“Lisa” and the Music in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”

By Roger Crane, the Song Scout

For nearly half a century Alfred Hitchcock created films filled with interesting, gripping and illuminating music. Unlike many film directors he both loved and understood music and that, in a sense, the soundtrack is a character in a film. He employed more musical styles (e.g., popular, classical, avant-garde) than any other director. He also worked with the very best composers, most often the brilliant Bernard Herrmann (e.g., Vertigo). His composer for the 1954 Rear Window was Franz Waxman who created a score of diversity, drama and emotion that is his most interesting work. Many books and articles have been written about Rear Window but the depth and complexity of the movie’s soundtrack may be the most under-appreciated aspect of this famed film. In fact, it is arguably Hitchcock’s most daring experiment in the use of popular music. The way snippets of songs and street sounds drift through the Waxman soundtrack, in and out of courtyard windows is unique, partially because popular music often shapes the narrative. Rear Window includes a surprising 39 songs, ballets and “improvisations” by a large number of composers, including Jimmy Van Heusen, Richard Rodgers, Livingston and Evans and Leonard Bernstein. For the few of you who have not seen this stylish thriller, here is a very brief synopsis. Jeff (Jimmy Stewart), a bored wheelchair-bound news photographer spies on his neighbors from his apartment rear window and becomes convinced one of them, a man named Lars Thorwald, has murdered his wife. Jeff eventually convinces his girlfriend, Grace Kelly and his therapist Thelma Ritter of his suspicions.

The opening Rear Window theme is titled “Prelude and Radio,” which is a hybrid of hot jazz, Gershwin and cinematic grandeur with blaring clarinet, bluesy strings and a celesta-timpani duet. “Prelude” seems to establish the movie’s tone as cool urbanity. This tone is further enhanced as we view a sleek black cat meowing in counterpoint as it scampers up some stairs. The film then cuts to one of the many courtyard windows where a man that Jeff dubs “Composer” is shaving while changing stations on his radio. He lands on a station playing an obnoxious commercial (Men –are you over 40? When you wake up in the morning, do you feel tired and run-down?”) Frustrated, Composer interrupts his shaving and switches to sexy trumpets and the thumping basses of a big-band sound soon superimposed over a song that he is struggling with. As the drama progresses, his improvisations and motifs eventually morph into a lovely ballad that we later learn is titled “Lisa.”

Thanks to a sexy dancer that Jeff has dubbed Miss Torso, Rear Window also takes on elements of ballet. She dances to Waxman’s “Rumba,” to Bernstein’s “Fancy Free” and to Schubert’s stately Rosamunde.” Stella (Ritter) enters catching Jeff spying on Miss Torso: and warns him of the dangers of voyeurism. All the sonic layers vanish except for the nucleus of that pretty melody “Lisa,” which is arguably the Rear Window theme since, throughout the soundtrack, the melody manages to grab our attention even in the noisiest, most intense moments. The song continues to take shape as Jeff takes out his telephoto to watch Thorwald in another window unpacking knives and saws. Thorwald’s actions are embellished with Lisztian cadenzas as he empties jewelry from his wife’s purse. Jeff suspects him of murdering his wife and also convinces Stella. During these harrowing scenes, fragments from “Lisa” blend and collide with other unidentified songs in a mysterious collage worthy of experimental composer John Cage.

Composer throws a lively and lengthy party for friends, and they make merry singing “Mona Lisa, “That’s Amore” and other hits of the day. Later a pulsing boogie-woogie by Walter Gross (of “Tenderly” fame) provides a bass for their raucous nocturne, Composer and the band play his nearly completed song “Lisa” and Jeff’s girlfriend (Kelly) hums the theme as it snakes into Jeff’s window. “Where do you think he gets his inspiration?” she wonders aloud about the Composer. “From the landlady – once a month?” Jeff dryly retorts. The song also wafts through the courtyard into the apartment of a depressed neighbor who Jeff has dubbed “Miss Lonely Hearts.” She stares upward beatifically searching for the source of the music. She is enchanted and the music keeps her from contemplating suicide. This scene is one of the film’s most moving.

I have focused on the use of Waxman’s ballad, “Lisa.” But sometimes the songs in Rear Window are just mischievous Hitchcockian jokes, as when the little-known Livingston-Evans song “Lady Killer” plays while detective Doyle (Wendell Corey) presents Jeff with ostensibly definitive proof that Thorwald did not kill his lady. “Red Garters,” another Livingston-Evans song, plays breezily as Jeff gets Thorwald out the door with a fake phone call. These referential songs make Rear Window an interesting and original work of cinematic art. The main theme “Lisa” never achieved any recognition outside of Rear Window. Admittedly, the lyrics by Harold Rome are mundane but, in general, the song is rich in its meanings and works well in the film, bringing together the murder mystery and romance, blending with other tunes in a beautiful and mysterious cacophony.

1) Four pieces of music, including “Fancy Free” from Rear Window (10 minutes)

2) The lovely song “Lisa” which the “Composer” wrote during the film,

3) “Lisa’ as a vocal performed during the Rear Window closing scenes

4) A lush arrangement of “Lisa” by Victor Young orchestra

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