How Hitchcock Used Editing to Turn 'Rear Window' into a Masterpiece of Visual Storytelling
Editing is one of the most mysterious aspects of filmmaking. Through skillful manipulations of still images, it's possible to create illusions of unity in time and space, and what's more, make these illusions elicit emotion from an audience, whether tears, laughs, or screams (and sometimes all three at once). Alfred Hitchcock was a master of editing (and everything else in the realm of cinema), and nowhere is his editing skill, as well as that of editor George Tomasini, more on display than in his classic, Rear Window. Watch this video and see Hitch explain (in his inimitable and entertaining way) the key element of film editing that he turned into much more than a technical device in his 1954 classic.
Do you ever stop and think about how weird it is that movies work? The idea that persistence of vision (which, according to this, is a myth, which is even weirder) allows for a series of still photographs, projected at exactly the right speed, to take on the illusion of movement, is one of the more bizarre (and revolutionary) discoveries, in history. What's even weirder (or equally weird; I'm no expert/arbiter of weirdness) is that, arranged in a certain order, these moving pictures can make us laugh, or cry, or jump with fright. But why? In this video, Alfred Hitchcock, in his matchless manner, explains one of the fundamental principles of film editing:
The Kuleshov Effect, named for Russian director Lev Kuleshov (here's a great article on the effect and the director) was revolutionary at the time it was discovered in the first decades of the 20th century. Check out the original:
It's almost impossible to underestimate the influence of the Kuleshov effect. In fact, Hitchcock understood it so thoroughly that he based much of his style on the relationship of this three shot sequence. In Rear Window, a film he called his "most cinematic" because it was "told only in visual terms" (and in the screenplay, there is, indeed, no dialogue for the first four pages) we can see how the Kuleshov effect provides much of the film's drama.
In Rear Window, Jimmy Stewart's character is a photographer who's confined to his apartment by a broken leg. His only connection to the outside world is through his window, and it's through this window that he uncovers a murder. In the hands of a lesser director, this might not have made for a terribly gripping film, but Hitchcock turned out a masterpiece, because he was always aware of the audience, the camera, and how the framing of a shot affected their experience of a film. Since much of the film consists of Jimmy Stewart, in either medium shot or closeup, looking out his window ---
-- followed by what he sees --
-- and then his reaction to it, it could be argued that, to a great extent, Rear Window is the Kuleshov Effect. It is a film about looking, and Hitchcock, as always, was canny on several levels. Stewart's character, a photographer, is a voyeur by profession; in the film's story, he is a voyeur, peeking through his window into people's private lives; in the framing of the shots, Hitchcock always makes sure to keep his POV shot aligned with Stewart's eyeline. Rather than an objective POV shot, we are seeing what Stewart sees, so we as audience members become even more voyeuristic than we already are (because movies are nothing if not exercises in voyeurism, in looking into other people's lives). It also allows Hitch to pull our strings in any direction he chooses, as in this classic scene where Raymond Burr's character decides to turn the tables, and look back at us.
Hitchcock's technique was so effective, that, in an interview, Stewart later claimed not to remember playing the role the way he had seen it on-screen. The fact was, Hitchcock's manipulation of the Kuleshov effect was so masterful that he could alter the montage and create completely different meanings. So what Stewart was looking at during filming (or what he was supposed to be looking at) may very well not have been what he thought he was supposed to be looking at. Which is all kinds of weird.
It's also just one more example of why movies are truly mind-blowing, and why studying the work of the masters can be so instructive. Even the masters study the masters, and we all stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. So, it's perhaps fitting that the last word should go to one of our greatest directors and greatest cineastes, Martin Scorsese, here talking about the classic Hitchcock film. I'll let him have the last word.