Rear Window Audio

Until recently, I hadn’t realized how significant RW’s soundtrack—never issued in album form—really is, but then I read the chapter on RW in Jack Sullivan’s Hitchcock’s Music (2006) and it set me straight:

Rear Window is Hitchcock’s most daring experiment in popular music. Its pop-song surrealism is the forerunner of American Graffiti, Mona Lisa, After Hours, and many other films, but the way the tunes and street sounds drift through the sound track, in and out of windows and the protagonist’s dreams, is unique.

Indeed, Rear Window feels like such a radical experiment, unlike anything in a movie before, that we need to remind ourselves that its roots go back to British Hitchcock—to The 39 Steps, Rich and Strange, even Blackmail. (169)

So Hitchcock may deserve as much praise for the score as Franz Waxman, the film’s credited composer (which may account for the fact that AH makes his cameo in the apartment of a songwriter). Indeed, Waxman’s previous work for Hitchcock (Rebecca, Suspicion, The Paradine Case) were lush symphonic scores—standard Hollywood—very unlike what was produced for RW. Waxman should be given his due, however. Sullivan mentions that the final cut of the film includes a quote from Waxman’s score from A Place in the Sun (1951). The jaunty jazz-infused number that opens the film, “Jukebox #6,” is Waxman’s. And of course, Waxman wrote the song that we hear gestating throughout the picture until its performance in completed form at the end of the film, “Lisa.” Waxman, though, is but one of many contributors:

Rear Window’s cue sheet instantly reveals an astonishing diversity and richness. It lists thirty-nine songs, ballets, “improvisations,” boogies, and “jukeboxes” by a dizzying variety of songwriters. The official composer is Franz Waxman, on his fourth Hitchcock film; the list also includes Leonard Bernstein, Richard Rodgers, Jay Livingston, Johnny Burke, Walter Gross, Schubert, and Mendelssohn.” (170)

Might not AH himself have made a contribution? How else to account for this:

Everywhere, the sound track upsets conventions. Lisa’s floating entrance into the movie and into Jeff’s dreams—one of the most ravishing shots in all Hitchcock—is announced not by a lush nocturne but by a faraway singer warming up on the piano, blending with the cries of children playing in the last glow of sunset, a touch of realism that imparts sublime poetry. (180)

Sullivan continues:

Fascinating as the referential songs are—and they clearly appealed to Hitchcock’s love of designs and correspondences—it is these moments of pure poetry that make Rear Window such a haunting and original work of art: the piano boogie-woogie pinging into Lisa’s subconscious as she hums what is to be her theme song; the distant waltz incongruously supporting the doomed dog’s courtyard digging; the Ivesian blending of all the music in a dissonant fabric of crisscrossing songs and city noises. (180)

The reference to Ives is instructive, and suggests what Sullivan does not quite make explicit: the complete score for RW is nothing short of the film’s sonic totality, including all the background sounds, found music, and dialog. Thus the film’s ideal soundtrack album would have to last the entire length of the movie. Until The Birds (1963), then, this was perhaps the most radical “score” for film ever devised.

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2 responses to “Rear Window Audio

  1. “the complete score for RW is nothing short of the film’s sonic totality, including all the background sounds, found music, and dialog.”

    Of what film could this not be plausibly said?

  2. You might well be right. RW, however, remains a special case. Significantly, 50-odd years after the film’s release, the soundtrack has never been independently issued.

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