Out of Sight

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 entertainment—although 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."

The only critics to take Rear Window seriously were the movie-mad writers of Cahiers du Cinema. "One can see Rear Window again and again, even when one knows the denouement," André Bazin observed, while Claude Chabrol plumbed the dark side of Jeff's "amorous fixation," noting that "in the end one no longer knows whether the crime may not have been made a reality simply by Stewart's willing it." From here it is a small step to proposing that what happens in the Thorwald apartment is but the most extreme fulfillment of Jeff's desire to be rid of Lisa. ("For all you know, there's something a lot more sinister going on beyond that window," she had kidded about the Newlywed Show.)

Rear Window has enjoyed a long classroom run as Exhibit A in Laura Mulvey's canonical "Film and Visual Pleasure," an essay suggesting that cinema is founded on the pleasure derived from looking, unseen, at another person as an erotic object. Movies, Mulvey argued, allow men to gaze upon women within the context of illusionist narrative—and this sense of control compensates for the very castration anxiety exemplified by Jeff's helpless state. Lisa does perform for Jeff throughout Rear Window (and just as his voyeurism is rationalized by his profession as a photojournalist, so her exhibitionism is underscored by her career in fashion), but for most of the movie, he has more fun watching his imaginary movies than relating to his girlfriend.

Getting His close-up: Stewart with "portable Keyhole" in Rear Window
Getting His close-up: Stewart with "portable Keyhole" in Rear Window

Details

Rear Window
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by John Michael Hayes from the story by Cornell Woolrich
Restored by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz
A USA Films release
At Film Forum
January 21 through February 10

Jeff's aesthetic distance is shattered, however, when intrepid Lisa materializes in the theater of the Thorwald apartment. Suddenly, the voyeur is reacting like the most naive spectator, shouting a warning to a figure who cannot possibly hear him: "Lisa, what are you doing? Get out of there!" Lisa's appearance on the screen is paralleled by Thorwald's evolution from a distant silent actor to the all-too-real creature who, as in some Pirandellian nightmare, enters Jeff's space hissing, "What do you want of me?" In a denouement Time correctly identified with Mack Sennett slapstick, the movie turns interactive—although, by this time, the joke is on the audience.

Thorwald's question is really addressed to the spectator. (Lisa speaks for all when she tells Jeff they are "ghouls" for being "plunged into despair [to] find a man didn't kill his wife.") Jeff's pad is just one more window. As always in Hitchcock, there is no pleasure without guilt.

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