It's not a startling breach of conventional wisdom to apply the term "masterpiece" to Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 Rear Window, which is being reissued in Cleveland this week in a nice restored print that, if memory serves, is better (though not that much better) than we've seen before. But critical reputations can be as volatile as the stock market. And now that the once-maligned Vertigo has had its reputation elevated, it's perhaps time for a critical "market correction" with regard to Rear Window, whose fortunes have slipped a bit compared to those of Vertigo and the equally elevated Psycho.
Of course, hard though it may be to believe at this moment in history, there once was a time when Hitchcock himself needed to be defended by critics. It is not coincidental that it was in the '50s and early '60s, at the height of his commercial popularity and public notoriety, that he was taken less seriously. In some regards, this was another instance of popularity breeding disregard, if not actual contempt. It's similar to the attitude some -- not me, really -- would claim currently denies Steven Spielberg his due: If your films are not only popular but also vastly entertaining ("popcorn" movies), you are at best a shallow genius . . . or not worthy of being called a genius at all.
A similar snobbery to that of the '60s critics affects the ranking within Hitchcock's oeuvre, although here it's not merely an issue of commercial success. After all, Psycho was by far his biggest hit when first released, and it's Vertigo's number-one rival in the Hitchcock critical pantheon. But Rear Window -- the sixth-highest-grossing Hitchcock film -- wasn't merely a big hit; it was (and still is) frothy fun, in a way that the creepy Psycho and Vertigo aren't. It has been penalized for being too enjoyable, as though that somehow makes it seem less serious. Yet it is no less profound or important than those others.
For those of you who may never have seen Rear Window -- and I envy you the thrill of seeing it for the first time -- the film stars Jimmy Stewart as Jeff Jefferies, a globe-trotting action photographer who, while waiting for a broken leg to mend, is going stir-crazy in his small, second-story Greenwich Village apartment. He kills time by gazing through the large window that opens out over a rear courtyard.
Jefferies is able to look into a dozen other apartments and observe their occupants, who become stylized characters in an ongoing soap opera in his mind. In the absence of TV, the courtyard makes a dandy distraction. At first his snooping seems a harmless diversion. But the two women in his life -- his crusty nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter), and his girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly) -- find it unwholesome, if not downright perverted. Their misgivings are borne out when Jeff gets really obsessed.
One night, napping in his chair, he is awakened by a scream. Later that night, he sees one of his neighbors, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), repeatedly leaving the apartment with a huge, heavy suitcase and returning with the suitcase significantly lighter. Put that together with Thorwald cleaning off a large butcher's knife, the apparent disappearance of his nagging wife, and a number of other "suspicious" clues, and the audience, like Jefferies, has no doubt that Thorwald has committed foul play. Nonetheless, even at the end -- and this isn't much of a spoiler for you Rear Window virgins -- Hitchcock chooses to present our "proof" of Thorwald's guilt in a far more circumstantial and vague manner than he might have. Could Jeff (and the rest of us) still be wrong?
Rear Window was nearly perfect when it was released, and it still is. A very few minor elements have dated: Modern audiences chuckle when a huge deal is made over whether or not Lisa is spending the night. On some level, though, that social anachronism works in the movie's favor: Hitchcock was a master at cranking up eroticism through discretion. And there are few moments in the history of film as romantic or as sheerly sexy as Stewart and Kelly's first kiss.
The possible thematic readings of Rear Window are no less complex or resonant than those of Vertigo: Jeff is akin to a film viewer who finally sees the security of his one-way perspective collapse as the creature on the screen comes lumbering down into the auditorium to get him; Jeff, terrified of emotional entanglements, is using his involvement with the courtyard denizens as an excuse to ignore the very real, willing, and infinitely more alluring Lisa; Jeff is morally reprehensible, even if Thorwald is guilty; and most broadly, Rear Window is a metaphor for how we all assemble our worldviews from fragments of perception that are often (if not always) unclear and decontextualized.
There are lots of other ways of looking at Rear Window -- all of which you can ignore if you want, because there is no other movie currently playing in theaters that is more satisfying simply as a romp. It has the thematic content of a Bergman film perfectly integrated with the light, luminous surface of Lubitsch. What more do you want?Rear Window.