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Columbia Daily Spectator (11/Nov/1983) - Hitchcock's 'Rear Window' Returns




Hitchcock's 'Rear Window' Returns

The accidentally-discovered murder has been the basis for a number of films, ranging from the superb 1966 Blow-Up to the flat 1981 Blowout, but the idea has never received a better treatment than in Alfred Hitchcock's 1956 Rear Window, which has just been re-released for the first time in many years.

One of the five films to which Hitchcock himself held the distribution rights, Rear Window is to be followed by the re-release of Rope, Vertigo, The Trouble with Harry, and the 1955 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Of all five films, Rear Window is the stated favorite of its star, James Steward, who also starred in three of these films, and it can be said that Hitchcock's reputation rests more heavily on Rear Window than any of the others. This is classic Hitchcock: the hero (Stewart) has knowledge of a crime which he can get no one else to believe; the elegant girlfriend (Grace Kelly) is finally convinced that indeed a crime has taken place and helps him to prove it. Unlike The 39 Steps and The Man Who Knew Too Much, however, the camera never moves, except in the last few minutes, out of a single room in Stewart's apartment, where he is recuperating from a broken leg.

Hitchcock had used such a cramped setting in the 1943 Lifeboat somewhat unsuccessfully, but through his rear windows the disabled Steward observes a microcosmic world of lives in other apartments: the newlyweds, the struggling composer, the artsy lady who does sculpture, the lonely lady-of-a-certain-age, and finally, a hen-pecked husband who turns into a murderer.

Rear Window is Hitchcock at his most humanistic, with humor breaking the tension at some points but never degenerating into ridicule or contempt either for the characters or for the audience. Grace Kelly is as sexual a leading lady as Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest or Janet Leigh in Psycho, but the sexuality is put across without turning the audience into voyeurs in the full sense of the word, as with Angie Dickinson's famous shower scene in Hitchcock imitator DePalma's Dressed to Kill. With DePalma's usual indulgence in gratuitous sex and violence, we would probably be shown Stewart's attempts to have sex from a wheelchair, not to mention the methodical dismemberment of the nagging wife of Rear Window. Instead we have Grace Kelly proving to James Stewart that she would indeed be a good companion for him in his work as a constantly travelling photojournalist, by suggestively producing a tiny suitcase filled only with lingerie. As for the brutal murder, Hitchcock shows the audience only a couple of huge butcher's cleavers being carefully wrapped up and disposed up by the murderer, which is horrifying enough.

The characters of Rear Window are not unaware of the moral and ethical dilemma of observing life through other people's windows, and at one point when the evidence seems to state that the nagging wife wasn't murdered after all, Kelly remarks that she and Stewart have become such ghouls — they should rejoice to hear that the woman wasn't really murdered, instead of feeling so disappointed. The dilemma is never resolved: even as the murderer (Raymond Burr, unrecognizable in a pre-Perry Mason role) confronts the man who has so untiringly tried to prove his guilt, Stewart cannot answer the murderer's question: "What do you want? What do you want?"

Besides proving a showcase for Grace Kelly's considerable talent, the film is also an excellent example of studio filmmaking itself, with an exquisitely constructed set that seems more real than a real New York apartment courtyard. The mood created by Robert Burk's lighting is exemplary of the control achieved by a studio-made production, and the entire effect is more suggestive of New York than many films that are filmed on location.

Burks is also responsible for the photography, which while not gimmicky is sometimes stunning, notably so when Grace Kelly is first seen in a huge close-up and, in a striking use of slow-motion, kisses James Stewart. Unlike many color films made before the 1970s, Rear Window has not faded with age and is being shown in newly-made prints. As a monument to the performances of its stars and the genius of its director, that is the least it deserves, as well as to be seen again after such a long and unfortunate absence from the screen.