By Stephanie Zacharek
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Immobilized in his Greenwich Village apartment with a broken leg, photojournalist L.B. "Jeff" Jeffries (James Stewart) amuses himself by spying on his neighbors. Inevitably, observation becomes obsession. Jeff imagines that he has uncovered a murder in an apartment across the courtyard.
Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, which opens Friday at Film Forum in a print newly restored to its original Technicolor grandeur, was one of the master's greatest stunts. Not only is this a thriller without on-screen violence or a visible (human) corpse, but virtually the entire movie unfolds in a single room, albeit facing out on one of the largest, most elaborate sets ever built on Paramount's back lot.
Steeped in fetishism, concerned with l'amour fou, and structured by dream logic, Vertigo is Hollywood's surrealist masterpiece; Rear Window showcases another side of Hitchcock's vulgar modernism. It's a blatantly conceptual movie, self-reflexively concerned with voyeurism and movie history, the bridge from Soviet montage to Andy Warhol's vacant stare, as well as a construction founded on the 20th-century idea of the metropolis as spectacleor, more specifically, on the peculiar mixture of isolation and overstimulation the big city affords. Reveling in the simultaneity of the 8 million stories in the Naked City, Rear Windowis the slyly alienated precursor of multiple narratives like Short Cutsor Magnolia.
As Jeff's wisecracking nurse (Thelma Ritter) tells him, "We [have] become a race of Peeping Toms," and like Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. or, in another sense, Dziga Vertov's The Man With a Movie Camera, Rear Window is one of the great allegories of cinephilia. No less than any viewer of the movie, Jeff is immobile and transfixed. Observing without being observed, at once godlike and impotent, he treats other people's daily lives as though they were his show.
The photographer not only spies on his neighbors, treating himself to close-ups by using the telephoto camera lens his nurse calls a "portable keyhole," but gives them names and invents little backstories. These dramas are, necessarily, staged in highly emphatic pantomime style, and, as in silent movies, musicalmost always supplied by the handy composer who lives across the courtyardsubstitutes for dialogue. (The movie's complex sound mix has been considerably brightened in the restoration.) A pair of newlyweds keep vanishing "off-screen." The statuesque blonde Jeff calls Miss Torso affords a primitive peep show in contrast to the pathetic fantasies enacted by the character he's named Miss Lonelyhearts. And then there is the unhappy domesticity unfolding in the Thorwald apartment. . . .
Contemplating the courtyard, Jeff is the warden of his own panopticon, and yet it is he who is in a state of heightened anxiety. Does the hypervigilant photographer suspect that, just as he spies on his neighbors, they might be observing him? "I wonder if it's ethical to watch a man with binoculars," he muses. "Course, they can do the same thing, watch me like a bug under a glass." Rear Window has a definite paranoid edge. Placing his neighbors under surveillance, Jeff is a freelance agent for the national security state who seems taken aback when a cop explains the need for a search warrant. But mainly, Rear Windowisa demonstration (two decades before cine-theorist Christian Metz) that the spectator identifies with the camera, and that the entire cinema machine is predicated on what psychologists call the scopic drive.
Absorbed in his neighbors' lives, the world of images and vicarious experience echoed by the photos on his walls, Jeff has a marked aversion to intimacymost obviously in his ambiguous relationship with his "too perfect" lady friend Lisa (Grace Kelly, who, as befits a movie about voyeurism, may be the most gorgeous creature to appear in any Hitchcock film). Only slightly less neurotic here than he would appear in Vertigo, Stewart projects a mixture of defensive normality and sexual ambivalence. If he is obviously discomfited to hear his nurse wonder if Lisa's father is "loading up the shotgun" to insure their wedding, his anxiety reaches comic proportions once Lisa proposes to spend the night. "I just have one bed," he protests.
When Lisa closes Jeff's window shades ("the show's over for tonight") and changes into a filmy nightgown (delightfully announced as a "preview of coming attractions"), she draws attention to the movie's two narratives, the murder mystery playing across the courtyard and the love story acted out in the apartment, as fictional constructions. It remains for the viewer to make the connection.
** Hitchcock considered Rear Window his "most cinematic" movie and, by way of explanation, paraphrased the famous Soviet montage experiment known as the Kuleshov effect: "Mr. Stewart is looking out into the courtyard andlet's sayhe sees a woman with a child in her arms. Well, the first cut is Mr. Stewart, then what he sees, and then his reaction. We'll see him smile. Now if you took away the center piece of film and substitutedwe'll saya shot of the girl Miss Torso in a bikini, instead of being a benevolent gentleman he's now a dirty old man. And you've only changed one piece of film, you haven't changed his look or his reaction."
Like the Soviets, Hitchcock understood movies as a machine to evoke a series of conditioned responses, and Rear Window, one of his most commercially successful movies, was almost universally hailed when it opened during the summer of 1954. Despite the blatant metaphoric content, no contemporary reviewer seems to have seen it as anything more than a superior entertainmentalthough The New York Times's Bosley Crowther surely did protest too much in declaring that "Mr. Hitchcock's film is not 'significant.' What it has to say about people and human nature is superficial and glib."
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