goes in far enough to show a head and shoulders of him. He is sitting in a wheelchair.

Rear Window (1954)
Rear Window (1954)

The camera moves along his left leg. It is encased in a plaster from his waistline to the base of his toes. Along the white cast someone has written “Here lie the broken bones of L. B. Jefferies.”

Rear Window (1954)
Rear Window (1954)

The camera moves to a nearby table on which rests a shattered and twisted Speed Graphic Camera, the kind used by fast-action news photographers.

Rear Window (1954)
Rear Window (1954)

On the same table, the camera moves to an eight by ten glossy photo print. It shows a dirt track auto racing speedway,  taken from a point dangerously near the center of the track. A racing car is skidding toward the camera, out of control, spewing a cloud of dust behind it. A rear wheel has come off the car, and the wheel is bounding at top speed directly into the camera lens.

Rear Window (1954)
Rear Window (1954)

The camera moves up to a framed photograph on the wall. It is a fourteen by ten print, an essay in violence, having caught on film the exploding semi-second when a heavy artillery shell arches into a front-line Korean battle outpost. Men and equipment erupt into the air suspended in a solution of blasted rock, dust and screeching shrapnel. That the photographer was not a casualty is evident, but surprising when the short distance between the camera and the explosion is estimated.

Rear Window (1954)
Rear Window (1954)

The camera moves to another framed picture, this one a beautiful and awesome shot of an atomic explosion at Frenchman’s Flat, Nevada. It is the cul-de-sac of violence. The picture taken at a distant observation point, shows some spectators in the foreground watching the explosion through binoculars.

Rear Window (1954)
Rear Window (1954)

The camera moves on to a shelf containing a number of cameras, photographic film, etc.

Rear Window (1954)
Rear Window (1954)

It then pan across a large viewer on which is resting a negative of a woman’s head.

Rear Window (1954)
Rear Window (1954)

From this, the camera moves on to a magazine cover, and although we do not see the name of the magazine, we can see the head on the cover is the positive of the negative we have just passed.

From this, the camera moves on to a magazine cover, and although we do not see the name of the magazine, we can see the head on the cover is the positive of the negative we have just passed.


So through that one single camera movement, we know:

  • where we are
  • who is the main character
  • his name
  • his profession
  • all about his work
  • what caused the accident

Now, that is a very cinematic introduction of the main character through one single camera movement, not a single frame was wasted. And here is what Alfred Hitchcock said himself about this opening scene:

That’s simply using cinematic means to tell a story. It’s a great deal more interesting than if we had someone asking Stewart: “How did you happen to break your leg?” And Stewart answering: “As taking a picture of a motorcar race, a wheel fell off from one of the speeding cars and smashed into me.” That would be the average scene. To me, one of the cardinal sins for a script-writer, when he runs into some difficulty, is to say: “We can cover that by a line of dialogue.” Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.

The paragraph above comes from a book called simply Hitchcock. It’s a collection of interviews between Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut and I have to tell you, this is such a beautiful book!

It’s a journey into the world and history of cinema, Hitchcock’s personal life and first of all, a unique look at his films. Can’t wait to read that book again, and again, and then again!

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5 thoughts on “Cinematic introduction of the main character in Rear Window

  1. Hey jan another good post. It made me think about two other movies i love that consist of extremely long single shots: before sunrise and its sequel before sunset. I think one shot is 20 minutes long. The whole films are just two people walking around talking, but with the single shot format (my god think of the poor actors) you arent distracted by anything. It allows you to be drawn into them. If you know these movies i would be interested to know what you think of them. Or if you havent i strongly recommend them to you!

    Its kind of like the opposite of how quick action cuts are aimed at GRABBING the attention of todays youth. With extremely gentle midshots and closeups that go on and on and follow their faces, it keeps your attention because you have no moment to look away. The films are 90 min of dialogue but you are on the edge of your seat the whole time!

    1. Thanks for the tip, haven’t seen them yet, but looking forward already! Also like the idea of grabbing attention with midshots and closeups, never thought about it this way…

  2. I only just saw this movie Rear Window for the first time, a couple of weeks ago. The whole of the movie seems to play out in the same manner you have talked about here; we get shown intimate glimpses of people’s lives through their windows – the high profile dancer-socialite or the lonely old lady etc – but left to figure out for ourselves everybody’s life stories as there is very little comment or explanation of his neighbours by the characters.
    Cheers 🙂

    1. Yes, very true! 🙂 Did you read the book as well? 🙂 Because this is exactly what Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut were talking about in their interview when it came to Rear Window.

      Alfred Hitchcock: It shows every kind of human behavior – a real index of individual behavior. The picture would have been very dull if we hadn’t done that. What you see across the way is a group of little stories that, as you say, mirror a small universe.

      François Truffaut: All of the stories have a common denominator in that they involve some aspect of love. James Stewart’s problem is that he doesn’t want to marry Grace Kelly. Everything he sees across the way has a bearing on love and marriage. There is the lonely woman with no husband or lover, the newlyweds who make love all day long, the bachelor musician who drinks, the little dancer whom all the men are after, the childless couple who dote on their little dog, and, of course, the married couple who are always at each other’s throat, until the wife’s mysterious disappearance.

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