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François Truffaut (1954) - Rear Window



Rear Window

There are two kinds of directors: those who have the public in mind when they conceive and make their films and those who don't consider the public at all. For the former, cinema is an art of spectacle; for the latter, it is an individual adventure. There is nothing intrinsically better about one or the other; it's simply a matter of different approaches. For Hitchcock as for Renoir, as for that matter almost all American directors, a film has not succeeded unless it is a success, that is, unless it touches the public that one has had in mind right from the moment of choosing the subject matter to the end of production. While Bresson, Tati, Rossellini, Ray make films their own way and then invite the public to join the "game," Renoir, Clouzot, Hitchcock and Hawks make movies for the public, and ask themselves all the questions they think will interest their audience.

Alfred Hitchcock, who is a remarkably intelligent man, formed the habit early — right from the start of his career in England — of predicting each aspect of his films. All his life he has worked to make his own tastes coincide with the public's, emphasizing humor in his English period and suspense in his American period. This dosage of humor and suspense has made Hitchcock one of the most commercial directors in the world (his films regularly bring in four times what they cost). It is the strict demands he makes on himself and on his art that have made him a great director.

Summing up the intrigue in Rear Window will not by any means convey its inventiveness, which is too complicated simply to recap. Confined to his armchair because of a broken leg, reporter/photographer Jeffrey (James Stewart) watches his neighbors through his rear window. As he watches, he becomes convinced that one of them has killed his bad-tempered, complaining, ill wife. The investigation, as he carries it out, even though he's immobilized — by his cast, is part of the movie's plot. Now we have to add a bright young woman who would like to marry Jeffrey (Grace Kelly), and then, one by one, his neighbors across the courtyard. There is the childless household devastated by the death of a little dog they believe has been "poisoned"; a slightly exhibitionist young lady; a lonely woman and a failed composer who will in the end join together against their mutual temptations to suicide and maybe establish a home; the young newlyweds who make love all day; and finally the killer and his victim.

I see when I sum it up in this way that the plot seems more slick than profound, and yet I am convinced that this film is one of the most important of all the seventeen Hitchcock has made in Hollywood, one of those rare films without imperfection or weakness, which concedes nothing. For example, it is clear that the entire film revolves around the idea of marriage. When Kelly goes into the suspect's apartment, the proof she is looking for is the murdered woman's wedding ring; Kelly puts it on her own finger as Stewart follows her movements through his binoculars from the other side of the courtyard. But there is nothing at the end that indicates that they will marry. Rear Window goes beyond pessimism; it is really a cruel film. Stewart fixes his glasses on his neighbors only to catch them in moments of failure, in ridiculous postures, when they appear grotesque or even hateful.

The film's construction is very like a musical composition: several themes are intermingled and are in perfect counterpoint to each other — marriage, suicide, degradation, and death — and they are all bathed in a refined eroticism (the sound recording of lovemaking is extraordinarily precise and realistic). Hitchcock's impassiveness and "objectivity" are more apparent than real. In the plot treatment, the direction, sets, acting, details, and especially an unusual tone that includes realism, poetry, macabre humor and pure fairy tale, there is a vision of the world that verges on misanthropy.

Rear Window is a film about indiscretion, about intimacy violated and taken by surprise at its most wretched moments; a film about the impossibility of happiness, about dirty linen that gets washed in the courtyard; a film about moral solitude, an extraordinary symphony of daily life and ruined dreams.

There has been a lot of talk about Hitchcock's sadism. I think the truth is more complex, and that Rear Window is the first film in which he has given himself away to such a degree. For the hero of Shadow of a Doubt, the world was a pigsty. But in Rear Window I think it is Hitchcock who is expressing himself through his character. I ought not to be accused of reading things into it, since the honest subjectivity of Rear Window breaks through each shot, and all the more so because the tone (always serious in Hitchcock's films) is geared as usual to its interest as a spectacle, that is, its commercial appeal. It's really a matter of the moral attitude of a director who looks at the world with the exaggerated severity of a sensual puritan.

Hitchcock has acquired such expertise at cinematographic recital that he has, in thirty years, become much more than a good storyteller. As he loves his craft passionately, never stops making movies, and has long since resolved any production problems, he must invent difficulties and create new disciplines for himself to avoid boredom and repetition. His recent films are filled with fascinating constraints that he always overcomes brilliantly.

In this case, the challenge was to shoot a whole film in one single place, and solely from Stewart's point of view. We see only what he sees, and from his vantage point, at the exact moment he sees it. What could have been a dry and academic gamble, an exercise in cold virtuosity, turns out to be a fascinating spectacle because of a sustained inventiveness which nails us to our seats as firmly as James Stewart is immobilized by his plaster cast.

In the face of such a film, so odd and so novel, we are liable to forget somewhat the stunning virtuosity; each scene by itself is a gamble that has been won. The effort to achieve freshness and novelty affects the camera's movements, the special effects, decor, color. (Recall the murderer's gold-framed eyeglasses lit in the dark only by the intermittent glow of a cigarette!)

Anyone who has perfectly understood Rear Window (which is not possible in one viewing) can, if he so wishes, dislike it and refuse to be involved in a game where blackness of character is the rule. But it is so rare to find such a precise idea of the world in a film that one must bow to its success, which is unarguable.

To clarify Rear Window, I'd suggest this parable: The courtyard is the world, the reporter/photographer is the filmmaker, the binoculars stand for the camera and its lenses. And Hitchcock? He is the man we love to be hated by.

-- 1954