Sometimes, the genius of a popular movie can be gauged by how well it can be boiled down – to a tag line, high concept or key image – without losing its resonance and allure.
Think of Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece Rear Window (1954) and you immediately see Jeff (James Stewart) in his wheelchair, spying out of his humble New York apartment with the aid of a camera outfitted with an impressive zoom lens.
Since at least 1960, Rear Window has been taken by critics as a statement about cinematic voyeurism – Jeff, immobile at his window, all eyes, serving as a symbol of a typical moviegoer. This analogy works only so far, missing the peculiar, thrilling dynamism of Hitchcock's drama.
Jeff is more than a pair of eyes; he is also a brain, and a personality prodded in equal parts by curiosity and frustration. Jeff gradually transforms himself into an amateur sleuth on the long, restless night during which he spots what seem to be clues of nefarious business stealthily carried out by a neighbour, Thorwald (Raymond Burr), in an apartment across the way.
Where the filmgoer can never be literally touched by what he or she beholds on screen, Jeff's sense of Olympian detachment is an illusion. He sends his lover, Lisa (Grace Kelly), over to scrounge around in Thorwald's apartment – thereby placing her at peril, the way Cary Grant did to Ingrid Bergman in Notorious (1946) – and is eventually confronted with the terrifying consequences of the prey returning his gaze.
Talk of voyeurism – or scopophilia, as film theorists like to call it – conjures a rapt, obsessive, glacial state. The fascinated watching of Jeff, Lisa and nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) is a much more active and dynamic form of fascination. As the belief in Jeff's hypothesis about Thorwald grows, so does a certain morbid, amoral curiosity. In Jonathan Rosenbaum's formulation, Rear Window explores "what we do and what that implies whenever we follow a murder plot as armchair analysts".
In this light, Hitchcock's famous techniques of cinematic suspense encompass far more than those agonising moments when we wait for a door to open, a bomb to blow or a bird to attack. Hitchcockian suspense is fundamentally keyed to moral dilemmas of belief and doubt. Straight-talking Stella is the film's first, highly enjoyable embodiment of common-sense scepticism; once she has been sucked in by Jeff's fervent belief, however, detective Tom (Wendell Corey) provides a persuasive, rationalist deflation of the prevailing tendency to believe the worst of people.
Rear Window, ultimately, is much more than a murder story – and here one must take stock of the often-overlooked contribution of one of Hitchcock's regular writers. John Michael Hayes' script is one of the best in Hollywood's history, as crafty in its way as anything Hitchcock achieves with the impeccably designed images and superbly mixed sounds of the film.
Hayes helped create the rigorous four-day narrative structure, the splendid mosaic of moods (including some of Hitchcock's best comedy) and a finely controlled ordering of plot information that is equal to the cagiest crime novelists.
Hayes' gift to Hitchcock is best measured in a comparison of Rear Window to the many films that have subsequently paid it homage, including John Carpenter's Someone's Watching Me! (1978), Brian De Palma's Body Double (1984), Krzysztof Kieslowski's A Short Film About Love (1988) and Philip Noyce's Sliver (1993).
What Hitchcock's classic has which all these films lack is an almost screwball sense of modern love and its workings. Indeed, over four and a half decades before Better Than Sex (2000), Rear Window was already wisely turning over the difference between old-fashioned courtship and the hip awareness of sex and self that marked a new era.
Commentators have often observed that Jeff, with his leg in a cast, and photos of his brave exploits as a photographer adorning the walls, represents a typical action hero cut down to size, domesticated. In a sense, this is precisely uptown Lisa's goal, to "fence him in" via marriage (thus the film's hilarious, wordless epilogue). But Hitchcock and Hayes do not remain content with these static, binary gender stereotypes.
What gives Rear Window so much spice and colour is the way that everything happening across the courtyard is not only the setting for a thriller-mystery plot but a displaced, speculative reflection of who Jeff and Lisa are or might be, alone or together. This concept allows the film to quickly consider many phases and faces of love – from the cruellest and unhappiest (in the case of the Thorwalds) to the most hopeful.
Of course, none of this would flow or work so well if that guy in the wheelchair was just a static, staring zombie. Stewart exhibits the art of Hollywood acting at its summit: every subtle reaction, double take or change in his composure, indeed the merest shift of his eyes, signals both a shift in the investigative plot mechanics and an alteration of mood.
Although the Stewart-Hitchcock collaboration produced one marginally greater film, the incomparable Vertigo (1958), there is no doubting the fact that Rear Window is a supreme achievement in art, storytelling and entertainment.
© Adrian Martin November 2000