One of Alfred Hitchcock's finest films at last gets the 4K UHD treatment, and in the splendor of HDR10 Rear Window makes spying on the neighbors more titillating than ever before. The eye-popping transfer bursts with brilliant color and the enhanced clarity thrusts us into this intoxicating tale of voyeurism, romance, and murder. James Stewart and Grace Kelly steam up the screen and file memorable performances, while Hitchcock's impeccable artistry keeps us spellbound from the first frame to the last. The same fine audio and absorbing extras from the previous Blu-ray adorn this must own disc, one of four in the essential 4K UHD Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection.
In the fall of 1983 during my senior year of college, something wonderful happened in the world of film. Five Alfred Hitchcock classics that had been yanked from circulation in the mid-1960s by the director himself and ensnared in legal red tape since his death in 1980 finally emerged from the vault, and amid much hoopla received a limited theatrical re-release. Rear Window kicked off the series (which also included Vertigo, Rope, the 1955 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The Trouble with Harry) and guess who raced to see it the first chance he got? Experiencing this elusive masterpiece on the big screen in a packed Chicago theater with a spellbound audience remains a cherished memory, and as the film critic for Northwestern University's daily newspaper, I got to review it, too. Spoiler alert: I gave Rear Window a rave.
Thirty-seven years later, I'm still raving. Along with North by Northwest and Notorious, I consider Rear Window to be the quintessential Hitchcock film. Potent themes, a claustrophobic setting, a sinister mood, comedic and romantic shadings, dazzling style, impeccable craftsmanship, and - of course - almost unbearable suspense distinguish this masterwork that quietly hooks us and doesn't release its grasp until the final, fitting fadeout. Many Hitchcock movies spark glimmers of personal recognition, but Rear Window resonates more than others because its core focus is something we all share - human nature.
Insatiable curiosity is part of that nature, along with a desire to analyze and partake in the lives around us, and Rear Window brilliantly explores that aspect of our DNA. Early in the film, Thelma Ritter calls humans "a race of peeping toms," and boy is she right! Our own species is a constant source of fascination and intrigue, and Rear Window satisfies our innate voyeuristic longings to a fare-thee-well.
James Stewart plays L.B. "Jeff" Jeffries, a thrill-seeking magazine photographer uncomfortably confined to a wheelchair with a broken leg. His only pleasure, aside from the daily visits of Lisa (Grace Kelly), his drop-dead-gorgeous socialite girlfriend, and Stella (Ritter), his insurance company nurse, is gazing out of his tenement apartment's rear window and peering into the lives of his neighbors around the courtyard.
Through his eyes we meet a host of colorful characters including "Miss Lonelyhearts," a quirky, melancholic spinster who entertains imaginary suitors; "Miss Torso," a nimble dancer who leaps around her kitchen in her underwear; an insatiable newlywed couple who leaves their window-shades down for days; and a struggling musician who plays haunting piano melodies. We see these intriguing figures mostly in long shot and can rarely make out what they say, yet come to know them intimately through Hitchcock's striking sense of detail.
One neighbor, though, consumes Jeff's attention, especially after the man's invalid wife suddenly vanishes. Bizarre behavior follows, which leads Jeff to jump to the conclusion that burly, dour Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) not only murdered his wife, but also chopped her up afterward and is now disposing of her body piece by grisly piece. At first, Lisa and Stella think Jeff is daft, but they soon embrace his suspicions and the three become intrepid amateur detectives. Their overzealous quest for evidence, though, soon puts them all in grave danger.
Hitchcock spins his web with the dexterity of a black widow spider, confining us with Jeff in the cramped apartment and using the brick walls of the tenement courtyard to constantly remind us there's no escape. Factor in Jeff's helplessness due to his bum leg and Hitchcock once again creates a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere thick with uncertainty and a dash of dread.
John Michael Hayes wrote a few trashy scripts in his day (Butterfield 8, The Carpetbaggers, and Where Love Has Gone chief among them), but the four films he penned for Hitchcock rank among his best work. He justly earned an Oscar nomination for his Rear Window adaptation, which not only masterfully mixes suspense with bits of humor, but also incisively examines the challenges two professional adults face as they try to forge a serious relationship. He also supplies the always spirited Ritter with several choice one-liners (one of my favorites is "Nothing has caused the human race so much trouble as intelligence!") that she delivers with her inimitable flair.
Stewart and Kelly were two of Hitchcock's favorite actors and they generate considerable sizzle in their only screen appearance together. Despite their 21-year age difference, they make a believable couple, with his lack of pretense and her lofty airs providing the oil-and-water conflict necessary for sexual tension. Stewart personifies the Hitchcock everyman - forthright, intelligent, resourceful, compassionate - and Kelly is the blueprint for the iconic Hitchcock blonde - cool yet smoldering, intelligent, resourceful, independent. Both play their respective roles to perfection and enhance Hitchcock's artistry with plenty of their own.
Though Hitchcock's films often feature fleeting subjective shots that put the viewer in his characters' shoes and enhance suspense, Rear Window is unique because we see the entire story through two lenses - Hitchcock's and the telephoto lenses on Jeff's camera and binoculars. Perspective and perception are essential aspects of the movie, both narratively and stylistically, and when Hitchcock plops us in Jeff's wheelchair and allows us to see the same titillating, often cryptic images Jeff sees, we become active participants in the drama. And that forces us to answer the provocative question Hitchcock poses: Is seeing really believing or do our eyes play tricks on us and inspire our fertile imaginations to run wild?
