Chesire on Rear Window; White Rips Magnolia
The world of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window is one you can revisit, but not recapture; it exists, tantalizingly just out of reach, on the opposite side of one of the great divides in human experience. You've probably toured the place before; if so, you know that its setting rivals the Bates estate as easily the most striking locale in all of Hitchcock. It shows us, from the point of view of Jimmy Stewart, who plays a photographer confined to a wheelchair in his small rear apartment, a courtyard that links several buildings in Greenwich Village, circa the early 50s.
To an extent, we can believe it even now. That is, we can accept this artificial space and its inhabitants as approximating how people once lived. Still, the sensation of watching it is decidedly odd. It seems so close, so convincing, as photography's inherent realism allows most movies to do. But the world depicted is, at the same time, almost unimaginably remote now. Indeed, it's an unknown planet: an America without air conditioning or television.
Rear Window could not have been made, with hopes of being believed, four or five years later. Even in 1953 and 1954, the years it was filmed and released, respectively, it was buying time. The specter of television loomed already; that, in part, was why Hollywood was mounting splashily gorgeous color movies. Air conditioning was also a feature of public life. In a way, the film's milieu is that of the late 1940s, postdated almost to the place where credibility snaps. Yet while marking the last collective moment when Greenwich Village residents commonly slept on fire escapes during summer and a man like Stewart's character would look out of his window rather than to a flickering screen for distraction, Rear Window also memorializes a brief spell when movies had become, in effect, flashy advertisements for moviegoing, yet had still not been granted, in full, the status of modern art.
Certainly, Hitchcock's movies hadn't attained that rank, which is one of the great things about watching Rear Window now. You know that Americans in 1954 enjoyed it fully innocent of the idea that it was anything more than simple, if expertly polished, entertainment. The movie they saw was thus much different from the one we see, yet we can always try imaginatively to peel back the archeological layers, asking ourselves: What did their movie look like?
It was darker and more disturbing, surely. Looking through books about Hitchcock after seeing the movie's newly restored version recently, I came across a photo from Rear Window that gave me a start. Reproduced in black and white, which is almost certainly how I encountered it originally, it shows Stewart in his chair holding a pair of binoculars and looking offscreen worriedly. Somehow, I encountered this image way back in childhood, long before seeing the movie, and it, together with the film's title, scared the dickens out of me. Binoculars, a look suggesting horror, a rear window. It all hinted at some unspeakable atrocity such as only nightmares or the most depraved and evil of imaginations could inspire.
Today, the movie looks like a romantic comedy with a tart sprinkling of suspense. Back then, it was as close to violent terror as polite Hollywood got (though a hit with critics as well as the public, some opined that it "left a bad taste"). Today, aside from the unhappy lack of air conditioning, its lively, jazz-filled Village looks like a lost bohemian paradise. Yet back then, when most of the country still lived in rural areas and small towns, Rear Window warned of the dangers and degeneracy of big-city life. Its pivotal moment, as many have noted, comes when a childless couple discovers that their little dog has been strangled, and the woman wails out accusingly at her callous, heartless, anonymous neighbors?a view that America shared 10 years later when the public murder of Kitty Genovese cast all of New York as an uncaring urban hell.
Today, we see a bit of genial perversity, but mostly playfulness and virtuosity, in Hitchcock's handling of his characters and narrative. Back then, the same fictional universe suggested an earnest moral stance, a grim lesson to be learned?even if commentators couldn't decide whether the movie rebuked people for not caring about their neighbors, or for caring too much and too pruriently.
The biggest difference between then and now, though, comes at the junction of esthetic perception and history. It's the difference between entertainment and art, transparent enjoyment and fascinating density. Quite simply, we can't see the film that 1954 saw, and wouldn't bother to see it if it somehow came our way. The Rear Window of 2000 is a different creature entirely, a basic text that has been alchemized, elevated, made monumental by what has been said and thought about it since its release. Critics provided lots of that exegetic acclamation, of course, but so did filmmakers, other sorts of artists and thinkers and the public as well.
Here I must pause to note the difference for a critic between Rear Window and any brand-new movie of 2000. A new film is like a new house; you look at it from various angles, describe and appraise it. Simple enough. But Rear Window, now, is a house that has grown into a veritable Taj Mahal, a freestanding Museum of Modern Art among movies. You spend half your time just backing up trying to get a view that encompasses its intricate expanse. It could be given a simple review, but no simple review can explain why it has been revived time and again over nearly a half-century. Its current meaning is, in part, its renown, which continues to accrue.
I meant the Taj Mahal/museum metaphor seriously. When I watched Rear Window again last week, and continued to "watch" it in my head while reading about Hitchcock later, I realized, to adapt the film's own metaphor for a moment, that virtually every element in the film is like a room in one of the intersecting apartment buildings we see onscreen; and that each room now has so many levels of meaning and association as to invite a lengthy analysis from any fan of the film, of whom there are now zillions.
The movie's ongoing success, I think, is a drama that has to do with meaning itself, with how this movie?like a few other greats?attracts, demands and continually rewards interpretation. Certainly, most audiences in 1954 would not have felt the need to interpret the film beyond its obvious meaning as a suspense thriller; such was its apparent, genre-rooted transparency. The way its significance expanded is handily indicated by its story's evolution.
