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, so you know that its setting rivals the Bates motel as easily the most striking locale in all of Hitchcock. It shows us, from the point of view of James 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.
We spend a good part of the movie looking, with Stewart, at the three sides of the courtyard visible from his vantage point. Like a terrarium, or the layered strata of Dante’s cosmos, it is a self-enclosed universe, at once minutely detailed and inexorably symbolic. This being close-quartered New York, in summer no less, people don’t care too much about privacy. We watch as they exercise, water their plants, argue, make music, fret in loneliness and, in one case, possibly, hide a murder. Though the film’s look is effectively hyper-real (thanks to the lush Technicolor, the studio sets and lighting), the setting also appeals strongly to the real, the typical. It says, “This is what things are like in such corners of Manhattan, which itself resembles other corners of the modern, urban world.”
But consider how strange such a claim must seem now, when the world the film shows us is virtually another planet–an America without television or air conditioning! People sleep on fire escapes when it’s hot, and, for distraction, gaze out of the window rather than into illuminated screens. Is this outward-looking, al- fresco world not closer to the America of Ben Franklin or de Toqueville than it is to ours? In a similar way, Rear Window itself has changed with the times: We may see exactly the same images that people in 1954 did, but we see a much different movie.
Today, it 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 the film was a hit with critics as well as the public, some opined that it “left a bad taste”). Today, aside from the uncomfortable 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 a few 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 Hitchock’s handling of his characters and narrative. Back then, the same authorial command 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 junction of aesthetic perception and history. It’s the difference between entertainment and art, transparent enjoyment and fascinating, multi-leveled meaning. Quite simply, we can’t see the film that 1954 saw, because Rear Window over the years has changed; it’s 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.
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. 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, L.B. Jeffries (Stewart).
Jeffries 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–those enduring emblems of ’50s security and conformity–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; the dog-loving, childless couple; a composer wrapped up in his music; and so on, right up to the window where a bed-ridden wife disappears and her husband (Raymond Burr) begins acting strangely. Naturally, when Jeff first suspects foul play, everyone assumes his overextended imagination is the real culprit.
Besides a useful commercial element, Hitchcock’s addition of an “internal” romance to the extroverted suspense drama provides a psychological reason for Jeff’s voyeurism, which in turn 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 its continuing renown, came with the French. Jean Douchet, writing in Cahiers du Cinema in the ’50s, read the film as an allegory of cinema. In Douchet’s view, Jeff is the cinema spectator, immobilized and peering through a transforming glass, while the urban panorama outside his window is the cinema’s vast mental screen, where his desires are played out 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 and depth 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 wholly 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 towards scholastic abstraction, do they not? In the middle of the next decade, Hitchcock got a 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 enthusiasm made a lasting impression. Though its arguments were aimed against a British-American establishment that still questioned Hitchcock’s claim on 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, however, 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 additional chapters reflecting 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 disparage these additions. Gracefully written and sharply argued, they are, nonetheless, filled with the kind of lefty didacticism and jargon-heavy irrelevance (“castration anxiety” and the like tells us far more about already-passé 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, catalytic context, even less as simple entertainment; whether seen as “text” or “masterpiece,” the film has reached the point where its significance is almost too much taken for granted. 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 signifying more than any single viewpoint or analysis could hope to encompass.