Such is the nature of voyeurism and such is the brilliance of Hitchcock. The slow-burn pacing that builds to a thrilling climax, the meticulous attention to detail, the arresting visuals, and the impeccable use of sound all combine to create an unforgettable film experience. Hitchcock earned a well-deserved Best Director Oscar nod for Rear Window (he lost to Elia Kazan for On the Waterfront), but unforgivably, this all-time classic was snubbed in the Best Picture category. (Were Three Coins in the Fountain and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers really more deserving nominees?) The omission is mind-boggling because few films are as original, inventive, engrossing, and flawlessly executed as this riveting study in suspense from the undisputed Master of Suspense. Hitchcock made dozens of excellent movies over the course of his 50-year career, but Rear Window stands as arguably his crowning achievement. That was my opinion back in 1983, and it's still my opinion today.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 4K UHD edition of Rear Window arrives as part of The Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection, which also includes Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds. Almost identical to the 2012 Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection with regard to packaging, the discs are housed in a handsome digibook, which comes in a slipcase with raised lettering. Both 4K UHD and standard Blu-ray discs lie in slots in the "pages" devoted to each film. It's an attractive layout, but the discs fit a little too snugly in their slots, making their retrieval somewhat difficult. A leaflet containing the code to access the digital copies of all four movies is tucked inside the book's back cover. Sadly, no accompanying booklet is included with this collection. Video codec for all four films is 2160p/HEVC H.265 (HDR10) and default audio for Rear Window is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Rear Window is a beautifully shot film and this exceptional 2160p/HEVC H.265 HDR10 transfer faithfully honors Robert Burks' Oscar-nominated cinematography while enhancing clarity and color. Light levels fluctuate during the movie because scenes transpire during almost every hour of the day, and as a result, grain levels shift, too. The dimmer the sequence, the greater degree of visible grain, but that's to be expected. Thankfully, this transfer deftly navigates the changes and produces a lovely film-like image brimming with texture and warmth.
Rear Window has always flaunted a slightly soft look that lends the movie a dream-like quality, but the clarity of 4K UHD is never compromised in this presentation. The telephoto shots looking into Thorwald's flat are wonderfully sharp, as are the reflections of the tenement exterior in Jeff's binoculars, swirls of cigarette smoke wafting through the air, the eclectic decor of Jeff's apartment, and delicate finery of Lisa's designer outfits. Rich blacks anchor the image and excellent shadow delineation distinguishes the nocturnal scenes. The crisply rendered whites never bloom and flesh tones remain natural and stable throughout.
Gorgeously vivid colors constantly grab attention. Lisa's red lipstick and blonde hair, the red lobster shell, the emerald green dress worn by Miss Lonelyhearts, the varied hues of the roses in Thorwald's garden, and the pastel print of Lisa's casual frock pop with intensity yet never appear artificial. Close-ups are breathtaking, too. Beads of sweat, pores, and facial creases are crystal clear, but nothing beats our first glimpse of Kelly as she leans toward us in a subjective tight shot that fills the screen (take a gander at the image above). That single shot has always knocked our collective socks off, but never more so than here, and the extreme close-up kiss between Kelly and Stewart that follows has never seemed more erotic. Talk about feeling like a peeping tom!
A few shots appear a bit rough, but the instances are brief and never break the film's hypnotic spell. Best of all, the pristine source material is free of any marks or debris, and no digital anomalies intrude.
By comparison, the Blu-ray looks a bit cold. Though the image quality is excellent, the film's overall appearance is much brighter. The immersive warmth of the 4K UHD transfer is replaced by a sterility that keeps the action at arm's length. Colors lack the vibrancy and richness that make the 4K UHD transfer so mesmerizing, blacks are weaker, shadows are fainter, and long-shot details aren't as crisp. On its own, the Blu-ray offers a pleasing presentation, but also an entirely different and less satisfying viewing experience than its ultra high-def HDR10 cousin.
No audio upgrade here. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track is the same one included on the Masterpiece Collection Blu-ray disc. Though this solid track nicely conveys all the myriad subtleties that bring the tenement atmosphere to life (and shows us why Rear Window nabbed a Best Sound Oscar nomination), the courtyard setting cries out for surround sound that would pinpoint activity in the various apartments. (Such a track may not be feasible given the film's production date and lack of distinct audio elements, but it's a pleasant pipe dream.)
That said, there's not much to complain about here. All the faint nuances from the individual flats - bits of conversation, laughter, piano playing - are just distinct enough, while atmospherics like rain, street noise, and the general murmur of the city come through cleanly. Sonic accents like flashbulb pops, shattering glass, the ringing of an alarm clock, and police sirens are crisp, and a wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of Franz Waxman's jazz-infused music score without a hint of distortion. All the marvelous dialogue is clear and easy to comprehend, and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle mar the essential, highly effective silences.
The sound in Rear Window is faint much of the time, but it plays a critical role in the film, providing a sense of place and surreptitiously enhancing suspense. This mono track may not be flashy, but it's highly effective and perfectly complements Hitchcock's elegant visuals.
All the supplements from the previous Blu-ray edition have been ported over to this release, and the good news is they all reside on the 4K UHD disc as well as the standard Blu-ray. For a complete review of the supplements, click here.
Alfred Hitchcock almost always delivers the goods, but with Rear Window, he showers us with riches. Artistry, intrigue, and - of course - suspense abound in this unforgettable, visually stunning tale of voyeurism, romance, and murder. James Stewart gives one of his best performances as a laid-up photographer who wiles away the hours peering out of his tenement flat's rear window and examining the behavior of his eccentric neighbors, one of whom just might have killed his wife. Grace Kelly provides the glamor and Thelma Ritter supplies the sass in an endlessly fascinating film that stands as one of Hitchcock's best. The beautifully lush, sharp, and immersive HDR10 presentation makes Rear Window more captivating than ever before and makes this 4K UHD upgrade essential for any film fan. Must Own.