The script's starting point was a story ("It Had to Be Murder") by Cornell Woolrich about an invalid who witnesses a crime from his apartment; detail-wise, this was bolstered by news reports from England concerning two men who chopped up their wives and then attempted to flee. Yet the key thing Hitchcock added, working for the first time with writer John Michael Hayes (whose comic warmth would later be felt in To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry and the 1956 Man Who Knew Too Much), was the element of a love story that transpires within the apartment, and psyche, of the prying crime-spotter.
The film's protagonist, L.B. Jeffries (Stewart), is an adventure-loving photographer who's been confined to home, one leg in a huge cast, by an injury suffered while shooting the Indianapolis 500. His girlfriend Lisa (the ravishing Grace Kelly), a fashionable socialite, wants to lure him away from his risky, peripatetic life into marriage, a goal in which she's supported by Jeff's crusty nurse (Thelma Ritter). As a way, it seems, of escaping not only his boredom but also the pressure on him to give in to matrimony and a settled life, Jeff keeps peering out of his window, where every life glimpsed in a facing apartment seems to bear on his plight: there's a free and flirtatious dancer; a frisky couple of newlyweds; a forlorn spinster; a dog-loving childless couple; a composer wrapped up in his music; and so on, right up to the window where a bedridden wife disappears and her husband (Raymond Burr) begins acting strangely. Naturally, when Jeff first suspects foul play, everyone assumes that his overextended imagination is the real culprit.
Besides a useful commercial element, Hitchcock's addition of an "internal" romance to the outward-looking suspense drama gives Jeff a psychological reason for his voyeurism, and thereby gives the film the aspect of a mirror: everything that happens outside the apartment seems to reflect something happening or implied within it. Supposing that audiences in 1954 noticed this, such connections still weren't given much attention or detailed discussion, in Hitchcock's or any other director's work.
The real break for Rear Window, in terms of leapfrogging significance and eventual renown, came with the French. Jean Douchet, writing in Cahiers du Cinema, read the film as an allegory of cinema. In Douchet's view, Jeff is the cinema spectator, immobilized and peering through a lens, while the urban panorama outside his window is the cinema's vast mental screen, where his desires are enacted in time and space. What this does, of course, is to posit something quite beyond any psychology within the film: a psychology belonging to the film itself, and perhaps, by extension, to cinema in general.
Today, this sort of reading perhaps sounds too pat or simplistic, but it's also undeniable, part of the way anyone who's thought or read much about the movie understands it. For the French in the 50s, Hitchcock was a crucial battleground, the site where young intellectuals who claimed for certain "commercial" American-style directors an artistic seriousness equal to that of, say, Bergman, would score their greatest victory. The fact that Hitchcock's genius and artistic complexity are taken for granted today is the primary proof of their success; outside of France such a view was considered absurd or heretical for years after.
Whether or not the general viewer recognizes it, the importance and standard meanings of Rear Window today are bound up with the case the French made for Hitchcock, including the ways they positioned him in relation to the larger culture. In their 1957 book on Hitchcock, the very first study of the director, auteurs-to-be Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol saw Jeff's dilemma this way: "On the facing wall, separated from him by the space of the courtyard, the strange silhouettes are like so many shadows in a new version of Plato's cave. Turning his back to the true sun, the photographer loses the ability to look Being in the face. We risk this interpretation because it is supported by the ever-present Platonism in Hitchcock's work. As is true of Edgar Allan Poe's stories, that work is constructed on the implicit base of a philosophy of Ideas."
I quote that not only as a sample of yesteryear's interpretive zeal, but also because it strikes me as still an incisive and illuminating comment on Hitchcock's work. (Rohmer and Chabrol also opined that Rear Window's "significance cannot be grasped without precise reference to Christian dogma.") But the French tend a bit toward scholastic abstraction, do they not? In the middle of the next decade, Hitchcock got a much more humane and full-bodied appreciation from British critic Robin Wood, whose work, in a way, marks the place where I encountered the great Hitchcock debate.
I read Wood's Hitchcock's Films (1965) some years after it came out, when I was in college. It was one of the first books about a single director I read, and its engaging eloquence, generous perceptions and contagious enthusiasm made a lasting impression. Though its arguments are aimed against an Anglophone? establishment that still questioned Hitchcock's right to the term artist, the book's passion and insightfulness are such that I would still recommend it to anyone looking for a good critical introduction to Hitchcock. Wood, who draws elaborate and (believe it or not) very useful comparisons between Hitchcock and Shakespeare, sees Rear Window as a prime example of what he calls "the therapeutic theme" in Hitchcock's work, a dream play in which the morbid self-preoccupation that would dominate Vertigo is overcome and a kind of balance, however precarious and conditional, is restored to the hero.
If you go looking for Wood's book today, though, you will probably find it only in an edition titled Hitchcock's Films Revisited (1989), wherein the critic returned to his early work and appended chapters that reflect his thinking after he converted from being a Leavisite humanist to, in his own description, a gay, feminist Marxist academic. Such is my regard for the original work that I refuse to completely disparage these additions. Gracefully written and sharply argued, they are, nonetheless, filled with the kind of lefty didacticism and jargon-heavy irrelevance ("castration anxiety," etc., tells us far more about already-passe Freudian mumbo-jumbo than it does about Rear Window) that seemed to swallow academic criticism whole a couple of decades back.
This is another gulf that separates us from the Rear Window of back when. In the 50s and 60s the film was part of a spirited, challenging, open-to-all-comers debate about the nature of film and art, psychology and technique. Today it's hard to imagine it in that heady context, much less as simple entertainment. All the more reason, then, not only to see Rear Window in its restored version, but to talk, think and read about its protean way of meaning more than any single viewpoint or analysis can hope to contain.
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