Sound design in 'Rear Window'

You sometimes see the credit 'Sound Designer' on modern movies. This reflects the increasing awareness - particularly since the advent of Dolby Surround and Dolby Digital - that manipulation of the sound can be used to heighten the emotional impact of the film. In the 1930s, when sound was in its first decade, the main interest was in convincing sound effects and clear dialogue (allowing for the fact that many cinemas had poor acoustics and sound equipment). Only later did the idea of using acoustics and general manipulation of the sound take root.

One of the earliest films to make an attempt to do this was Disney's Bambi (1942): the famous scene in which Bambi's mother is shot ('Your mother can't be with you any more' - not a dry eye in the house) is enhanced by the balance of the speech in the studio acoustic.

But probably the first film to make a serious effort in the design of the sound was Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954): almost the whole film is shot from the viewpoint of James Stewart, trapped in his apartment with a broken leg and taking a voyeuristic interest in the occupants of the various apartments he can see round the large courtyard of the building. All through the film we can hear sounds and voices from these apartments in the distance, carefully balanced to sound realistic and - as would be the case in real life - none too clear: however essential lines of dialogue from these characters are always intelligible. It's a sophisticated and very clever piece of sound mixing: it would be another twenty years before this sort of concept became more widespread. The sound recording is credited to Harry Lindgren and John Cope: the mixer was not credited but was Loren L. Ryder who was nominated for an Oscar for this film (though it was actually won by Oklahoma!).

A bit off the subject, but to nail one myth: almost every reference you see about this film will tell you that it is entirely shot from inside Stewart's apartment, right up to close to the end when he falls out of the window: this is shot upwards from ground level outside the room. There is, however, and rather oddly, one shot prior to this which is clearly shot at ground level in the courtyard, a reverse angle close-up of one of the peripheral characters. (There are also several less obvious shots from ground level - and of Stewart's apartment from outside his window.) Why Hitchcock - who never did anything accidentally - should break his rule in this way is a mystery. Watch out for the close-up next time you see the film - it's gone in a flash.

Posted: Mon - July 28, 2008 at 09:16 AM by Roger Wilmut          



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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM