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The Times (02/Dec/1983) - Another view of Hitchcock's genius

(c) The Times (02/Dec/1983)

The Arts - Cinema

Another view of Hitchcock's genius

"See things you shouldn't see -- trouble!" mutters Thelma Ritter, domestic nurse to James Stewart's Peeping Tom, who whiles away his wheelchair convalescence with binoculars trained on to the private lives of an apartment block. The film; of course, is Hitchcock's Rear Window, first released in 1954, but long lost to cinemas through legal tussles over literary rights and Hitchcock's own withdrawal of prints from circulation. (The latter circumstances also hit Vertigo, Rope, The Trouble with Harry and the second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much.) This has never stopped audiences in certain repertory cinemas seeing things they shouldn't see surreptitiously. But now Hitchcock's missing films are slowly being restored to official public view in brand new prints; with Rear Window, an endlessly fascinating masterpiece has been resurrected.

Hitchcock himself readily recognized the film's special qualities. "I was feeling very creative at the time, the batteries were charged," he told François Truffaut during their book-length interview. They were charged, particularly, by the technical challenge of teasing a thriller out of a highly restricted environment For the murder story embedded within the film is seen almost entirely through the eyes, binoculars and telephoto lens of James Stewart -- a news magazine photographer with his left leg in plaster and an insistent, ministering fiancée (played by Grace Kelly, pert, blonde and beautiful).

Stewart's rear window looks on to one of Hollywood's most triumphantly artificial sets: a Greenwich Village apartment block simmering in summer heat, loud with arguments, dancing, barking dogs and tinkling pianos. Hitchcock's camera gleefully moves from apartment to apartment, creating an audio-visual panorama that almost rivals Jacques Tati's in Playtime; we have to look, and listen, intently.

The camera's rovings almost always end on Stewart, watching with unabashed curiosity -- just like Hitchcock, just like us. All cinemagoers, after all, are Peeping Toms of a kind, and Hitchcock is far more interested in playing games with our emotions and visual perspective than in building a conventional thriller with a murderer, a dead body and a waiting pair of handcuffs. The murder suspect is jewellery salesman Raymond Burr; the evidence includes an unseen invalid wife, nighttime trips with a suitcase, a knife and saw. Helpless, we become Stewart's accomplices as he pieces the jigsaw together, and our complicity makes the final stages doubly involving, and morally complex.

A film with such an intricate construction might easily become a cold technical exercise. But John Michael Hayes' script presents the situations with warming humour and sharp irony; the players, too, assume their roles with aplomb. All told, Rear Window sits on the screen with confidence and case; it could only exist as a film, and could only be directed by Hitchcock.