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Rear Window (1954)

by on 2011/08/17

“Tell me exactly what you saw and what you think it means.”

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Picking the “best” Alfred Hitchcock film is sheer, bloody lunacy. Giving it a rating is nearly as bad an idea. But because I’ve committed to “classics” this month, inevitably his titles caught my eye. The big debate among many fans seems to be Vertigo or Rear Window? I own both, I love both, and even caught the restored Vertigo’s re-release in theaters.

However, there’s something oddly resonant about a journalistic recluse, harried by a suitor bearing food, and watching a varied assortment of interpretive entertainments…

Set in the mid-Fifties’ Greenwich Village, Rear Window concerns the peeping tomfoolery of convalescing photographer “Jeff” Jeffries, played by Jimmy Stewart (The Naked Spur). From inside his living room, he can see a wall of windows in the far side of the apartment complex. Desperately bored, he begins to spectate for amusement, and soon imagines a sordid plot is emerging before his eyes.

Sympathetic visitors include his well-to-do girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), and his friend Detective Doyle (Wendell Corey). Notable subjects for observation include actor Raymond Burr (the eponym of Perry Mason) and Ross Bagdasarian (David Seville of The Chipmunks).

My immediate compulsion is to consider the movie’s Hitch-isms, those aspects often found in Hitchcock’s work: an innocent everyman, a blonde leading lady, morbid subject matter (treated with black humour), and suspense created through delay, ignorance (relative to the audience), and obstacles.

Sadly, there is no Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane, Taxi Driver, Vertigo) score. Strictly speaking, we don’t really need it, but I’d nevertheless love to hear one. Franz Waxman (Bride of Frankenstein, Stalag 17, Sunset Boulevard) provides some compensatory jazz cues.

Also like several of Hitchcock’s efforts, this one employs a technical limitation. The Birds had no score; Psycho reverted to black and white stock; Rear Window limits its physical space. The director tried a similar approach in Dial M for Murder, Lifeboat, and Rope. His self-imposed restriction doesn’t feel very claustrophobic, given the matrix of portals we see, and the tales they appear to tell.

Some may seize onto this piece as analogous to the experience of cinephilia itself, a meta-level proposition. Television might be an apter comparison. Yet my mind was on neither here. I thought instead of astronomy . . . appropriate perhaps, being the local geek.

Jeff is in an isolated position. He overlooks immediacy for seductive distant views. When his capacities reach their limit, he employs technology — in this case, a telephoto camera — to discover more, farther, and in greater detail. And though he’s unable to affect much in his purview directly, his actions seem to confirm Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: he cannot merely observe a system without affecting it.

I suspect analogies could be drawn to many other spheres, I’m simply seeing in Hitchcock what I see in myself. That quality of reflection — if not reflectiveness — is part of what makes Rear Window so successful.

Its surface level is involving. Its craft is beyond reproach. The layering-in of subtext is simply this classic’s secret ingredient.

At the very least, you should watch it to “get” the Simpsons where Bart breaks his leg.

* * * *

Rated PG

115 minutes

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