Chesire on Rear Window; White Rips Magnolia

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
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
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

The real break for Rear
, 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
(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.