REAR WINDOWS: Hollywood and Cornell Woolrich

by G. W. Thomas

What seems like a cut and dry case of cinematic plagiarism turns out to be not so simple

In 2007, the movie Disturbia, starring Shia Lebeouf, came and went and the older crowd just shrugged and said, “Rear Window”. Replace the word “murderer” with “serial killer”, a broken leg with house arrest and David Morse gets to be Raymond Burr (a part that helped him get Perry Mason in 1957). Did the movie openly admit that it was a remake? No, but younger viewers more than likely said, “Who’s Alfred Hitchcock anyway?” The whole thing came and went and all we really have to remember it is the song “Disturbia” by Rihanna.


Or so we thought. In fact, the movie spawned a lengthy legal battle that ended with the Supreme Court. The film trust that holds Woolrich’s copyright for “It Had To Be Murder” (Dime Detective, February 1942) took the producer, Steven Spielberg, to task. Ultimately, they did not win. The Guardian tells of the judge’s verdict: “Where Disturbia is rife with sub-plots, the short story has none…The setting and mood of the short story are static and tense, whereas the setting and mood of Disturbia are more dynamic and peppered with humour and teen romance.” Perhaps it is because there have been questions about who really owns the property?

Would Cornell Woolrich, who died in 1968, have been angry about all this? I’m not so sure. He might have shrugged and said it was all part of the business. He liked the voyeur theme and even wrote a second story about murder witnesses in a tale called “The Boy Cried Murder” (Mystery Book Magazine, March 1947). It was made into the movie The Window (1949) starring Bobby Driscoll. This film is about Tommy Woodry, a little fibber, who witnesses his neighbors murder a sailor but Tommy’s parents don’t believe him. Dad and mom were played by Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale (Hey, there’s that Perry Mason connection again!) Eventually the killers figures out that Tommy knows and come for him. Woolrich quite clearly established this theme as his own.

Or was it? Check out H. G. Wells’ “Through a Window”, which he wrote in 1894. Wells begins with: “After his legs were set, they carried Bailey into the study and put him on a couch before the open window. There he lay, a live–even a feverish man down to the loins, and below that a double-barrelled mummy swathed in white wrappings. He tried to read, even tried to write a little, but most of the time he looked out of the window.” In that opening paragraph we have 80% of Rear Window. The remaining 20% is an escaped slave who comes through the window: “In another moment a hairy brown hand had appeared and clutched the balcony railings, and in another the face of the Malay was peering through these at the man on the couch. His expression was an unpleasant grin, by reason of the krees he held between his teeth, and he was bleeding from an ugly wound in his cheek. His hair wet to drying stuck out like horns from his head. His body was bare save for the wet trousers that clung to him. Bailey’s first impulse was to spring from the couch, but his legs reminded him that this was impossible.” I won’t ruin the surprise of the ending.

Beyond the distasteful racism of the time, we can see here the idea of the man who is trapped because of an injury then is attacked by what is perceived as a violent type of person. This is the basis of Rear Window for sure, as well as The Window. Did anyone know about this story in the court case against Disturbia? Not to my knowledge (which I admit is not great) but Disturbia could have made the case they were using Wells’ story (which is in the public domain). It’s not a great case but it would have been damaging to show Woolrich was not that original. (Spielberg might have to have to set the story in the tropics to win that case though.) H. G. Wells’ story doesn’t have any sub-plots or teenage romance either.

Just a couple closing asides: the 1998 TV remake of Rear Window with quadriplegic, Christopher Reeve, was a legally contracted film. Critical reception for the show was weak. It surprises me that Spielberg would want to remake the classic movie for a third time. Better yet, Kevin Bacon wowed fans with the Broadway version of the story in 2015.

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