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Philadelphia Daily News (07/Oct/1983) - Hitch's 'Rear Window': Peeping into the soul



Hitch's 'Rear Window': Peeping into the soul

No one cares that the prestigious Ben-Hur won the Oscar in 1959, but just about everyone still has affection for the enduring Psycho and Some Like It Hot from the same era (and neither one, believe it or not, was an Academy Award nominee).

This reassuring thought was prompted by a recent performance of Rear Window, an Alfred Hitchcock masterwork that remains revolutionary and youthful 29 years after its original release. In 1954, the movie was largely ignored.

The film was nominated for four Oscars (for direction, writing, cinematography and sound) but inexplicably was overlooked for its superior production design. On the Waterfront, now badly dated, won the best film Oscar, and the other nominees were The Country Girl and the forgettable trio of The Caine Mutiny, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and - now get this - Three Coins in the Fountain.

It's fascinating how deceptively simple films such as E.T. and Rear Window are perennially downgraded. In each case, however, appearances are misleading because both movies are mighty in their powerful considerations of certain human weaknesses, particularly of our almost natural penchant for cruelty.

Hitchcock's plot here is a natural, starting out with a modest premise that snowballs into an outrageous situation that, despite its incredibility, still makes sense.

James Stewart plays L.B. Jeffries, a freelance magazine photographer whose transient lifestyle has accustomed him to a lot of traveling and snooping. Having broken his left leg while on an assignment, "Jeff" is confined to a wheelchair, holed up in his small Greenwich Village apartment during a sweltering heat wave.

He has a restless intelligence that takes hold of his imagination. With nothing better to do, "Jeff" observes the comings and goings of the people who live in the apartment building across the court from his. In each window, a little drama is unfolding.

The people gesture at one another and make mumbling noises that are indecipherable. Biding his time, "Jeff" names each person and concocts a series of scenarios.

"Jeff" is by choice an outsider, now more than ever before. He's a passive observer who prefers a fantasy life (he has eschewed marriage so far) and who actively prevents reality from breaking in.

When he comes up with the theory that one of his neighbors (Raymond Burr) has murdered and dismembered his wife, he holds on to it and debates his case rigorously with his girlfriend (a luscious Grace Kelly), his visiting nurse (Thelma Ritter) and a pal who just happens to be a detective (Wendell Corey).

"We've become a race of Peeping Toms," the disapproving nurse claims. "What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change."

Jeff, of course, would never confess to some of his own suspicious or questionable acts - e.g., recklessly leaving his door unlocked (for the convenience of visitors), spying on his neighbors through binoculars and his camera's telephoto lens or letting his fantasies and projections set things in motion that get out of control.

A little snooping goes a long way in Rear Window. It creates a nightmare, what with an initially sympathetic character (Burr) turning into a hulking manace and everyone else into his unwitting victims.

"I'm not much on rear-window ethics," his girl says of the ugly drama. "Look at you and me, plunged into despair at the thought that he didn't kill his wife. We're two of the most frightening ghouls I've ever known!'"

Rear Window is Alfred Hitchcock's severe and very shrewd indictment of one of life's simple pleasures, people-watching - and its variants, staring, spying, photographing and moviegoing. He indicts it as voyeurism and is even more judgmental about the way we always look for the worst in others.

What "Jeff" does in his apartment is not unlike what we are doing in the audience. We all anchor our mental wanderings to what we see.

Hitchcock's film is gorgeously lurid. With that said, I nominate Rear Window as the best film of 1954 - and '83. Historians, take note.

Note in Passing: Rear Window is the first of five Hitchcock films to be reissued following years of being unavailable. The others to come are Rope (1948), The Trouble with Harry (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Vertigo (1958).