Look back in delight
It's not a startling breach of conventional wisdom to apply the term "masterpiece" to Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 film Rear Window, which is being reissued this week in a nice restored print that, if memory serves, is better (though not that much better) than we've seen before. But critical reputations can be as volatile as the stock market. And now that the once-maligned Vertigo has had its reputation elevated, it's perhaps time for a critical market correction with regard to Rear Window, whose fortunes have slipped a bit compared with those of Vertigo and the equally elevated Psycho.
Of course, hard though it may be to believe at this moment in history, there once was a time -- not so very long ago -- when Hitchcock himself needed to be defended by critics. It is not coincidental that it was in the '50s and early '60s, at the height of his commercial popularity and public notoriety, that he was taken less seriously. In some ways, this was another instance of popularity breeding disregard, if not actual contempt. It's similar to the attitude some would claim currently denies Steven Spielberg his due: If your films are not only popular but also vastly entertaining ("popcorn" movies), you are at best a shallow genius...or not worthy of being called a genius at all.
But Hitchcock faced a second problem. Those were the days when so-called "serious" critics rarely gave respect to Hollywood films at all, except for those that were obviously high-minded. The preeminent high-minded director of that period was Stanley Kramer, whose films -- Judgment at Nuremberg, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner -- can scarcely be put up against Hitchcock's. Nowadays, most film fans would laugh at the silliness of this juxtaposition, but three or four decades ago the laughter would have been for the opposite reason: "Sure, Hitchcock's movies are great fun, but they're not significant art like The Defiant Ones." The mind boggles. (And, having just censured Kramer so thoroughly, let me also suggest that he's overdue for a reevaluation as well: His work is certainly not without merits.)
There has always been a streak of cultural inferiority among Americans, particularly American intellectuals. The notion that Europe has real culture was long embedded in our national character. And just as it took a bunch of Brits to convince a broad American audience that blues and soul music should be granted serious artistic respect, so it took a bunch of French guys to turn the tide for Hollywood movies. In the '60s, critics and aesthetes in the U.S. ignored American movies, exclaiming, "Godard! Truffaut! Rohmer!" while Godard and Truffaut and Rohmer were shouting, "No, no! You've got it all wrong! Hitchcock! Sam Fuller! Frank Tashlin!" When Robin Wood decided to write an entire book on Hitchcock in 1965, he was greeted with incredulity. Had anyone suggested there would someday be whole shelves of books on Hitchcock, he would have been considered mad. But Wood's wonderful volume -- the seminal analysis of Hitchcock -- and Truffaut's book-length interview with the director constituted the one-two punch that turned Hitchcock's reputation around.
A snobbery similar to that of the '60s critics affects the ranking within Hitchcock's oeuvre, although here it's not merely an issue of commercial success. After all, Psycho was by far his biggest hit when first released; and it's Vertigo's chief rival in the Hitchcock critical pantheon. But Rear Window -- the sixth-highest-grossing Hitchcock film -- wasn't merely a big hit; it was (and still is) frothy fun, in a way the creepy Psycho and Vertigo aren't. Like North by Northwest, it has been penalized for being too enjoyable, as though that somehow makes it less serious. Yet neither Rear Window nor North by Northwest is any less profound or important than those others. In fact, Rear Window has spawned a whole series of high-art imitators, including Antonioni's Blowup, Coppola's The Conversation, and (not quite so high art) De Palma's Blow Out. It's not surprising that none of these is as much pure fun; but, more to the point, none of them adds any greater depth or insight to the issues they commonly address.
For those of you who may never have seen Rear Window -- and I envy you the thrill of seeing it for the first time -- the film stars Jimmy Stewart as Jeff Jefferies, a globe-trotting action photographer who, while waiting for a broken leg to mend, is going stir-crazy in his small, second-story Greenwich Village apartment. He kills time by gazing through the large window that opens out over a rear courtyard. Jefferies is able to look into a dozen other apartments and observe their occupants, who become stylized characters in an ongoing soap opera in his mind. In the absence of TV, the courtyard makes a dandy distraction. (It's vaguely absurd that in 1954, during a prolonged recuperation, someone who could afford to wouldn't rent, buy, or at least borrow a TV. But then there would have been no story.)
At first his snooping seems a harmless diversion. But the two women in his life -- his crusty nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter), and his girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly) -- find it unwholesome, if not downright perverted. Their misgivings are borne out when Jeff gets really obsessed. One night, napping in his chair, he is awakened by a scream. Later that night, he sees one of his neighbors, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), repeatedly leaving the apartment with a huge, heavy suitcase and returning with the same suitcase significantly lighter. Put that together with Thorwald cleaning off a large butcher's knife, the apparent disappearance of his nagging wife, and a number of other "suspicious" clues, and the audience, like Jefferies, has no doubt Thorwald has committed foul play. Nonetheless, even at the end, and this isn't much of a spoiler for you Rear Window virgins, Hitchcock chooses to present our "proof" of Thorwald's guilt in a far more circumstantial and vague manner than he might have. Could Jeff (and the rest of us) still be wrong?
Rear Window was nearly perfect when it was released, and it still is. A very few minor elements have dated: Modern audiences chuckle when a huge deal is made over whether Lisa is spending the night, as though it would be scandalous in 1954 for two sophisticated New York adults to sleep together without the benefit of wedlock. On some level, though, that social anachronism works in the movie's favor: Hitchcock was a master at cranking up eroticism through discretion. And there are few moments in the history of film as romantic or as sheerly sexy as Stewart and Kelly's first kiss.
The possible thematic readings of Rear Window are no less complex or resonant than those of Vertigo: Jeff is akin to a film viewer who finally sees the security of his one-way perspective collapse as the creature on the screen comes lumbering down into the auditorium to get him. Jeff, terrified of emotional entanglements, is using his involvement with the courtyard denizens as an excuse to ignore the very real, willing, and infinitely more alluring Lisa. And Jeff is morally reprehensible, even if Thorwald is guilty. But most broadly, Rear Window is a metaphor for how we all assemble our worldviews from fragments of perception that are often (if not always) unclear and decontextualized. There are lots of other ways of looking at Rear Window -- all of which you can ignore if you want, because there is no other movie currently playing in theaters that is more satisfying simply as a romp. It has the thematic content of a Bergman film (profound and richly ambiguous) perfectly integrated with the light, luminous surface of Lubitsch (funny, sexy, scary, and exciting). What more do you want?
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