Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, which is being re-released at the Film Forum in a marvelously restored print supervised by Robert Harris and James Katz, features James Stewart as the cinema’s most famous Peeping Tom and is often described as the ultimate movie about voyeurism. Since watching a movie is, in itself, a form of voyeurism, Hitchcock’s film has also been called the ultimate movie about moviegoing. There may be some truth to this, but, like so much academic Hitchcock criticism, it doesn’t really describe our feelings when we watch the movie; it doesn’t convey our sheer enjoyment.
For much of his career, Hitchcock was categorized as a “mere” entertainer – the master of suspense. Then along came the Cahiers du Cinema crowd and the Brits to tell us that Hitchcock was the supreme Catholic artist for our age of anxiety and a rival to Poe and Baudelaire. This revisionism was, I think, overscaled, but I remain sympathetic to its intent; more riches, after all, are camouflaged by popular entertainment than by most of what passes for high art. With Hitchcock there was always, even in his most minor entertainments, a residue of fear, of dread, that was more expressive and unsettling than, strictly speaking, it needed to be. Perhaps more than any other director, Hitchcock controlled down to the minutest detail the environment of his moviescape; and yet the great theme of his best movies is the horror visited upon us by a loss of control. The extreme manipulation in Hitchcock’s films, the sense we have that he has already anticipated our every response, can seem coldly calculating, but it probably helps to recognize that, deep down, he was just as frightened as we were.
Rear Window, which was released by Paramount Pictures in 1954, is perhaps the clearest example of a Hitchcock movie that functions on dual levels: It’s both mousetrap and abyss. Contrast this with Vertigo (1958), also restored a number of years back by Harris and Katz, in which the mousetrap, for perhaps the only time in Hitchcock’s career, is entirely gone, and what we get instead is pure, obsessive trance. Vertigo is a great walkabout of a movie, with delirium at its core. What disturbs viewers about it is that Hitchcock is supposed to be the director who makes us all, at least for the time that we are in the theater, a little crazy, and yet in this film the moviemaker himself seems unmoored. In Rear Window, Hitchcock never lets himself go like that, but the movie has a morbid, spectral atmosphere that links it with that later work, and Stewart’s performance is almost a warm-up for what he would accomplish in Vertigo. In both films, his characters dally with a suspicion that ultimately engulfs.
Stewart’s Jefferies in Rear Window is a news photographer laid up in his Greenwich Village apartment with his leg in a cast, the result of an on-the-job mishap. Peering into the windows of his neighbors across the courtyard, he begins to imagine – first as diversion, then as obsession – that a white-haired, barrel-chested salesman, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), has murdered his ailing wife and disposed of her body in pieces. Jefferies’s amateur sleuthing impresses no one at first, not his smart-aleck nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter), or his police-detective friend, Tom (Wendell Corey), or his marriage-minded high-society girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly), who makes her first real appearance in the movie as a luminous profile sliding with sensuous slowness into a kiss with the dozing invalid. Jefferies, who can’t get himself to commit to her, complains that Lisa is “too perfect,” and, actually, she is. (That was always the problem with Grace Kelly.) But Hitchcock understood that dry ice can sting, too. The blonde ice queens who often were his heroines embodied his aesthetic: tight control on the surface and smolderings underneath.
Rear Window has a ghastly, comic subtext: Jefferies’s obsession with the supposed murder is also a projection of his own desire to be rid of Lisa and her gold-plated ministrations. (She does things like ordering up to his apartment dinner and champagne from “21.”) Virtually the entire movie is shot from Jefferies’s vantage point inside his cramped apartment, and the people who pass through it often register as intrusions. They distract Jefferies from the real show going on across the courtyard – the summertime mini-dramas glimpsed through unshaded windows involving not only Thorwald but a childless couple doting on a pet dog, a flirtatious dancer, newlyweds, a sculptor, a composer, and a sad spinster who sets the dinner table for two and eats alone. These window-framed vignettes are trite, perhaps deliberately so, but they offer up a quintessentially urban phenomenon. In the city, every window is a portal into an incompletely understood story. (Psycho, remember, opens with the camera’s entry into a randomly chosen window.) Hitchcock captures our compulsion to transform our surroundings into a narrative, a cyclorama, not only for our amusement but for our sanity.
He also recognizes how much we want the worst to happen: Like Jefferies, we want the murder to be real. If it isn’t, then we are merely voyeurs, and that’s too sordid to contemplate. Even if it is real, even if we turn out to be saviors instead of peepers, there’s still a sordidness about the enterprise. If you break into people’s carefully constructed worlds, you can expect to come undone, too. Jefferies puts Lisa and, ultimately, himself in mortal danger, and yet the most plaintive and powerful moment in the movie comes when Thorwald confronts Jefferies in his apartment and cries out, “What do you want from me?” In the world of Rear Window, even murderers are entitled to a little privacy.